Baking Up an Essay – Analyse This Part 4

I’m going through a phase of wondering whether we’ve got hung up on the paragraph as the unit in an analytical response, as if every paragraph needs the same internal parts.

Writing an analytical response to literature should be more like baking a moist fruitcake than a dozen identical cup cakes displayed on a cake stand. There are ingredients which need to be evident during the response but not in every mouthful.

I’ve written about this previously here and here when I looked at the barriers to students crafting an analytical response and here when I looked at some potential faults in PEE.

Below, I’ve merely listed the potential ingredients of this kind of writing. In coming posts, I’d like to explore how we might support students in writing a really tasty essay.

In Part 2 of this sequence, I outlined that not all GCSE questions require every one of these ingredients as the responses expected are more like essay-lets than full essays. However, over time, students need to learn how to manipulate and handle each of these parts separately as well as blend these parts together. I’d be really grateful for further suggestions or amendments if you’d like to offer them.

  • An introduction
  • A sequence of points (sometimes referred to as topic sentences) which are relevant to and address the question
  • Contextualisation linked to the task and text. As explained here, this could be ideas, perspectives or relevant historical, political, cultural and social events
  • Evidence – the manipulation of relevant quotations
  • Exploration of the impact of the language on the reader/audience in a way that is relevant to the question
  • Evidence – references to aspects of structure or form which are relevant to the question
  • Exploration of the relevant impact of form or structure on the reader/audience.
  • Evaluation of how far the writer has impacted on the reader/audience
  • Exploring links, similarities and differences between texts which relate to the task.
  • A conclusion

PEE-Nuts – Analyse This Part 3

I wanted to explore what the differences are between the way “normal” people write about poetry without exam training and how we expect our students to respond to poetry in their GCSE English Literature exams.

To find out, I did a bit of an experiment.

It could be a bit nuts as it’s not very sound in terms of linguistic research. However, the dubious results are, I think at least, quite interesting.

What kind of nutter would agree to write an analytical response to poetry in their own time?

To do this, I asked four people to read Shelley’s Ozymandias and Blake’s London. I then provided them with some background reading and links to a number of videos about the language, structure and form of the two poems, though I had obviously selected the sources of information. As far as possible, I wanted to remove myself from the teaching input on the two poems. In particular though I offered them no material linked to how they were to structure their answer to the task.

What are Ozymandias and London in a nutshell?

Two weeks later, I sent the respondents the following question and told them to spend no more than forty five minutes answering it in the way they saw fit.

Compare the ways Shelley and Blake present ideas about power in the poems Ozymandias and London?

The first two writers both have university degrees, so they have a record in academic writing, though only the first has an A-Level in English literature. They both completed their degrees over a decade ago. The second pair don’t have a formal academic background, though they do read regularly and have an extensive vocabulary. All four had been out of formal education for well over ten years and, in the case of the latter pair, over forty years. This all made it likely that they would have a good level of general literacy, but unlikely that any of them would have been explicitly taught a formulaic approach to paragraph writing such as PEE, which became more prevalent after the turn of the millennium. What I really wanted to unpick was whether something like PEE emerged in their writing or whether some other commonalities in structure became apparent.

I’ve typed up all four scripts below for you to examine further if you wish to read them. However, based on this clearly limited sample, here are my hypotheses. These are based on the differences the responses display between each other and the differences between them and the AQA exam board’s only openly accessible exemplar script. Unfortunately, this exemplar script is based on Ozymandias and My Last Duchess but it is the structure more than the content I wish to look at:

  • All four responses below include an introduction of some kind. Two of these make a statement of intent. One makes a straightforward comparison of the two poets before launching into some contextual information about Blake. The fourth makes a generalised point about poetry before a linked opinion on these two poems. Only Response 1 uses its introduction to offer a specific direction to the essay as a whole. The exemplar from the board has no sense of introduction beyond a first sentence which makes a link between the kind of power presented in the two poems. The rest of the initial paragraph reads as if it is the first comparative point and focuses on the arrogance of Ozymandias and the Duke. Introductions are rarely done well, in my experience, under exam conditions. I’ve heard a number of people recommend not including any kind of introduction. The theory is that introductions don’t tend to include the kind of content credited most highly by examiners. I want students to do well, but I want them to write academically so I think we need to consider the kind of introduction which could help them to do both.
  • Only two of the responses wrap up with a conclusion and, in the case of response two, the style of conclusion suggests it has been included as the writer felt it ought to be there rather than having a clear sense of what a conclusion to a literary response might contain – either that or they’d run out of time. Response four has a sense of an ending as it works through the poems in sequence from stanza one to the final stanza. Again, it would be worth considering whether students ought to include a conclusion and, if so, the kind of conclusive statements which would be most highly credited but also well constructed.
  • All four responses, to varying degrees of success, comment on language and structure.
  • There is a greater focus on contextual information which is disconnected from the question in responses three and four. In retrospect, there was a disconnect between these two things in the materials I distributed, highlighting a need to ensure that, when we expose students to contextual information, we carefully link it to and interweave it with students understanding of the text itself. Interestingly, there is no social, historical or political contextual details at all in the example offered by AQA. It does cover, however, AO3 in terms of discussing ideas (see here for my take on this). If you’re still teaching context as if this were the old specification, this is worth some really careful consideration.
  • Responses three and four also took less notice of the phrase “the ways” in the task, focusing more on context. It’s possible they didn’t fully know what “the ways” tends to mean language form and structure in literary analysis, didn’t realise it was as important as it was or that they took more of an interest in the contextual than the literary content of the materials I shared. These are certainly important to consider.
  • Finally, none of the four responses here use a PEE structure or another similar approach. Neither does the AQA exemplar – though it is arguably more formulaic in its style. Despite this, the vast majority of the paragraphs are coherently structured. There is a very strong argument that, instead of teaching students to write formulaic paragraphs which all contain the same ingredients, we should teach the ingredients of a successful whole response to them.

