Explore some brilliant strategies for teaching really effective poetry comparison and help your students to really engage with the texts…
One of the elements of our students’ exam performance we identified as a weakness in last summer’s examination series was comparing poems from the AQA poetry anthology, Poems Past and Present, which forms part of GCSE English Literature Paper Two. In the English Department at Boroughbridge High School, where we teach the Power and Conflict cluster, we’ve been spending time over these past few weeks taking a closer look at what our students need to do in order to write a great poetry comparison. Using our current students’ work alongside papers we recalled from last summer – plus the ever helpful examiner’s report – we’re working to establish some maxims for how we teach this particular aspect of the examination, which we’d like to share with you in this blog post.
1. Get your students to know the poems really well.
‘Students who knew the text were able to move around and within it in
order to respond to the specifics of the task.’ AQA Examiners’ report, June 2017.
There are some great ways to introduce students to poems, such as Directed Activities Related to Texts, in which a student is usually instructed to reconstruct or resequence a text. An activity might encourage students to think about the form of the text, the structure, or the recurrence of particular types of language.
As a first encounter with Seamus Heaney’s ‘Storm on the Island’, students might consider what the poem could be about by exploring the nouns. Are there any patterns? Could they be classified into lexical fields? Or they might attempt to write a poem or description using words sorted by their function. Alternatively, a teacher might encourage students to engage intellectually or emotionally with the poem by exploring a still image, a moving image clip or by sharing a story.
The subsequent process of the shared reading of the poem in its entirety and the ensuing discussion is a great opportunity to model the process of reading, understanding and thinking analytically. A series of prompts – or something akin to ‘Key Questions’ – can work as a framework for class discussion, enabling students to think, and ultimately write, about the poems and also to provide a ‘schema’ to help them build and consolidate their knowledge and understanding.
When helping students to deal with aspects of language and structure, a teacher might provide a tool to help students structure their thinking and note-making (the acronym FLIRTS, for example, which stands for Form and Structure, Language and Sounds, Imagery, Rhyme, Rhythm and Repetition, Theme and Tone, Speaker).
2. Cluster and study the poems thematically to help students to make a good choice of second poem.
‘The selection of the second poem is one of the keys to success as this gives the student the material to construct a holistic response.’ AQA Examiners’ report, June 2017.
The Power and Conflict cluster could be usefully divided into poems about power and legacy; poems about the power of natural world and conflict with humans; poems about conflict that can happen as a result of culture and belonging; poems about war and conflict. Thinking about the poems in these clusters will guide students toward making a helpful choice of second poem.
3. Don’t constrict written responses with a rigid framework, but instead provide more flexible ways of comparing the poems.
‘One examiner commented that one of their key teaching points for next year will be that “comparison comes in a variety of shapes and does not have to be formulaic”‘. AQA Examiners’ report, June 2017.
Some of the possible ways of structuring a poetry comparison can lead to answers which can constrain the level of the response. This can usually be evident when ‘essay plans’ are too simplistic (Poem A, then Poem B) or too artificial (Similarities and Differences) but also when they become too unwieldy. But the examiners’ report suggests that ‘…the key message here is to enable and guide students to form a comparison relative to their level of ability.’ In engaging with the poems, a student aiming for a top grade should aim for a conceptualised response which is exploratory in nature. A confident student might write an ambitious introduction which outlines their ‘angle’ on the question. They might seek an interesting angle on the task, such as how patriotism might lead soldiers into combat. Then they might develop their response along a series of conceptual lines of enquiry, integrating analysis of the writers’ methods as they go; illuminating their interpretation with contextual insight relevant to the task.
Rather than offering up a rigid ‘essay plan’, the ‘series of prompts’ I described above as a cognitive tool can function, when applied to both poems, as a sort of ‘loose structure’ to help students produce a more focused written response. I have found these ‘Key Questions’ to be useful in encouraging students to focus on a comparison of two poems. ‘What are the poems about?’ serves as an introduction to the whole response.
‘Who is ‘speaking’ in the poems?’, as I discuss in more detail below, allows the student to engage with the ‘constructed voice’ of the poem. ‘How has the poet used language and structure to convey their message?’ allows students to consider the writers’ methods. ‘Why have the poems been written?’ offers the opportunity to explore deeper layers of meaning, authorial intent and conceptual interpretations. However, it’s important to think of this approach as flexibly as possible. It wouldn’t be good, for example, to encourage students to think of the Key Question ‘why have the poems been written?’ as an opportunity to shoehorn context into their response. Ideas, exploration of the writers’ methods and apt integration of context should be evident throughout the response.
