Don’t evaluate a book by its cover. 

“Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone 24 hours a day. Who tends it? The old tour guides and sylviculturists, the wardens, the fuming parkies in their sweat-soaked serge: these have died off. If you do see an official, a professional, these days, then he’s likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders, with its oohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions.” Martin Amis

In their own ways, what both Martin Amis and Stewart Lee’s comedy persona seem to be critiquing is the inability of the public to gauge and select quality in literature. Two weeks ago, Engchat focused on the way in which we teach this, under the umbrella heading of evaluation, in schools. A question arose around what evaluation actually is and why it’s often considered to be a higher level skill than analysis.

An answer to the first part of this question should be relatively easy – evaluation is forming an opinion, judging, assessing, appraising. It’s hopefully a lot more than groaning or jeering or oohing or ahing in Amis’ metaphorical garden of literature. 

The second part of the question is more challenging. Evaluation is different to, though often at its best interwoven with, analysis – a close and detailed examination to see either how something is made, how it works or to deepen understanding of its meaning. Evaluation in literary terms is not, in itself, more challenging than analysis. The level of challenge with either form of literary writing is set by the focus text and the question to which a student is writing a response. Whilst one evaluation question about a particular text might be a breeze for a student, the same student might be left to ooh and ah like Cantona by a different question about another text.

James Theobald has written excellently here about some of the key features of evaluative responses, including the need to judge the following four areas:

  • Outcomes
  • Impact
  • Alternative choices
  • Context

James’ post develops an analogy between the kinds of judgements made on bakery based reality shows and those made by students of literature. The four key areas he identifies are, without a doubt, as relevant to literature as they are flour based products and I completely agree that the ability to decide which baked treat or which literary work is best is reliant on secure knowledge. 

I think there are other challenges though which are specific to literary evaluative writing and it’s these which I’d like to explore in this post. 

Challenge #1. “Question: How d’you really feel about…?”

A key issue with making sweeping statements about “evaluation skills” in English is that the demonstration of any such skills – if they even exist – are displayed through responses to a variety of examination question types.

Interestingly, none of the question types require students to merely give a set of statements about a text’s inherent or comparative quality. They are miniature academic essays rather than literary reviews or book group contributions.

Having gone through most of the specimen papers for the new GCSE and A-Level specifications, the questions I’d identity as evaluative tend to fall into or between one of five main categories. I’ve provided exemplification of each below. 

1 Evaluate a text(s) in the light of a given viewpoint.

AQA Literature GCSE Paper 2

‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ How far is this idea important in Animal Farm?

Write about:

  • what you think Orwell is saying about equality and inequality
  • how Orwell presents these ideas through the events of the novel.

2 Evaluate a viewpoint in the light of a given text(s).

AQA English GCSE Paper 1

Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the source, from line 19 to the end.

A student, having read this section of the text said: “The writer brings the very different characters to life for the reader. It is as if you are inside the coach with them.” To what extent do you agree?

In your response, you could:

  • write about your own impressions of the characters
  • evaluate how the writer has created these impressions

support your opinions with references to the text.

OCR English GCSE Paper 1

‘These texts are powerful because they show the importance of having freedom and strong personal beliefs.’ How far do you agree with this statement?

In your answer you should:

  • discuss what you learn about the importance of having freedom and strong personal beliefs
  • explain the impact of these ideas on you as a reader
  • compare the ways ideas about freedom and personal beliefs are presented.

OCR Literature Paper 1 

‘Money is the source of all Pip’s problems.’ How far do you agree with this view?

Explore at least two moments from the novel to support your ideas.

OCR English GCSE Paper 2

‘In these texts school is presented as a challenging place for the pupils.’ How far do you agree with this statement?

In your answer you should:

  • discuss your impressions of the pupils’ various experiences at school
  • explain what you find unusual about their school environment
  • compare the ways the writers present the pupils’ experiences of school.

Support your response with quotations from both extracts.

OCR Literature A-Level

‘A great surprise of the play is that Claudius has a conscience.’ How far and in what ways do you agree with this view?

AQA Language A-Level Paper 1

“Interaction with caregivers is the most important influence on a child’s language development.”