Here are some pretty salty responses to those two poems.  

Response 1:

I want to explore how Shelley and Blake present ideas about power through the lens of empowerment. I aim to show that it was Blake’s intention to reveal how disempowered, downtrodden and oppressed the people of London had become at the time he was writing while I believe Shelley was trying to show a more optimistic response to conventional portrayals of power.

Blake’s adoption of more traditional, regimented iambic tetrameter and a regular rhyming scheme lends a physical, concrete and regimented quality to his poem which reinforces the overriding sense that the inhabitants of London are themselves locked into a social hierarchy and an exploitative relationship with institutions: the church’s exploitation of young orphans as chimney sweeps, the monarchy’s exploitation of young men in the military and young women working as prostitutes.

Blake’s use of language throughout the poem seems intended to sadden and leave the audience as miserable and hopeless as the Londoners themselves – there is no anger or call to action – he seems to be painting an image of neglect, hopelessness and apathy.

Whilst there are brief attentions to the major social institutions of the “palace” and “church” his final stanza where he “most” hears the “youthful harlot” is focused on the impact of social breakdown on the institution of marriage and the family itself with the quasi-oxymoronic “marriage hearse.”

Contrast Blake’s dismal presentation of the citizens of London as victims of power with the sculptor in Shelley’s fizzing sonnet, Ozymandias. Here, the king can be interpreted as being the victim of the ravages of time as “the lone and level sands stretch far away” serving (aside from the fragments of the statue) as a sign of just how little of his “works” remain to be looked upon.

In spite of it being a “colossal wreck” the statue does partially remain and this fact, coupled with the mention of the sculptor reading the “sneering,” “frowning,” “cold commanding” “passions” of Ramases II suggests that Shelley feels art, imagination and creativity outlive earthly power which stamps on lifeless things like stone.

In a sense, Shelley is presenting an alternative view of power to the claims made by the arrogant text on the pedestal which we are led to believe are spoken by Ozymandias but which are actually conveyed by Shelley, relating the tale told by the “traveller from an antique land” but originally carved by the sculptor.

To look upon the works of the king is to see almost nothing and therefore realise the irony of the claim. His works have all but been destroyed: all except the limited remains of the statue. And, technically, the works are those of the unnamed sculptor.

In presenting the power which creativity has over traditional concepts of hegemonic power held by tyrants and dominating rulers Shelley is also surely speaking to his own time – much as Blake was. In the context which both poems were written power was in flux across Europe, with the French Revolution causing upheavals and social unrest in many parts of the continent. However, where Shelley appears to see art and truth as a means to answering traditional power dynamics within the social hierarchy, Blake seems to only witness despair, apathy and powerlessness: his men cry, his children cry, his faces are marked with weakness and woe.

Blake does not appear to have any answer to power in this poem. His Londoners are shackled to their fate with “mind-forg’d manacles,” tethering them to existing orthodoxy with no visible means of improving their lot. But, in that crucial time (and, in contrast with Ozymandias demand for those who look upon his works to despair) perhaps Blake’s “manacles” do offer hope of a change to the Londoner’s victimhood. The allusion to the “mind-forg’d” nature of their chains is a suggestion that all that needs to change is their imaginations, beliefs and mindsets for them to see a new way to live, free from the exploitation and misery and tyranny.

Response 2

Shelley and Blake seem to share a number of the same ideas about power, I feel. Through looking solely at their two poems, London and Ozymandias, I hope to explore some of these similarities and differences below.

To begin with, the poems are written from different perspectives. London is written from Blake’s one point of view as an observer of the impact on the ordinary man of the actions (or failure to act) of those in power. Ozymandias on the other hand is written as if Shelley is recounting a story he was told whilst travelling.

Blake’s point of view as observer puts him close to his subject matter and he uses emotive language to describe the sights, sounds and feelings he experiences. This can be seen in lines such as “cry of fear”, “hapless soldier’s sigh” and “harlot’s curse.”

It could be suggested fact Blake!: decision to write in the first person and be so critical of those in power is somewhat daring or even a dangerous thing to do. In contrast, one could suggest Shelley has been clever by separating himself from being a critic of power by suggesting that he has written a story told by a “traveller from an antique land.”

The criticisms of those in power to which I allude above can be seen in London in the following ways: In the opening stanza, Blake refers to the streets and river being “chartered” or owned and yet the faces of the people he meets display “weakness” and “woe.” The wealthy elite own the city, yet all the other people in it are powerless and sad.

The third stanza stands out as being critical of the church and the monarchy. The first two lines could be interpreted as suggesting religious authorities should be standing up for the chimney sweeps, often child labourers with few rights and terrible working conditions. Whilst the third and fourth lines suggest to me that Blake feels many soldiers are being used as pawns by the monarchy to fight unnecessary wars. The soldiers themselves have little say.

Shelley’s criticism of power can also be said to relate to the church and monarchy but he looks less at the impact on people and more on the futility and brevity is absolute power. The poem tells of the crumbling away of a statue erected by Ozymandias and how nothing remains of his works.

The criticism could be said to be a little more subtle in Ozymandias than in London, but to me it stands out in the negative language used to describe the facial expression of the statue. For example, “wrinkled lip” and “sneer of cold command.” Also in the final description of what is left, “decay”, “colossal wreck” and “boundless and bare.”

I would suggest further subtlety from Shelley in his use of the form of a sonnet. Typically, this is a form used for love poetry. Shelley has subverted this to show his dislike for the monarchy and religion – “King of Kings” being an ironic reference to royalty as well as a biblical term used to refer to Jesus.

Whilst Shelley uses the sonnet, Blake has used a four stanza, four line form with alternating rhyme scheme. It could be suggested this form constrains him somewhat, mirroring the constraint placed on the people within his poem by those in power and echoing the “mind-forg’d manacles he refers to.

Overall then, these are two poems with similar subjects and criticisms of society but written from different perspectives and with different styles.

Response 3

Blake and Shelley lived at roughly the same time and both were radicals and romantics.