4. Think about the voice as a construct.
‘Students who recognised where the voice was a construct were more successful than those who regurgitated biographical information about the poet that they then attempted to link to the poetic voice.’ AQA Examiners’ report, June 2017.
Addressing the task itself – and considering why the poems might have been written – will enable the student to naturally explore context – rather than including lots of biographical information. But the ‘persona’ of the constructed voice might also provide a very useful way of considering context. In Simon Armitage’s ‘Remains’, for example, the narrative voice deftly reflects the turmoil of someone struggling to come to terms with what they’ve seen. Armitage’s narrator uses first-person plural pronouns, for example, to emphasise the narrator’s attempt to redistribute his own guilt among his comrades. Similarly in ‘Beatrice Garland’s ‘Kamikaze’, the modulating narrative perspective creates distance between the reader and the narrator that reflect the gulf between pilot and family. Context in this analysis, therefore, becomes implicitly connected to the student’s understanding of the task.
5. Make sure students understand the importance of answering the question.
When students start to write their responses – and if they’re using my ‘Key Questions’ approach, they’ll begin by considering what the poems are about – they must respond in terms of the question rather than with something generic. ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley for example, explores the power of the natural world, but if the question is about the theme of mortality, then it is through this filter that the student must construct their response. It’s useful reiterate the key word from the question throughout throughout the answer to keep the response on track.
6. Get students to engage with the poem, rather than obsessing about poetry terminology.
‘Some responses set out to identify poetic techniques and employ as much terminology as possible before engaging with the poems themselves.’ AQA Examiners’ report, June 2017.
Sometimes, a student who is too heavy handed with various poetry terms can find themselves attributing questionable effects to the features they’ve ‘spotted’. It’s much better to encourage students to consider different layers of meaning in language and to consider possible interpretations.
7. Flexible analytical writing is much more effective than the PEE paragraph.
‘The use of structures such as PEE / PEA and its variants worked in the sense that they allowed students working at the lower levels to access Level 3 in the mark scheme. However less rigid structures worked better for those working at higher levels.’ AQA Examiners’ report, June 2017.
As I have explained in an earlier blog post, I’m not sure I always taught analytical writing well earlier in my teaching career. For me, like many, the PEE paragraph was a formula to get students through coursework essays and to use as a model for exam-style responses.
It might be more useful to encourage students to be aware which bits of their responses are truly ‘analytical’. The example above (taken from a student’s response from when I taught the previous specification) sticks rigidly to the PEE structure, albeit with the addition of a ‘this also shows’ element. However, a more flexible response would be rooted firmly in analysis. The exemplar response to Beatrice Garland’s ‘Kamikaze’, below – a fragment that shows the student engaging with the ‘Key Question’ about language, structure and form – is taken from a complete response, and is characterised by writing that explore impact and effects. It’s good to see how this student deploys a variety of synonyms for ‘this shows’ in order to aim for precision such as ‘convey’, ‘helps’ and ‘feel’.
8. Teach students to integrate and embed short quotations – it’s much more effective than copying out longer quotations.
It’s much more productive when students embed judiciously chosen, short quotations into the essay, rather than wasting time copying out large chunks of text. The response will feel much more fluid.
9. Encourage students to write individual responses with precise, cogent expression and more sophisticated analytical writing techniques.
When aiming for top flight responses, there are several techniques students can deploy as part of a well-structured, insightful essay. These include evaluation, anticipating the response of the reader, tentativity, spotting patterns and deepening analysis are some great ways of making analytical writing more ambitious.
Here, the student has spotted patterns of language throughout the poem.
The student here has noted the ambiguity of the poem in this example of deepening analysis…
10. Familiarise students with how their work will be marked.
‘Mark schemes’ should be used with care, as the process of arriving at a level is a subjective judgement based around a guided standardisation process. Futhermore, the meta-language around each level needs to be properly exemplified and understood – something even experienced teachers and examiners need ongoing support with. This said, it is always a worthwhile exercise to share with students an exemplar script or two and a ‘friendly’ version of the mark scheme they can use to become familiar with the standard and where their own writing sits.