How To Ace GCSE English Language Paper 1: Question 5

A Guide to Describing a Picture

Describing a picture in English Language Paper 1, Question 5, is a chance to demonstrate your command of language and your ability to engage the reader's senses and emotions. 

Use these strategies to create a vivid, structured, and cohesive description that not only captures the essence of the picture but also showcases your linguistic skills. 

Remember, practice is key. Experiment with different pictures, moods, and registers to refine your technique.

Expand Your Vocabulary

Ambitious Vocabulary gets you marks. Employ a range of descriptive words and phrases. I probably don’t need to tell you to avoid generic terms like 'nice' or 'good’. The adjective weak is fine but pusillanimous is better and will bag you extra marks. 

When revising write down any words you read that you haven’t encountered before. Look them up. Use a thesaurus to find synonyms. or better still, an app like Wordflex – try it, you’ll love it! The English Language is rich with idioms. As with single words, write them down and commit them to memory. Use them!

On the exam before writing, create a word bank related to the picture. I get my students to write words, phrases, and idiomatic expressions around the picture. Put down anything that comes to mind. Stormy scene? Wet, windy; once you start your brain will take you to other more interesting words; brooding, tempestuous, lashing rain and idioms like “ride the storm” 

Borrow from a Genius

 “…the sea went on boiling and booming,” is a wonderful description of a rough ocean from The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. Why not use ‘boiling and booming’ in your work? 

Use existing knowledge of texts you have read to apply rich language to another situation. There is nothing wrong with doing this if used in an appropriate situation since it shows you understand the intent and effect of the language. 

Audience and Register

The mark scheme for question 5 gives top marks for a ‘register that is convincing and compelling for the audience.’ 

Convincing Register

I encourage my students to decide on an overall mood for the picture first. Is it melancholic, joyous, tranquil, or turbulent? Your language should mirror this mood. Create a description that aligns with this mood and connects to the audience. 

For instance, if the picture is serene, a calm and soothing tone should be adopted. Conversely, a chaotic scene might call for a more intense and urgent register. For example: For a tranquil scene, use phrases like 'a gentle breeze', 'whispers of the leaves', or 'the calm waters'

Variety is Key

Sentence Starters: 

Remember KS2 SATS when you had to learn all those pesky parts of speech? Now’s the time to use them. 

Begin sentences with different parts of speech. For example, use adjectives. 

Colours always work well here e.g. Crimson dust contrasts with the bright blue of the sky: verbs 'Rustling, the leaves dance like revellers at a wedding party: adverbs 'Gently, the river meanders on its journey to the formidable stone seawall.

Discourse Markers: 

Always use these to connect ideas. Examples include 'additionally', 'briefly', 'consequently', and 'meanwhile'. Especially good at the start of paragraphs as these linking words create flow.

(see fluent paragraphs later on)

You could also include…

Fronted Adverbial Clauses

Cast your mind back, these were also in your KS2 SATS. FACs set the scene or add context, e.g., 'Under the blazing sun, the desert stretched endlessly'.

Figurative (nonliteral) language

Literary devices such as simile and personification work well as these are descriptive devices. 


Similes compare two things using like or as, for example, “The beast had tough skin like the metal of a tank” 

Avoid, avoid, avoid cliches such as “bright as a button”, “sharp as a tack”, “blind as a bat” and “brave as a lion”… ad nauseam.


Katya Balen’s, October October is stacked full of similes, many as wonderful as this; 

“… they’re singing night songs … like secrets wrapped up in the darkness.” 


Personification assigns human/ animal traits to non-living things. It’s very useful when creating mood as animals in particular are often associated with certain traits, for example “ the sea clawed at the shoreline like an angry tiger”. 

Immediately we get a strong emotion and a sense of power by virtue of the associations with a tiger. Wouldn’t work quite as well if we replaced tiger with hamster – agred? 

Conditional sentences

Basically, sentences that start with ‘if’. I’m a big fan of conditions as they show that you can employ various language techniques as per the mark scheme. 

Conditional sentences are complex as they use a mix of tenses to describe a hypothetical future, for example: 

‘If the fog clears, we will see the true intricacy that lies beyond the horizon.’

Tense? Something to consider. 

I would always encourage my students to use present simple. It has an immediacy that works well with description and is used by many great writers. 

One of the AQA Q5 papers asks you to describe a photograph of an old man”

He stares thoughtfully. The lines etched in his face are a testament to his vast experience; like train tracks that lead to stories of past glory. 

He is staring thoughtfully. The lines that were etched in his face are a testament to his vast experience; like train tracks that led to past glory.


Which works best? 

Organizational Mastery

Structural Features: Utilize a variety of sentence lengths and structures; a short sentence, followed by a long complex sentence, then another short sentence, shows the examiner you have a grasp of pace. Like a dancer performing a few neat steps before an exuberant leap with flamboyant gestures:

Empty skies. Briefly, a flurry of feathers and energetic beating of wings punctuated with argumentative squawking gives way to an unspoken truce. Stillness. 

Mix types of sentences for rhythm and emphasis. 

Make use of simple, compound and complex sentences to introduce ideas that add depth to your description. For a picture of a bustling market, talk about the 'symphony of haggling voices' or 'the mosaic of colours from the fruit stalls'. Adding ‘sound’ and other senses to your picture is a powerful way to create a more visceral experience for the reader. 

Fluent Paragraphs: 

Ensure your paragraphs flow naturally. Start with an overview of the scene and then zoom in on specific details. Circling back to how these details contribute to the overall effect will tie off a paragraph nicely. 

Create a 5 paragraph plan. 

I believe this is the minimum number of paragraphs needed to get level 5 and above. You could choose a sense for each paragraph i.e., sight sound touch smell taste. Create a mind map and populate it with words phrases, idioms and expressions.  

Use the Senses to Improve Detail


Focus on: vivid colours, shapes, movements, contrasts, and scenery. As you are describing a picture, these points will be the most obvious so dig a little deeper into the details, style and texture rather than just the objects in the image themselves. This increases your chance of mentioning something unique compared to other students.


Focus on volume, pitch, rhythm and nature sounds vs urban sounds. For example: birds chirping, waves crashing, city buzz and any music. 


Focus on exploring textures and physical sensations.: temperature, texture, pressure, pain/comfort.

For example The warmth of the sun, the roughness of bark, the softness of silk.


Focus on evoking memories and feelings through scents: Fragrances, natural vs artificial smells, intensity. For example freshly baked bread, rain on pavement, perfume.


Focus on describing flavours and food experiences. Consider the emotions and flavours invoked by a favourite meal or something you ate that is revolting. This may spark some interesting descriptors for non-edible items.

For example; Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, texture of food. A piece of ripe fruit, a gourmet meal or childhood sweets. “The sweet yet salty spring sea air” or “The greasy tang of polluted skies hitting your lips” 

Good luck and happy writing!

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Gerard A


English tutor specialising in GCSE, A level and English grammar.

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