Blake was born into a moderately poor family and was only educated until he was ten years old, subsequently being home educated but later attending the Royal Academy. He became a writer, artist and printmaker, was against organised religion but found the bible an immense source of inspiration. He was heavily influenced by the French Revolution but later moderated his views on it when he saw the violence and bloodshed it engendered. In the first verse of the poem, London, he is decrying the fact that people aren’t free, buildings and streets are “chartered” and therefore owned by the rich. Even the Thames, which should flow freely, is chartered. He is struck by the fact that “every” face he meets is marked (or stained) by weakness or sadness – even saying every three times.

In verse two he is appalled by the plight of the chimney sweeps, children as young as five years old who are sent up chimneys to clean them and often got killed. Blake appears to blame the church for not doing more to save them. He also mentions the “hapless soldiers” who were helpless and had to obey orders. The blood running down palace walls I think is a metaphor linked to the French Revolution where the poverty stricken were trying to overthrow royalty. Blake did not agree with royalty.

He then goes on to London at midnight in verse four. In his eyes it was a blighted place with young prostitutes affected by syphilis infecting their children and clients causing blindness and other symptoms being passed on to the innocent wives of their clients. Blake was not a fan of the way marriage worked in his lifetime. He thought of it as a form of slavery although he himself seemed to have a relatively happy marriage.

Shelley was also a radical and romantic, though he was born into a wealthier family. His father was a peer and also an MP. Shelley would have been heir to both these things had he not been disinherited due to his elopement at the age of 19. He had an unconventional love life, losing his first wife possibly to suicide and his two children died in infancy. He travelled Europe extensively. Some of Shelley’s writing was quite radical and influenced Marx and Tolstoy.

Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, is about the pharaoh Ramases II. For some reason, Shelley has given him his Greek name. He is trying to tell us that power doesn’t last, especially when it is despotic. He describes to us what he has been told by the traveler from the ancient land about a very large, ruined statue which is in pieces and covered in sand. It is a statue of Ramases, king of kings, who obviously has a very high opinion of himself as he declared “look on my works ye mighty and despair.” He is described as having a “sneer” and a “frown” so is obviously a very arrogant king but, as Shelley tries to tell us, nothing lasts for ever, life moves on and Ozymandias’ statue is now covered in sand, obliterated. Unfortunately, Shelley was wrong as many of Ramases’ colossal works are still standing today.

Overall, Shelley and Blake have very similar views on power, though they present them in different ways. Blake’s ideas are presented in a woeful way, decrying the way people are downtrodden and kept in poverty by those who chartered everything and Shelley is pleased by how the mighty have fallen. Strangely, neither were famous during their own lifetime, only becoming well known after their deaths.

Response 4:

All poetry is intended to be read aloud and both poems have some very powerful sounds, both in the words used and the consonants in those words.

When examining poems by different poets, the context in which they were written is important. These poems were both written at a time when the country was in turmoil, undergoing many wars. All such wars are costly and those that paid were mainly the poor who were paid a pittance while the rich got richer.

Shelley was one of the privileged, coming from an MP’s family and likely to follow in his father’s footsteps. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he had a bright future, but he was a rebel. He became a staunch atheist and wrote papers, distributing them to all the bishops of the church. He ran away at 16 to get married to his first wife, but a few years later, ran off with Mary Wollstonecraft. Soon after his first wife was found drowned, he married her and she later went on to write Frankenstein.

Shelley was one of the romantics. He was not well-known during his own lifetime (short lived as he died at 29).

In writing Ozymandias, he can be seen to be being critical of those in power, but was clever to distance himself from the criticism by employing the trick of saying, “I met a traveller in an antique land Who said” and thus he goes on to narrate what he was told. Could that person have been the Egyptologist, William Banks from Kingston Lacey?

The poem is written in an old sonnet form with the first octet of eight lines and a sestet for the last six. What he says about power in the first part is to look upon what has been a powerful Egyptian regime, possibly ruling at the time of Moses! Clearly the Pharaoh Ramases II, also known as Ozymandias, had been a very powerful man in his own time and the artist who sculpted the face showed the “sneer of cold command” which, in allowing the erection of the monument, overlooked the fact that maybe a sculptor foresaw that ultimately a desert devours everything, including monuments and particularly arrogant kings and powerful states.

In the sestet, we wonder if Shelley is also being critical of the church as “king of kings” is an expression appearing in the bible, referring to God. Is he saying that the church should look out for and take a more caring attitude to these less powerful people?

William Blake was a well known and respected figure who made money from his published work, including not only poetry but also art. Again, London was written at the time of the French Revolution when a lot of blood flowed – but whose blood, the poor soldier used as mere canon fodder?

This poem is written in a different rhyming style, but is equally powerful when read aloud.

Blake is commenting on the state of the world around him – a state where the huge bulk of property and wealth is vested in a tiny minority (nothing changes!) whilst the workers are languishing in poverty. He paints a picture where even the River Thames and the highways are owned or “chartered.” The people are mere slaves. The poor, tiny children are used as chimney sweeps who sometimes got stuck and would die screaming all because child Labour was cheaper than brushes.

The repetition in stanza 2 reinforces the power exercised over those poor wretches. “Every ban” means every law preventing something through the invisible “mind-forg’d manacles” which chain people like slaves. He has a swipe at the church which looks on at all the squalor and poverty but walks on by, having allowed itself to be blacken’d by the factories. He also takes a swipe at the seeing perhaps the need for a revolution having seen blood run down the palace walls.

The last stanza condemns the state of marriage. The men go off to enjoy the prostitutes but then bring venereal diseases to their wives, causing them either to be barren or to suffer appalling illness or death in the last line “plagues the marriage hearse” – a hearse being a vehicle used at a funeral to carry a coffin rather than at a wedding to carry a bride.

