Two very creepy but highly effective extracts for teaching AQA’s GCSE English Language, Paper 1, Question 4

This question offers some really great opportunities for students to productively engage with the idea of thinking and writing analytically.

GCSE English Language Paper 1, Question 4 offers some really great opportunities for students to engage with the idea of thinking and writing analytically, in the form of a ‘mini-essay’. The sequence that follows isn’t necessarily an approach I’d use with students outside of a more explicit ‘exam preparation’ context. I think there are some really interesting ways we can approach writing to anayse with students in Year Ten and in Key Stage Three (I’ve explored my thoughts on this in a previous blog post, ‘What makes great analytical writing?’). But here’s a precis of a teaching sequence which I’ve found great fun to teach – and the students have enjoyed too.

‘This question has the highest tariff: at 20 marks, it is half the marks available in Section A and 25% of the marks available for the whole paper. It should therefore be the most challenging of all the reading questions.’

Report on the Examination, June 2017.

I ask students how they’d imagine a serial killer who ate his victims to be. How would this person look? How would they act? How would they speak?

Students often focus on the stereotypical image of a cannibal as deranged and impulsive, although some, already familiar with The Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme) might point out that Sir Anthony Hopkins’ iconic portrayal of Thomas Harris’s antihero has shaped our cultural conception of what a ‘cannibal’ might be like.

The Silence of the Lambs

I explain to the uninitiated that Dr Hannibal Lecter is a psychiatrist turned serial killer who ate his victims and consequently is incarcerated in a maximum security facility. In order to obtain Lecter’s professional insight into a new serial killer case, the FBI have sent rookie agent Clarice Starling to interview him. I screen the clip from the movie, being careful to stop at 1 min 30 seconds, before the expletive after Lecter asks Starling: ‘Multiple Miggs in the next cell. He hissed at you. What did he say?’ I ask the students for their first impressions on the character of Lecter. Is he what they expected? If so, how come? If not, why not?

We then read the extract from Harris’s novel. It’s interesting to talk with the students about how the presentation of Lecter in the film is similar and different to the Lecter of the novel. The absence of the ‘net’ in Jonathan Demme’s version of Lecter’s cell often intrigues the students, as does the absence of the extra digit on Lecter’s left hand.

I then introduce the class to the exam question and its demands. We consider how the question encourages the candidate to respond in one of three ways: agree, disagree or partially agree.

‘Students were asked to what extent they agreed with the statement… and they…  [are] at liberty to completely agree, completely disagree, or agree with some aspects and disagree with others. All evaluations and interpretations are valid, as long as they are rooted in the source.’

Report on the Examination, June 2018.

I ask which of these three possible responses the statement – ‘Dr Lecter was exactly what I expected a cannibalistic serial killer to be like!’ – generates.

I then ask students to explore possible ideas from the text that supports their argument, for example. ‘He seems rather polite for a serial killer,’ one student might comment, or ‘actually, there’s something sinister about his controlled behaviour,’ another might suggest.

Some of these can often work for both. For example, some students feel that Lecter’s sense of self-control supports their assertion that he’s a stereotypical cannibalistic serial killer as he’s self-assured and sinister. Others, however, feel that this is at odd with their expectations.

I explain my suggested approach to the question and do some live modelling before asking the students to write their own responses.

‘The key skill for Question 4 is evaluation, both of the ideas in the source in relation to the given statement, and of the methods used by the writer to convey these ideas.’

Report on the Examination, November 2017.

I encourage students to make sure they ‘evaluate’ as they write about their ideas and the writer’s methods they’ve chosen to focus on. I find that suggesting evaluative adverbs is helpful as a way of flagging up their evaluative thinking.

There is quite a lot for the students to do in this question. What’s nice about it, however, is that it’s enjoyable to teach throughout the GCSE course as it can be a productive way of teaching the wider skills of analytical thinking and writing. The question encourages the students to decide what they think, to consider why, to examine a writer’s methods and think critically about them.

Pennywise

As exams approach once again, I’ve been using an extract from Stephen King’s novel It as part of my revision sessions. Students have used the suggested approaches which I’ve outlined here to get to grips with how to respond. We’ve collaborated on an exemplar response, which we highlighted and colour coded to reflect on the ingredients of a successful response. However, I felt it was important to ensure students felt able to recognise elements of exam-specific analytical writing – and to utilise them to good effect – without relying on a mechanistic, PEE-style approach, hence some paragraphs opening with analysis and others making more synthesised points about what they had understood.