In September, when school resumes, new shoes pinch and a seastorm of priorities swirl, the following question is posed to English departments across the country by piranha-like headteachers: how will you help students do better in literature next year?
There’s no silver bullet, of course, but some golden advice is contained in examiners’ reports. These reports swim out in August like nocturnal fish, often unnoticed by busy English teachers, so I’ve trawled the reports on your behalf and offer you a filleted version.
Throw it overboard
Here’s some things to consign to the bottom of the seabed. They don’t help.
1 Writing frames and acronym-led paragraphs, prescribed essay structures, PEE paragraphs. They’re a straitjacket leading to a series of points rather than an argument which develops around big ideas.
2 Redundant subject terms. Spotting epizeuxis or zeugma may sound clever, but it smacks of desperate feature-spotting rather than anything which helps to answer a question.
3 Constant word level analysis and identification of word classes for AO2. Labelling adjectives etc. adds little to an argument. Saying things about individual words has its place, but authorial method is much bigger than words. See below.
4 Focusing on dead-end techniques: is there really much to say about alliteration? How useful is it to write a paragraph about iambic pentameter?
5 Historical and biographical information. Material about James I or Dickens’ dad adds very little to an answer. It’s a distraction.
6 ‘Forcing’ context. AO3 is set up in the question. Answer the question and you’re doing context. You don’t need to bring in cultural and literary theory to score full marks. In fact, it’s best avoided.
7 A blizzard of quotations. Memorising and peppering a response with direct quotation isn’t needed. Reference is fine.
Bigger fish to fry
So what should students do then? What are the main skills they need to demonstrate?
1 Know your texts well. Know what happens in what order, who does what and the journeys of the characters. In theory, if you know the text, you can answer any question…
2 Focus on the big ideas in the texts. The main point of reading a text is to understand what it is about. Exam questions invite students to show their views on characters and their actions, social issues, power etc. Let discussion of big ideas drive a response.
3 Make points around AO2 when they help to answer the task. If you’re dealing with big ideas, they mainly arise because of characters’ actions. Therefore, if you write about what an author decides to do with character, you’re doing AO2 at a structural level. Read more on dramatic method here.
4 Don’t get hung up on AO3. On this specification, context primarily means ideas, not history. Therefore, if you answer the question, you’re naturally addressing context. The questions never ask for historical readings. They ask how the student reacts, not an imagined Elizabethan audience. Read more on context here.
5 Work on essay construction. See your response as an argument which develops, rather than just a series of points. Start with a ‘thesis’ – your big point – and argue it out from there.
6 Work on phrasing and fluency of expression. The ability to explain clearly is gold dust in English subjects.
7 Remember that ‘comparison’ is defined broadly. In the poetry cluster response, there is no requirement to write an essay which constantly veers between two poems finding abstruse comparisons. You are at liberty to explore one poem for half of your response, then turn to the other.
In the end, literature is about understanding big ideas arising from texts. That’s the pearl in the oyster. People get hooked on texts because of meaning, so show off your thinking and grasp of the books, poems and plays you are studying. Don’t get trapped in a clam of language minutiae.
At its simplest, and at the risk of overdoing the marine references, here’s a sole piece of advice: answer the question.
Graham Elsdon is a teacher, author and examiner.
Read more at: www.theenglishline.com