Context Lenses

Both my elder and younger brother were prescribed glasses from a really early age. Despite the fact that they were 1980s, thick sepia rimmed NHS style spectacles, this marked me out as being different so, being the middle child and being fixated on believing everything had to be fair, I really wanted glasses too. I was often tempted to lie to the optician when I had my eye test in an attempt to get a prescription myself. It was the weighty combination of a deep rooted, Catholic upbringing of guilt and a sense of pride in being able to reach the tiny bottom line of the letter chart which prevented me from doing so.

You want me to touch my eye? Give me the NHS specs any time.

Amongst other things, this ability to see, I think, leads me to a sense of frustration when I can’t see, grasp or understand. Hence, when I sat down with the mark scheme for the AQA English literature GCSE the other day, a sense of aggravation built – I couldn’t see the bottom line about context clearly.

My initial (relatively pleasant) problem stemmed from the fact we had under-predicted grades for literature last year. We weren’t expecting our 2017 cohort to do as well as they did. I’m coming to realise that this was because we hadn’t fully understood AQA’s more inclusive definition of context and this was resulting in us believing, when marking our mocks, that more of our students were committing a rubric infringement than was actually the case.

Though I’ve now been told marks are awarded holistically, the mark scheme is divided into three strands along the lines of the Assessment Objectives. AO3 for literature relates to the student’s “understanding of the relationship between the text(s) and the context(s) in which they were written.” In the mark scheme, for each level this means there is always a bullet point which says “ideas/perspectives/context” and “context/text/task.” In the top level this appears as “exploration of ideas/perspectives/contextual factors as shown by specific detailed links between context/text/task.” In the lowest level, meanwhile, the descriptor is “simple comment on explicit ideas/contextual factors.”

As with other mark scheme descriptors for English, there is a need for further explanation and, in particular, exemplification here. This is even more so the case when you’re trying to differentiate between responses that lie on the boundary between levels of the mark scheme which are closer together – how do you know the difference between “some understanding” of these things and “clear understanding” of them?

These aspects of the descriptors were particularly flummoxing:

  • What, specifically, do AQA now mean by context as the definition has definitely shifted?
  • What constitutes an “idea” and what are “perspectives” in the mind of an examiner?
  • In the mark scheme, do the obliques in the bullet points for context mean “and” or “or.”

What is context?

This is what AQA have to say for themselves:

This expands on the mark scheme bullet points and starts to answer the question I have abound a definition of context. It is also, I think, an attempt to sensibly guide teachers, and therefore students, away from the kind of response which looks at context in isolation rather than weaving it into the fabric of the student’s answer. However, it doesn’t offer anything in the way of exemplification and isn’t as full an explanation as I’d really like. My second and third question remain unanswered. It’s also a little hazy in terms of what is meant by context including the “setting” of the text – its “location, social structures and features.” Thus sounds like the text itself to me, rather than the context.

AQA have clearly had similar feelings as they’ve gone on to produce two booklets which link to this issue.

The Further Insights into Teaching Context booklet provides some additional advice and guidance in terms of the kinds of content that can be considered applicable to AO3. The Further Insights – Extract to Whole booklet examines the tasks set for extract questions in more detail. A potentially useful element of the Teaching Context booklet is this set of questions which could support planning for the teaching of context.

These questions are helpful in that they clarify the bullet points further.

What are ideas and perspectives?

Perspectives, it seems, include:

  1. The views of the writer which are arguably expressed through the text
  2. The views which were held by other individuals or groups at the time the text was written or received and on which the writer may be commenting through the text
  3. The views of the reader or audience about the text (potentially at different points in history)
  4. The way the text may have influenced the views of the reader or audience.

Ideas, meanwhile, appear to include knowledge which it is useful to retain that informs your interpretation of the text such as:

  1. Literary, political, philosophical, religious or other concepts that have likely influenced the way the writer crafted the text.
  2. Ideas which influence and/or support the way the text has been perceived by the reader or audience (potentially at different points in history)
  3. Ideas which further our understanding of the world of the text and the characters which inhabit that world.

Here are some examples of what AQA say ideas might include in a response to a task about Macbeth:

This leaves context which, we can infer, means:

  1. The ways historical, political, cultural, social and everyday events influenced its writing.
  2. The ways historical, political, cultural, social and everyday events influenced its reception by the reader or audience.

A really useful resource would be a developing list of “contexts” which students could revise for each of their core texts.

One of the most useful nugggets from the Extract to Whole booklet is that “students will always be given a contextual clue to help them” in the question. What this means, in practice, is that there will be a phrase in the task which will lead students to a contextual reading. They will not be asked how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth, but may be asked how he presents her as a powerful woman. They will not be asked how Dickens presents the Cratchits, but may be asked how he uses them to present Victorian poverty. This is useful in as much as, if we teach students to unpick and respond to the question, then they will also be responding to the context. However, looking at the currently limited range of example responses, the highest levels will require students to draw on the range of contexts listed above.

Are the obliques in the mark scheme “and” or “or?”

Helpfully, the @AQAEnglish team on Twitter responded to my request for clarification here by saying it’s an “or.” This makes it far more likely that students will be credited for referencing context if they can explore (detailed) links between relevant ideas or perspectives and the text or the task. In the Level 4/5 (not Grade 4/5) AQA exemplar, the two bits which are annotated as being relevant to context are “shows both sides of the war between good & evil and the duality of Victorian society” and “seems unusual and may suggest that this is what everyone in Victorian society was like and creates a sense of negativity to the surroundings.” This seems encouraging for currently middle to lower performing students as it means students don’t have to write reams about context, it doesn’t need to be built into every paragraph of their response and they should only really refer to it when it effectively adds to their response. It should also be encouraging to higher attaining students as there is plenty of space in the mark scheme to do better than this.

I know that I’m beginning to see

the bottom line

about context.
I hope you are too.

Thanks to @AQAEnglish and @theenglishline for this blog on context: https://t.co/89WZJQgwvR

The Lone and Level Sands Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I established a set of questions relating to English curriculum design and considered what the barriers to delivering on the aims of an English curriculum might be.