Referring to Data Set 1 in detail, and to relevant ideas from language study, evaluate this view of children’s language development.

3 Evaluate how far a text is typical of a particular genre. 

AQA Literature Specification B A Level Paper 2

Explore the significance of the crime elements in this extract. Remember to include in your answer relevant detailed analysis of the ways that Hill has shaped meanings.

4 Evaluate how far a text is influenced by its context.

EDUQAS Literature A Level

Consider the view that “spiritual or otherwise, Donne’s poems are consistently grounded in the physical world of his time.”

5 Evaluate the similarities and differences between two or more different texts or extracts from the same text (compare/contrast).

OCR GCSE Literature Paper 2

Compare how these poems present the effects of war on people’s lives.

OCR Literature A Level Paper 1

Discuss Milton’s portrayal of Adam and Eve’s actions and their consequences in the following extract from Paradise Lost Book 9.

In your answer explore the author’s use of language, imagery and verse form, and consider ways in which you find this extract characteristic of Paradise Lost Books 9 and 10.

Question level challenges emerge because: 

A generic approach to “evaluation skills” won’t work across all five different question types. Instead, teachers need to model the specific procedures needed to respond to the question type(s) their students are required to answer from Key Stage 3 onwards. Responding to each question type can, for novices, be broken down into a set of steps or procedures which, as students become increasingly expert, can be developed, manipulated or even subverted.

Sometimes, frustratingly, the mark scheme for a question can require students to do something very different to the expectations the question establishes. This is the case with the AQA English GCSE Paper 1 question above. The mark scheme for this question requires students to write in more of an analytical than evaluative manner. Though they’re asked to evaluate to what extent they agree with a statement, the exam board have said in training that the question is set up in such a way that students are more likely to do well if they simply agree. This is largely because of what I see as being a misuse of “evaluate” in the second bullet point which seems to me to be actually asking students to analyse. Issues like this can result in teachers focusing students on tricks to be successful when judged using the mark scheme rather than teaching students to write brilliant evaluative responses to the specific question posed. My advice would be to focus on the latter at Key Stage 3 and, pragmatically if you have to, focus on the former at Key Stage 4 or 5. As a result of this kind of issue, it’s really important that teachers are highly familiar with the mark schemes, that they keep up to date with exam board training and that, ideally, someone in the English faculty is a trained examiner.

The bullet points provided to supplement some of the questions can both help and hinder students. In the worst cases, they could actually lead students away from the evaluation of the original focus in the question. This can particularly be the case if they are used as a step by step structure by students, rather than a set of prompts to aid thinking. A good example of how this can go wrong is the OCR English GCSE question about whether the school experiences described in two texts are challenging. The bullet point prompts hint at aspects to be explored in the texts. However, a student using merely the prompts as a guide to responding could write very well about the bullet points without evaluating the statement at all. Presumably, these bullet points have been added to support students who would struggle with the question if they weren’t there. Irritatingly, this requires teachers to support students to jump an extra hurdle which was ironically put there to help them.

There are two other challenges which I think are so important that they deserve their own section.

Challenge #2. Question: How d’you like this knowledge that I brought?

I have my mum to thank in great part for my love of reading.

I well recall being read to every evening before bedtime and piling into my mum and dad’s room every morning with my older brother to have a story before any other part of our morning routine and working my way through all of the various middle class adventures of Peter and Jane and forcing our mother to read to us just before teatime until she was drifting off to sleep then waking her up to carry on and her listening to us reading our books from school and being taken to the library to max out our six book limit before heading off for rainy summer Wells holidays and Ladybird Books and Richard Scarry and Beatrix Potter and Roger Hargreaves and Helen Nicholl and Enid Blyton and Michael Bond and Roald Dahl and Richard Adams and Robert Arthur and Captain WE Johns and L Frank Baum and her encouraging me to read all kinds of things as a teenager, though mostly fantasy fiction and science fiction because that’s what I liked at the time, and her accepting that I was heading off to university to study a subject and read even more and at a much higher level because I loved it rather than because it led to a specific form of employment, oh, and funding much of it alongside my dad.

It’s hardly the first book of Aurora Leigh, but neither was it an upbringing in which being literate was a challenge.

