Old wine in new bottles

Graham Eldson blog: The best start to A Level English

 Shutterstock ID 156658052;


Graham Elsdon looks at ways to begin an A level literature course with year 12

Never will you have such a captive audience as the one labelled ‘Year 12: September’. They arrive uncertain of the variety and taste of the subject they’ve actually chosen to study. As a teacher, you are equally curious: will this be a vintage crop or will they wither on the vine?

For most teachers, the potential and pleasure of teaching A level English literature never withers: what could be better, even in January, than talking about books with bright students? But what sort of experience should we give a new year 12 class? How can we introduce these new vessels to the texts, which to us, are old wine?


Wot No Wordsworth?

I asked my outgoing Year 13 students about their memories of the first month of literature. They said:

  1. We were GCSE students, only six weeks older. We never read The Prelude over the holidays
  2. There was a whole world of texts we hadn’t read and were a bit scared of
  3. It took a while to realise that we were really allowed an opinion
  4. Our first essays were rubbish
  5. It was hard to work out how to become better at English literature.

So before September ends, what should teachers expect students to experience and do?


Going Off-spec

If you’re not careful, you might spend two years killing the exam texts stone dead. Forget them for now. Forget the AOs. In a two-year course, there’s time to introduce students to your passions. Show them why literature is the best subject on their timetable.

Spend September looking at texts which echo the exam texts. Studying Comedy? Read Jerusalem or Loot. Doing tragedy? Try Saved or Streetcar. Or read The Wasp Factory just because it’s good and edgy. Open up literature rather than narrowing it.


Talk Talk – or Type Type

Being good at English means having an opinion. Talking matters. Asking questions matters, even if the answers are rambling and diffuse at first.

I’ve learned to shut up. There’s a time for my lectures and a time for students to think and express. That starts in September when each student takes a poem – usually by Larkin, Donne or Fanthorpe – and introduces it to the class.

Student response is important. Most schools have some method of chatroom or VLE (remember that?) where quieter students can give an opinion away from the glare of the classroom. Today’s world is one where contributions are from the safety of a keyboard. Embrace it.


Write On


The first A level essays are usually rubbish, but practice helps. Often, expression is the issue. They don’t have to mimic a dry academic voice. Sometimes, it’s the lively, committed voice that is the most interesting. Journalese can work. A hint of quirkiness can work. The feeling that a student has an opinion definitely works. Introduce them to the engaged voices of the weekend broadsheets. Explore George Monbiot or Deborah Orr.

Get them writing something every week which requires them to craft their phrasing, but make your data-obsessed deputy head aware that not everything needs to be marked. Sometimes practice is practice and doesn’t need assessing.


When September Ends

Going forward, text knowledge is all. If they know their set texts, have an opinion and write clearly, they can’t go far wrong. Students need to be rock solid on plot, genre, characters and ideas. Confidence comes from knowing the detail and being able to select wisely.

The interest and desire to master a text has its roots in the early stages of the course, the results of which are harvested later. In the agricultural world, September might have the sense of an ending, but in education, it’s a time to grow. In The Best of School, D H Lawrence uses the metaphor of students as vines clinging to the tree of knowledge, namely you:

As tendrils reach out yearningly,

Slowly rotate till they touch the tree

That they cleave unto


It might sound a bit Dead Poets’ Society, but the fact is that students look to us for their cue. What wine will you pour into those new bottles this September?


Graham Elsdon photograph

Graham Elsdon is a teacher, author and Principal Examiner. Read more at www.theenglishline.com