“Took us ages to make them sand sculptures Fred and all he’s bloody gone and done is used them as a metaphor for shaping the curriculum in different ways. Travesty!”

I’d like to move on now to identifying what we might call the elements of English. In order to do this, let’s try to imagine, only for a moment as it might hurt our heads, that there were no limitations: that time weren’t an issue; that all aims were possible; that everyone could have what they wanted in the curriculum; that we could focus on knowledge and the application of that knowledge; that students studied texts that were culturally significant as well as relevant to and engaging for them; that we could cover all genres and periods and cultural contexts so that the curriculum were representative of the scope of English Literature. In this utopian (or dystopian) school, what would students be able to do by the end of Year 11 and what knowledge would they require to be able to do these things?

Most importantly, how would we divide up this knowledge to make it coherent?

Beyonce says hold up so you’d better hold up.

Before we do this and drill down into the detail, it would be worth looking at how this has been done by others. The division of knowledge in English is quite telling in terms of the preferences or biases of the designers. These are important as there is only a finite amount of time in a school day for the study of English, which means, if we decide to add one thing, another thing has to either disappear, be studied over a shorter period of time or be studied more shallowly.

The 2014 English National Curriculum

The divisions in the National Curriculum shift, dependent on which Key Stage you examine. At Key Stage 1 and 2, alongside a strand which covers spoken language from Year 1-6, we have:

  1. Reading – Word Reading
  2. Reading – Comprehension
  3. Writing – Transcription (spelling)
  4. Handwriting
  5. Writing – composition
  6. Writing – vocabulary grammar and punctuation

Once we move into Key Stage 3 and 4, a number of the reading and writing elements are amalgamated so that we are left with:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Grammar and vocabulary
  4. Spoken English

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence in literacy and English is similarly organised, covering:

  1. Listening and talking
  2. Reading
  3. Writing

The framework is similar to the English curriculum though the emphasis is different once you move beneath the surface.

There are also four overarching aims in the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence which aren’t matched in England’s National Curriculum. These are that students should become:

  • Successful learners
  • Confident individuals
  • Responsible citizens
  • Effective contributors

Once you add layering in like this, there is a risk – or benefit depending on how you perceive it – that time is spent focusing on these aspects of a curriculum over the content of the subject.

The 2007 English National Curriculum.

The 2007 National Curriculum is similar to the Curriculum for Excellence in that it took the interesting step of introducing four concepts which appeared before the usual framework of speaking, listening, reading and writing. These were:

  1. Competence
  2. Creativity
  3. Cultural understanding
  4. Critical understanding

This was in line with the drive for broadly transferable skills, over and above subject domain specific knowledge. The elements of English still appear in the document but the fact these generic aspects appear first, implies they should take precedence.

NATE – An Alternative Curriculum 3 – 19

This curriculum document from the National Association for the Teaching of English is divided into six key areas:

  1. Talk
  2. Writing
  3. Reading
  4. Grammar and knowledge about language
  5. Drama
  6. Media

The addition of drama and media here are telling as part of an English curriculum. Media disappeared from the National Curriculum and the GCSE English Language exams as the predominant view at the time of its publication was that many of the GCSE text choices were transitory. Greater value came to be placed on 19th and earlier 20th century non-fiction in the form of journals, letters and broadsheet articles than the work of late 20th and early 21st century tabloid and magazine journalists, bloggers or web designers.

Interestingly though, numbers of students taking Media Studies GCSE and the proportional share of the total entry have remained relatively consistent, as can be seen on page 87 of this document. The same is true at A-Level. There arguments which might be made for the inclusion of media studies in the earlier Key Stages:

  • That students need an understanding of the ways media is used to influence us
  • That students should grasp the ways in which different groups are represented in the media
  • That students should be prepared for higher study at GCSE and A-Level

There are other subject areas which are rarely the focus of substantial study prior to GCSE though so an alternative view might be that leaving media our of the English curriculum does students no harm.

Drama, meanwhile, has seen a slight decline between 2010 and 2016 in entry at GCSE and A-Level. Though some would, I think it’s too early to attribute this fully to the implementation of an EBAC curriculum in schools. To draw this conclusion, we’d surely expect the same decline in Media Studies and all arts subjects and this is not yet the case.

It’s worth reiterating that, if we are to include either drama or media studies or both in a curriculum, the teaching should be given adequate time rather than detracting from the teaching of writing and a focus on reading.

What’s the betting he does a footsteps in the sand metaphor in this last paragraph?

In the next of these posts, I’ll take a look at the elements of English, attempting to rake over the footsteps some people have had to plant into the sands of the curriculum.

Eruption

They weep, they flare up, they turn angry. Sometimes they even erupt in a fit of rage. They are filled with emotion and play on emotions: spots. Acne, blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, whelks, blemishes, zits – these are the thing of the teenage nightmare.

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Spots aren’t great for many things, apart from Patsy Palmer’s career and as a metaphor for quotation selection.

In the days of my adolescence, I was fortunate to only rarely be visited by the zits. Mostly, and again luckily for me, these were relatively pathetic little things. However, as is invariably the case, the most furious, aggressive, humiliating visitors would arrive at the times of heightened anxiety and apprehension.

If you’ve ever had spots, it’s probable that you’ve known, and maybe even acted on, the disturbing temptation to squeeze. This temptation is heightened when the spots are at their most angry, most juicy. They are filled with pus. You must destroy them and they must burst.

To do this, you need to know where to squeeze and how long to squeeze for to get maximum impact – maximum pus.

Right Now

There are two questions across the AQA English Language papers which are like squeezing spots. Paper 1 Question 2 and Paper 2 Question 3 are the language analysis questions. The first is worth 8/80 marks and the second 12/80 marks on their respective papers. They’re high challenge but low tariff questions so students need a swift, efficient approach.

To do this, they need to know where to squeeze the text and how long to squeeze it for to get maximum impact – maximum marks.