My mum read too. She tells a tale of having read the whole of Heidi one Christmas Day as a child. My grandparents didn’t believe her and set her a quiz which successfully proved she hadn’t lied – good times. I also held a secret belief that I loved reading because (I was convinced) my mum had said she’d read War and Peace whilst she was pregnant with me. Turns out this was my younger brother. All I’ve actually got is a love of peanuts due to her cravings for monkey nuts whilst carrying me. Probably to escape from the cumbersome, Herculean challenge of bringing up three sons, mum moved to reading mostly trashy historical novels about challenging romantic relationships, mostly set in the time of the industrial revolution, mostly (for some reason) set in docklands, mostly in Liverpool or Ireland. More recently, in her retirement, she’s joined a book group which has widened the scope of her reading once more, though I suspect is also to do with getting the latest gossip from the village.

Both my mum and I are therefore fairly widely (though not necessarily well) read in our own very different ways which is a useful starting point for further studies but isn’t enough for an evaluative question. Let’s take a look at this question to explore further what I mean.

Consider the view that “spiritual or otherwise, Donne’s poems are consistently grounded in the physical world of his time.”

I currently know relatively little about Donne and his poetry. In order to be able to answer this question more successfully, I’d need to know or be able to work out from my current knowledge the following, and more, at question, textual, contextual and procedural level:

Question level:

  • The meaning of “spiritual.”
  • The meaning of “physical world.”
  • The meaning of “consistently grounded in.”

Text level:

  • A range of quotations from Donne’s poems which support and refute the view expressed in the quotation – even though this is an open book exam.
  • A range of linguistic and structural terms which are relevant to Donne’s poetry.
  • How Donne uses this language and these structures to present aspects of spirituality and physicality.

Context level:

  • What spiritual means in today’s context and how this differs from what it may have meant to Donne in terms of religion, the church as an organisation and the afterlife.
  • How the spiritual world might have been viewed as different to the physical world in Donne’s time and how this may have impacted on his writing.
  • How the concept of a “physical world” might link to or have changed as a result of Renaissance learning.
  • How, when and why it’s possible for the spiritual and physical world to be seen as intertwined, particularly in relation to courtship and relationships.
  • The nature of people’s views of the physical and spiritual world at the time of Donne’s writing.
  • Whether there are other themes or aspects of context in which Donne’s poetry might be grounded.
  • Relevant views of critics or other readers. 

Procedural level:

  • How to express my own viewpoints in an academic manner, using appropriate vocabulary and structuring.
  • How to select and then integrate relevant and appropriate supporting evidence to back up my own views and potentially refute the views of others.
  • How to interweave knowledge of the text with knowledge of the influence of context.
  • How to explore and debate a range of other critical viewpoints.

It’s clear that James Theobald’s four areas (outcomes, impact, alternative choices and context) are all highly relevant here. Pulling apart a specific model of question in this way though can give even further clarity to identifying the knowledge required and the potential challenges students face in writing a response. 

Challenge #3: I depend on me.

The final area of challenge I want to explore here stems from the fact that some of the evaluation questions, particularly it seems at GCSE level, are based on unseen texts. I think this unfortunately results in these questions being something of a lottery for students as they are dependent on students’ accumulated background knowledge. It can seem that what it comes down to is the interplay between what students know, the lucky dip contents of the text and their ability to express their judgements or evaluations.

This can lead to an overemphasis on teaching the procedural elements above such as sentence starters to make students sound as if they are writing evaluatively. It doesn’t have to be this way though as we can narrow the odds in our students’ favor by increasing what they know, including through:

  • Focusing in class time on really high quality texts in order to really build students’ knowledge.
  • Implementing a strategy to ensure that students read widely and often outside of the classroom.
  • Developing students’ vocabulary so that they are less likely to encounter unfamiliar words and more likely to be able to deduce the meaning of any new words which they do come across.
  • Providing high quality models, explanations and modeling of approaches to responding to these question types as well as opportunities to practice and receive feedback on how to improve.

Throw your hands up at me. 

If you feel I’ve missed anything, then please do comment on this post. I’d love to know what you think.

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