Essential advice that draws on examiners’ reports, past papers and students’ responses, with some great downloadable extracts and helpful resources.
1. Encourage your students to explore deeper layers of meaning.
‘Some [students] offered a basic, generic comment, for example, ‘it creates a picture in our heads’, which could apply to any example of language in the given lines. Others looked at connotations of words without consideration of context, for example, they chose the phrase ‘delicate arms’ and said this suggested the T-Rex was dainty.’ AQA examiners’ report, November 2018.
For AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper One Question Two, students are asked to focus on a smaller extract from the whole of the source. The smaller extract is helpfully reprinted as part of the question. This gives students the opportunity to explore the effects of the writer’s language choices in detail. It’s worthwhile modelling the process with students: the ‘reading’ of an extract and the exploration of layers of meaning in language through questioning and whole-class discussion.
It can be helpful for students to try a more free-form way of responding to the extract when they’re getting to grips with possible connotations, such as the ‘reading bubbles’ activity (below), which allows them to explore layers of meaning without the additional cognitive load of of writing analytically.
Similarly, it’s useful to model the process of making annotations that explore the effects of words and phrases, rather than simply spotting features of language.
2. Free students from formulaic writing structures.
‘Some of those those who did less well on this question …offered a basic, generic comment, eg ‘it creates a picture in our heads.’ Report on the Examination, June 2018.
Reading the exam papers I’d recalled this year from my own cohort of students, it soon became clear that the candidates who had made formulaic responses had not been awarded anything more than four or five marks at best for this question. Analytical answers from students who had really got to grips with the various layers of meaning scored more highly. A student’s answer from a recalled paper that was awarded seven marks was steeped in analysis, rather than relying on techniques such as PEE.
Having asked students to respond to the extract in free-form ways, it’s important to give them lots of opportunities to practise exploratory writing about the effects of the writer’s choices of language.
3. Make sure they contextualise the extract in relation to the source as a whole.
‘[Some students] looked at connotations of words without consideration of context, for example, they chose the phrase ‘delicate arms’ and said this suggested the T-Rex was dainty.’ Report on the Examination, November 2018.
In June 2018, the source (from Joanne Harris’s story ‘Jigs and Reels’) described Mr Fisher, a teacher of English for forty years who works at St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys. The short extract, below, explores Mr Fisher’s memories of books and stories.
Mr Fisher remembered a time – surely, not so long ago – when books were golden, when imaginations soared, when the world was filled with stories which ran like gazelles and pounced like tigers and exploded like rockets, illuminating minds and hearts. He had seen it happen; had seen whole classes swept away in the fever. In those days, there were heroes; there were dragons and dinosaurs; there were space adventurers and soldiers of fortune and giant apes. In those days, thought Mr Fisher, we dreamed in colour, though films were in black and white, and good always triumphed in the end (Harris: 2005).
The question asked ‘how does the writer use language here to convey Mr Fisher’s views on books and stories of the past?’ When responding to the question, the student whose work is reproduced below linked their analysis to their understanding of the text as a whole, rather than, for example, just exploring the effect of the word ‘illuminating’ in isolation.
4. Avoid linguistic terms and obscure rhetorical devices.
‘[Some responses demonstrate]…over-reliance on complex subject terminology, which led to decontextualised feature spotting at best.’ Report on the Examination, June 2018.
A student’s response would benefit from an understanding of the mechanics of language and an ability to discuss, with precision, the choices a writer has made, but stuffing their answer full of unnecessary technical jargon isn’t going to lead to more marks. A simpler ‘reading toolkit’ like the one below can be a useful way of ensuring students are able to talk about language with exactitude rather than obfuscation.
Even when foregrounding particular devices used by a writer, it’s the effects of those choices of language which are worth spending time on. The phrases students use in their responses to signify analytical commentary – tags such as ‘this suggests’ or ‘this implies’ – are also worth developing. For instance, the tag ‘this insinuates’ in itself suggests that the student understands that the effects of a particular phrase are overwhelmingly unpleasant. ‘This reveals’ suggests the student is aware of an intentional element of surprise in the text.
‘A few students continue to be weighed down by technical terms and list these rather than focusing on why the writer has chosen certain words or phrases’ Report on the Examination, June 2019.
5. Tell them to let the text lead what bullet points they choose to focus on.
‘Students who focused on the most relevant bullet points for this source and then explored the effects of their selected examples of language in depth were more successful.’ Report on the Examination, November 2018.
The wording of the bullet points allows all students to access those handholds needed for a worthy response. But there’s no need to encourage students to work through the bullet points like a check-list. ‘You could include the writer’s choice of words and phrases, language features and techniques, and sentence forms…’ says the question. The thing to remember is the deliberate use of the world ‘could’ rather than ‘should’.
‘There is no requirement to cover all of these aspects, and students who narrowed their choice and then explored the effects of their selected examples in depth were frequently more successful.’ Report on the Examination, June 2018.’
Harris, Joanne. Jigs and Reels. Cambridge: Black Swan, 2005.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner, 1957.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York :Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
Featured image by Gonzalo Facello from Pexels