You Really Got Me

As a result, for the purposes of these questions, not all quotations are equal. Take a look at this question from the AQA specimen paper:

As English teachers, I’d suspect as effects of the weather we’d select:

  • “Shaking the coach”
  • “Blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed”
  • “Rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man”
  • “muffled in a greatcoat to his ears”
  • “bent almost double”
  • “faint attempt to gain shelter from his own shoulders”
  • “too broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked”
  • “numb fingers of the driver”
  • “the wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank into the ruts on the road”

What, then, are the barriers to students selecting these quotations and subsequently picking the most pus-filled quotations from this list?

Relevance

There are at least three ways in which the concept of relevance is a key to this task.

At the most simple level, students need to figure out what they are being asked to focus on in the text. Unless they can identify the focus of a task and recognise that one word or phrase is linked to that topic and another isn’t, then they don’t stand a chance of being successful.

Secondly, there are some quotations which are so obviously relevant and therefore tempting to write about, but which would not be nearly as satisfying to burst through analysis. Some of the quotations in the list above are pus-filled with meaning about the effects of the weather and some are not. Which would you most savour pulling apart and why: “shaking the coach” or “blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed?”

Contrastingly, there are some quotations in the list above which initially seem less relevant but which a well crafted analytical paragraph could pull round to relevancy and make far more of. For example, “the wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank into the ruts on the road” is likely to remain irrelevant to the question if the student doesn’t pick up on the verb “sank,” which implies the weather has been a challenge for some time and that this has had both a damaging effect on the road and the travel conditions.

Vocabulary

All three of these barriers are affected by students’ vocabulary. Interestingly, and you may disagree, there are few words (if any) in the quotations I’ve selected which I think my Year 11 students would struggle with. However, in order to select these quotations, I had to get through “muffled,” “faint,” “dispirited” and “obscured.” Each of these could trip up one or more of my students and either muffle their chances of picking another quotation or cause them to become dispirited themselves.

Density of Imagery

Quite often, the best responses I’ve read to this kind of question come from student who realise that the best quotations to write about are those where they can reflect on more than one meaning or more than one part of the quotation. “Rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man” is interesting because you could explore the motion, “rocking,” as well as the giddiness and confusion the wind has caused as expressed in the simile of the “drunken man.” Arguably, “the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed” is better as students could explore a range of aspects relating to “whole,” “trembled” and “swayed.”

Success requires students to be able to hunt for the richest as well as most relevant phrases. These are the quotations which, almost invariably, appear at the points in the text which are most packed with emotion.

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Spots! Marks of weakness. Marks of woe.

The terminology vs analysis dilemma

When the new specification for AQA was rolled out by the exam board, there was a feeling, amongst many teachers, that there was a shift in expectations, including and in particular expectations around the kinds of terminology which candidates should be referencing in their responses.

Following this summer’s first exam series using the latest specification, a number of teachers who were examiners are now reporting that some students used terminology which they didn’t understand, others used terminology inaccurately and others still did one or other of these things at the expense of the quality of their analytical writing.

My suspicion here is that lots of (though not all) teachers pumped too much terminology into year 11 last year, meaning their students retained this rather than the processes relating to analytical writing. Some will have done this as they felt the exam board were expecting to see more complex terms being used, some because they felt it right that the qualification should be more challenging and some because they believed it right that students should be exposed to this knowledge.

It strikes me that, if a student shows themselves to be ready to juggle both complex terminology, alongside the analysis of texts which incorporate this kind of language use, then we should teach them at this level. They should be prepared to do both.

The examiners concerns, however, suggest that there were too many cases in which students were pushed too soon to this level of study, in a way which was actually detrimental to their final grades. It’s also possible that students struggled to select quotations which were relevant because they were looking for ones which contained the use of such and such a technique. We have to be careful how we pace the teaching of writers’ methods.

My concern now though is that, if some examiners and exam boards say that students don’t need to know this or that bit of terminology and that, therefore, it’s not worth teaching, then schools won’t go through a process of sequencing this knowledge over time.

If this happens, we won’t raise the bar over time, largely because some people may have raised it too high too soon in the first year.

Surely that can’t be good for our current or future students.

Come the Revolution 

The other day, I had a great chat about exam planning for fiction and non-fiction tasks with Tod Brennan. Tod’s blog can be found here. The conversation was part of Tod’s sequence of podcasts with English teachers, Approaching The Whiteboard. If you get the chance to record with Tod, then you should take it. I thought, given that I’ve never used FaceTime and I’ve refused to ever be in a selfie, that I’d live to have many regrets. Turns out, I only have one and it wasn’t not doing my hair. 

Most of our conversation focused on the kind of pragmatic decisions we might make about teaching year 11 when they have six months left til their exams. Prior to the recording, though, Tod had sent me a list of questions he was likely to ask and, slotted in amongst them was a question which would have opened up a longer view in terms of writing, “Which three tips will you take from ‘The Writing Revolution?’”

Unfortunately, we didn’t cover the question in the conversation. Fortunately, that means I have a ready made blog to share instead. 

First published in 18th century Paris, the book was unpopular due to its size.


As with Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, who provides the forward to The Writing Revolution, it would be easy for some to dismiss Judith Hockman and Natalie Wexler’s book as being a collection of “stuff I do already.” The power of both books actually comes though, I think, in the codification of sets of reusable routines and systems. In fact, as a result of this, the first two parts of my answer to Tod’s question are less tips and more principles. 

Tip one:

Knowledge leads to better writing and writing about knowledge leads to greater retention.

This first tip runs the risk of both stating the obvious and being de rigueur in current teaching so I want to pose a question which I think highlights why the tip is important. 

