English Language

Narrate or Describe? AQA’s Question 5

Question 5 in Paper 1 invites students to choose between a written prompt and a visual image that is linked to the topic in the text from Section A – don’t forget that bit!

  • Always a creative task focusing on narrative and, or descriptive writing skills: one narration and one description, or two description, or two narration.
  • Marks for content and organisation as well as for technical accuracy.
  • Mark scheme designed to encourage ambition.
  • Section B will be allocated 40 marks to give an equal weighting to the reading and writing tasks.

Make sure you don’t instruct students to always just ‘do the description’ because there could be two narrative tasks.

Here are the sorts of texts you can expect from this paper:

  • A prose literature text from either the 20th or 21st century
  • An extract from a novel or a short story
  • It will focus on openings, endings, narrative perspectives and points of view, narrative or descriptive passages, character and atmospheric descriptions

For Question 5, students can expect a choice of scenario, either a written prompt or a visual image related to the topic of the reading text in Section A. The scenario will provide a context for writing by providing the audience, purpose and form that will differ to those specified in Paper 2. Here’s a reminder of the key skills:

  • To communicate imaginatively, focusing particularly on description (AO5)
  • To write clearly and accurately (AO6)

Narrative vs Description

Narrative: a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

Description: a statement, picture in words, or account that describes.

Both these styles of writing naturally weave together which is why the mark scheme is the same for whichever choice the student makes. Students are credited with the skills that they demonstrate against the mark scheme and these are ultimately the skills of communication. The choices are not labelled in the mark scheme and therefore this eliminates the possibility of examiners penalising candidates who do adhere fully to what could be a blurry division! It is easy to appreciate that elements of description will feature in narrative writing and vice versa; it is important however, that students focus on the form in the question.

Here’s an example:

Question 5

You are going to enter a creative writing competition.

Your entry will be judged by a panel of people of your own age.

Either: Write a description suggested by this picture:



Write the opening part of a story about a place that can be very different at night in comparison to the day time.

(24 marks for content and organisation and 16 marks for technical accuracy)

Here, instead of focusing our attention on whether the question asks for a narrative response or a description, students need to be identifying the purpose, audience and the form and understand what elements of storytelling and description it may require. There will be a choice of audience and some overlap with the themes (because, as noted earlier the choices are linked to the theme in the text from Section A). In order to cultivate creative writing skills, I follow several processes. I tend to avoid the phrase ‘scaffolding’ because it can all come crashing down when it’s inevitably taken away! Instead, we look at the ‘stages’ of learning, how to begin and then continue as confidence builds. Here are some process driven activities that cultivate confidence in approaching Question 5.

Thinking about the task from a non-exam point of view is helpful in building confidence in approaching the skills needed to succeed. Starting with an image and simply explaining that students will write a description ‘suggested by’ the picture opens up questions and ideas straight away – especially if it’s an interesting picture. ‘Suggested by’ is an absolute gift from AQA and should be cashed in! Here are two images that I’ve used with success:



  1. Thoughtful Planning

Think firstly about how the picture is effective rather than jumping to writing:

  • What sensory details can be derived from the image?
  • How does the image make you feel?
  • What emotions can you find IN the picture?

Now, what successful writing features would create an effective description?

  • Adjectives and adverbs and powerful verbs that bring the picture to life – imagine how it might move!
  • Adding layers of meaning to a description with metaphors and similes
  • Thinking about the order of events or the order things in the picture might be described
  1. Considering example descriptions – just sentences to start with!

Ask students to think about ranking and comparing successful descriptions. If they can tell the difference and explain why, they will be able to work towards creating their own. Here are two examples:

a. The paint sprayed over everyone.

b. The air was a rainbow of colour showering the vibrating crowd in great waves of oranges, vibrant greens and vivid blues

Then, ask students to look back at the first ideas they had on looking at the picture and consider the senses they wrote down. Can they write their own sentence followed by an even more successful sentence?

  1. Building effective vocabulary

Thinking about what specific word choices contribute to the overall atmosphere can be more powerful and dynamic than discussing word connotations.

  1. Thick with globules of rain, the air melted into a waterfall of misery.
  2. Now look back at the original sentences and add or exchange any words for an upgrade!

4. Using imagery and techniques to create an impact

Students only need to include a couple of techniques to meet the criteria. If these are original and thoughtful, it can change the feeling of their whole response. Encourage students to make comparisons to things that link to the theme of the text (from Section A) or picture; perhaps sound, an animal, weather or a particular behaviour.

  1. Organisation

Here are a few things to consider when teaching organisation:

  • Thinking about what is important. Students need to think about the boldest features of the picture of what they deem as the most important element of their ideas. This means exploring beginnings, rising action, climax, falling action and endings. This sequence links more explicitly to writing a narrative. For a description, students may consider the elements of the picture in order of importance: the background, foreground, main feature etc.
  • Depth and detail: how much detail should particular elements be awarded? The rising action will need suspense and tension whereas the falling action may be swift and sudden.
  • Thinking about adverbials, adverbs and prepositions are a huge part of organising a text because they can act as the glue. Words like initially, beyond and nearby help students to knit their ideas together with clarity.

6. Don’t forget the proofreading!

It’s so tempting to go for the ‘when you’ve finished, spend 5 minutes reading through your work’. Try to follow this up with reading out loud and reading other students’ work – I try to spend a large chunk of lesson doing this if possible. This time is always valuable because students remember can reflect immediately and can then anticipate what mark they may get which then motivates them to improve.

Categories: English Language

6 replies »

  1. Thanks for this – I’m a GCSE student doing my exams this week and these tips are really going to help me!!!


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