Have you ever watched or participated in a lesson where students have had to practice aspects of grammar by writing sentences devoid of any meaningful content – perhaps about one or more randomly named fictional characters who haven’t appeared anywhere else in the student’s education? If not, imagine this as I’ve seen it a fair few times. My daughter has even had homework exercises which are similar:

A group of students open a set of text books to page 57. Task 3 instructs the students to complete the following five sentences:

  1. Although Sam liked crisps,
  2. Rajiv played hopscotch whilst
  3. When Sarah’s bus broke down,
  4. Since Tim went on holiday, 
  5. Oana went outside though

There is a two step process here. Firstly, the students are practicing devising clauses and linking main and subordinate clauses. The second step is devising a fictional situation. This may be what the teacher desires. However, what’s probable in this kind of exercise is either that the process of coming up with the narrative behind the sentence takes over from the practical use of clauses or the content of the sentence becomes ridiculously mundane. 

The structure of the exercises in Hockman and Wexler’s book reminds us that knowledge of how to structure a sentence, paragraph or whole text goes hand in hand with knowledge of the content of the writing. In every exercise they propose, they make links between the craft of writing and the content of the curriculum. Not only does this mean the writing students craft is more interesting, but also when they craft these texts students are also reviewing and recalling the content. 

Tip two


Sequencing and pacing are vital

One of the great strengths of The Writing Revolution is its careful sequencing from relatively basic sentences, through paragraphs and into full texts. There is a simplicity in this but with simplicity comes power. 

Tip three

It’s okay to reuse similar structures again and again and again – the best writers do. 

Each of the writing exercises in the book, because they’re rooted in the curriculum content, is designed to be repeated. This means that students, over time will develop their ability to make use of and recraft the structures. Further, as the content students are manipulating becomes more complex, so the texts become more complex. I’m mindful of sharing these online as I think you should get the whole book. However, this blog from the Teach Like a Champion site highlights the strengths of one of the ideas. 

A very Englishy revolution:

Most English revolutionaries have been more like Frank Spencer than Citizen Smith.


There is a view that the English have  remained impervious to a number of revolutionary periods through history. It strikes me that this book attempts to instigate the kind of revolution that English teachers could easily sign up to. 

The Lone and Level Sands Part 2

In the last post in this series, I shared six key questions we should be asking ourselves when designing an English curriculum. Four of these are from Ralph Tyler, one from Summer Turner and the sixth I’ve added myself. 

  1. How do you define the purpose(s) of education and, therefore, your curriculum?
  2. What content do you think needs to be delivered and what experiences do students need in order to achieve your aims?
  3. What limitations or barriers are there to the achievement of your aims or the delivery of the content?
  4. What is the optimum way of sequencing the content in order to achieve your purpose(s)?
  5. Do you expect the same of all of your learners?
  6. How will you assess whether your curriculum has been delivered effectively; whether students have reached your expectations; whether your purpose(s) have been achieved?

The boiling of an egg can be timed using sand. The creation of a curriculum, generally speaking, cannot.


This time, I’d like to explore an answer to my own question, looking at three potential barriers to the delivery of a curriculum’s aims. 

  1. Teachers –  beliefs, knowledge and preferences
  2. Resources 
  3. Curriculum time 

Teachers:

Teachers are both the greatest potential resource for students to learn from as well as, potentially,  the greatest barrier to the delivery of an intended curriculum. In The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, AV Kelly maintains that “The quality of any educational experience will…depend to a very large extent on the individual teacher responsible for it; and any attempt at controlling the curriculum from the outside which does not recognise that is doomed to failure.” Why and how might our biggest asset become such a significant barrier? 

The main reasons, in English teaching at least, relate to teachers’ beliefs and how these impact on their behaviours. These could be philosophical, cultural, political, linguistic or fall into any number of other categories of belief system, but they can each have an impact on the way in which a teacher delivers the curriculum which has been planned. 

This has a significant impact at a national level. The likelihood of a national curriculum receiving universal acceptance from all English teachers is minimal. It also has an impact, though, at departmental level as English teachers, even within a small team, can have different views and resultant biases and behaviours. 

Philosophical differences 

Some English teachers see the  curriculum as a means to ensure that students are exposed to The Literary Canon. They might define or subscribe to a tradition of texts which they believe all students have a cultural entitlement to read. A number of these teachers would see reading these texts as empowering. Knowledge of these texts and the relationships between them, they would argue, can enable access to conversations, situations, even jobs which would otherwise be closed off to their students. Some of these teachers would go beyond arguing that it is a students’ entitlement to read these texts, instead leaning towards seeing it as their responsibility to keep the literary tradition alive – they may believe they have a responsibility to the tradition just as or nearly as much as to their students. “Literature holds the knowledge, the dirty secrets, the brutal realities, the beauty, the ugly truths of humanity and our place in nature. Literature has a life of its own which needs to be sustained,” they might say. 

Other teachers might agree with parts, or even all of, this yet not see the empowerment of students through the passing on of a tradition as being the primary function of the English curriculum. For some of these teachers, the criteria for text choice would be relevance to their students’ lives and how much the texts will engage their students. “We can expose students to all the classics we want,” these teachers might argue, “but if there’s no buy in, no connection, no relationship built between the child and the text, then the curriculum becomes meaningless.” In some cases, as a means of balancing this with the traditional argument, teachers will select texts which are considered classics but which also might be considered relevant to the lives of children. This could be because they are buildungsroman – Oliver Twist, for example – or because they contain themes which relate to our lives today – lots of these teachers would accept Shakespeare on these grounds. In other cases, in an attempt to make the curriculum as relevant as possible, faculties select texts which are highly contemporary – Young Adult fiction appears on curricula for this reason. 

These philosophical differences don’t just impact on the literature curriculum. They also affect English language in terms of non-fiction text choices and the kinds of grammar students are exposed to. A traditionalist might argue that students should have the opportunity to read the great non-fiction writers of the past, to be able to grapple with diaries, letters, journalism, essays, pamphlets; to grasp the complex syntax, lengthy paragraphs, complex lines of argument in these texts. Other teachers might see it as their duty to help students navigate and craft the multimodal texts of the contemporary world. “Who writes letters these days?” they might ask. Included as an alternative might be websites, blogs, emails, tabloid journalism, the world of alternative facts, the transiently bombastic language of advertising. 

Again, there is a middle road here. A teacher, a faculty, a nation could attempt to include both in their curriculum, though neither could be covered in the same depth. 

Political differences

Making choices about English curriculum content can be seen as a political, just as much as a philosophical, act. 

There are teachers who see their role, and the role of the curriculum, as being to enable their students to use the language of power, the language of the job interview, the language of the professional. Here we might have a focus on the use of standard English, speaking in full sentences, tiers of vocabulary. The English curriculum becomes a pathway to empowerment and a route to raised aspirations. The alternative view here is not an attempt to hold students back from these aims. Instead, it offers a questioning of the concept of the language of power. “Why,” a teacher might support their students to question, “should we succumb to the homogenisation of English? Who are these people in power? How does their language differ to ours and who are they to tell us that theirs is better?” There are compromises to be made here if we take a middle ground. How do we sell a meaningful message about language to our students if we attempt to tread both these paths and what are we sacrificing elsewhere in the curriculum?

Another area in which the English curriculum can become deeply politicised is that of text choice. The literary canon is politically charged. The current National Curriculum, for example, has been accused of being a celebration, on the whole, of the works of dead, white men. It is certainly not as representative of English society as the National Curriculum used to be. On the other hand, because there are no longer the lists of approved writers present in the curriculum document, one might argue that schools have greater space and freedom to select works which are reflective of or challenging to the views of their own communities. 

Linguistic differences 

English teachers (in fact people in general – especially pedants) can getsurprisingly heated over linguistics. Two areas of the English curriculum, in particular, seem to generate a great deal of debate currently. The first of these is the aspect of the  curriculum relating to decoding and the second relates to grammar. 

In terms of phonics there are, at one end of the spectrum, the phonics purists and, at the other, proponents of a mixed or whole language methodology. These two points of view can be seen here, in an article by Debbie Hepplewhite for NATE’s Teaching English magazine, and here in a blog post from Michael Rosen. Imagine a primary school in which these were your two Year 1 teachers. It’d be an intriguing experiment, but an incoherent curriculum experience for the children. 

The situation is similar with grammar. On the one hand, some teachers (including Daisy Christodoulou here) believe that grammar can and should be taught in a decontextualised manner. On the other, there are teachers (and academics like Debra Myhill here) who take the view that grammar is best taught in the context of specific texts or types of text. Again, it would be possible (if not probable) to have two teachers taking these approaches within one secondary English faculty, but it would also lead to an inconsistent as well as a likely confusing experience for students (and/or unhappy, conflicting teachers). 

Functional differences 

I’ve described here how, in my formative years as a teacher, I was convinced that I could teach students in my classes generic reading skills like prediction, inference, deduction, analysis and evaluation. There are still teachers who believe this is the case and I can empathise with this. There are both procedures and phrases, which we can teach students, that make it sound, in their responses to texts, as if they are doing these things. 

However, there is a flip side to this too. Whilst some English teachers believe that their subjects (language and literature) are skills based and that, as a result, the curriculum should focus on the development of  skills, there are others who see the primary function of the English curriculum as being a sequencing of the knowledge, which students require in their long term memory, in order to comment on texts in a more academic fashion and in order to craft texts of substance. 

A third approach, as with the other divisions, is to see the curriculum as a means of developing both students’ factual and procedural knowledge so that they can recall information and apply it fluently. 

Pragmatism 

One could possibly argue that, in describing many of the divisions above, I have had to resort to extremes. That few teachers hold such a firm set of beliefs. In fact, there are a significant number of teachers who would argue that they take a pragmatic approach to the curriculum – that they redesign the curriculum to suit their students. There is little mileage, some might argue, when a student arrives in your English classroom from another country with little to no English in Year 8, covering the curriculum in the same way as your other students. An alternative point of view is that any adaptation should be as short lived as possible and designed to support the student in catching up rather than providing a permanently different curriculum. 

Pragmatism can have a place, but can also lead to a chaotic curriculum experience. 

Knowledge and Preferences 

There are some schools and English facultiea where the English curriculum is designed and adapted around the needs of cohorts of students to maximise the impact on pupils’ ability to retain and apply knowledge. Teachers are then expected to work hard to develop their own subject knowledge in order to deliver the curriculum. 

In other schools, almost the reverse is true. Faculties avoid certain texts or potential aspects of the curriculum, either because there isn’t the expertise on the team or because teachers prefer other texts or elements of English. This is most marked, in my experience, in the case of GCSE and A-Level text choices.  

Resources and Curriculum Time

I liked teaching Of Mice and Men. Mostly, when I look back though, I liked reading it with the voices – sometimes, cringingly, I even did the voice of Curley’s wife. When Of Mice and Men disappeared from the list of approved texts for GCSE English Literature, I got over it relatively quickly. I didn’t feel it really gave students a much better sense of world literature; there were some good descriptive sections but there are other texts of which the same or better can be said; and every year at least one person would let slip what happens to Lennie before we’d get to the ending. Despite this, or perhaps because they’d disagree, a lot of English faculties moved the text down into Key Stage 3. I do wonder whether this was because they genuinely felt it was the most worthwhile text students could study in Year 9 or whether it was because they had plenty of copies of the text and a (half) decent scheme of learning which fitted into the half term that was empty on the overview for the year after they’d got rid of a media module. 

Resourcing has a significant impact on curriculum design, whether we want it to or not. 

Curriculum time, similarly, impacts on what we deliver. We may want to spend half a year on a Shakespeare play but, if we do, this limits what we can do in terms of other content. 

Who thinks we should keep studying the bit with the pie in Titus Andronicus for another few weeks?


All of this means we have to make principled, but occasionally pragmatic, decisions about how we select the content and organise the sequencing or structure of the English curriculum and, when we do, we need to secure the buy in of the current members of our faculty and/or aim over time to recruit teachers whose views on content and curriculum design are in alignment with our own. 

It’s the content which I’ll move on to next.