In the previous post in this sequence, I established the premise that, in the literature classroom, reading is essentially an intellectual, emotional and/or behavioural reaction to text(s) and that, when we’re teaching students to study literature, we’re teaching them factual and/or procedural knowledge which will enable them to more successfully communicate these reactions.
Now I want to look at the potential barriers to students communicating a knowledgeable reaction in the form of an analytical piece of writing at KS3 and beyond. As this is such a huge topic, my aim, in this instance, is to categorise these barriers rather than list every possible permutation. I also don’t intend to explore any solutions here just yet. Instead, I’ll be saving these for a later post in this sequence. To help structure my thinking I’ll be splitting the issues up into two core categories.
Hands up please if you think I’ve missed something.
Text based barriers relating to:
- The mechanics of reading
- Emotional impact
- Behavioural impact
- Intellectual impact
Task based barriers relating to:
- Question type
- Mark scheme
- Specimen exemplar responses from exam boards
Text based barriers:
At the most fundamental level, this set of barriers includes students having gaps in their phonic knowledge on arrival at secondary school, not having reached fluency in their decoding skills and making little use of expression or variation of tone in their reading. If these more basic problems are still lingering at the end of Key Stage 2, then they clearly need to be addressed early on during Key Stage 3 for students to make any sense of the more complex literary texts they’ll encounter during their GCSE years.
Beyond the foundations, these mechanical barriers also encompass limited levels of perseverance with potentially unfamiliar or archaic language; the possibility that students may be reading a text written in a language in which they are not yet proficient; and difficulties caused by the complex, syntactic sequencing often used in poetry and some (particularly older) prose texts.
Barriers relating to students’ emotional, behavioural and intellectual reactions can, of course, be caused by a range of specific educational needs which make, for example, empathising with characters in a text or cognitively processing a text’s meaning much more challenging.
In addition, some students have limited vocabulary with which to either comprehend or express subtly different feelings or actions. Comprehension and communication of comprehension can also be stifled if students don’t know much about the themes or the concepts which a text focuses upon.
A lack of exposure to a range of cultural, social or emotional experiences inhibitting empathy with the narrator or character(s) can prevent or limit an emotional reaction. Conversely, students can be unwilling to open up about emotions or actions as a result of past social experiences they have had, such as mockery at the hands of their peers.
When students have little knowledge relating to the possible impacts of choices of forms, structures and figurative or rhetorical language, it can limit their reaction going beyond the emotional or behavioral. This issue can also restrict their ability to express why they or others may have had these reactions to a text in the first place.
A lack of knowledge linked to social, historical and cultural contexts can prevent students expressing how or why texts are characteristic of their time or how they break away from traditions or conventions. It can also prevent students understanding why characters have acted in certain ways if they deviate from the manner in which they would act themselves as a result of differences in culture.
Task based barriers:
As English teachers we are, in the majority of cases, graduates of English literature and/or language degree courses. Consequently, I’m sure we’d all like to think, we have a clear sense of how analytical writing should be structured and crafted. The ideal in our minds, most likely, takes the form of an academic essay – start to finish.
A number of the examination questions which students have to answer for the latest GCSE exam specifications, though, require them to write something more like a mini-essay or ‘essay-let.’ This is in part because of the wording of the questions themselves and in part because of the time students are given to respond in the exams.
At times, therefore, I think there is a mismatch between what we have in mind in terms of structuring academic writing and what is required for a successful response from the students in the form of a high grade. This is more so the case in English than in English Literature, but I believe the issue exists in both qualifications.
To exemplify this, in AQA’s GCSE Specimen Literature Paper 2, students have to complete this question:
In both ‘Poem to my Sister’ and ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’ the speakers describe feelings about watching someone they love grow up. What are the similarities and or differences between the ways the poets present those feelings?
Students’ responses to this question are worth a maximum of eight marks from a paper worth 94 marks in total. The time allocated for the paper is 2 1/4 hours. If you were to allocate the same proportion of time to each question as the proportion of the overall marks it is worth, then this question should take just under 12 minutes. Although the two unseen poems referenced in this question are nowhere near as rich in language or as structurally dense as Ozymandias, by Shelley, or Exposure, by Owen, (two of the pre-studied poems the same paper may also include a question about) and although the students will have read the first poem in order to answer the previous question, 12 minutes seems very little to respond to a question which could, if more time were given, potentially lead into a full analytical, comparative essay.
The time allocation for this question will clearly mean students will produce a less than full response to these relatively simplistic poems. One wonders, therefore, whether it’s a worthwhile task or whether it’s actually been included in the paper to fulfill a government requirement, especially as it’s likely to lead to the teaching of a more simplistic form of response.
Potentially exacerbating the issue of which structure to use for each question are the bullet points which exam boards provide in some of their tasks. These are, in the most part, designed to support students with basic prompts relating to the content of their responses. However, they can actually act as a barrier if students use them as a guide to structuring and organising their answer.
In the same specimen AQA paper as the poetry question we’ve just looked at, students are assessed on their knowledge of a modern prose or drama text. One of the options for the question relating to An Inspector Calls is:
How and why does Sheila change in An Inspector Calls?
- How Sheila responds to her family and the Inspector.
- How Priestley presents Sheila by the way he writes.
This question is odd for a number of reasons. Firstly, of the twenty four questions in this section of the paper, this is one of only four that don’t mention the writer’s name. What’s stranger still is that this is the only question which, prior to the bullet points, treats the events of the text as if they’re reality and the character as a real person rather than a literary construct. The vast majority of questions in this paper begin with the stem, “How does (insert the writer’s name) present/explore…?” The three other questions which don’t mention the writer of the text ask about the importance of a particular feature, theme or character.
The reason this is important is because a student could answer the question above about Sheila well within the terms of the question itself by giving a narrative based response but they would be penalized in terms of the mark scheme and the bullet points as they would be less likely to have discussed the effects of the writer’s choices. I may be wrong, but I think this would restrict them to level one of the mark scheme and no higher than five marks.
Protecting students against this is presumably why the bullet points have been included. They’re designed to remind students of the other aspects of the mark scheme, but it is plausible that this would be too late. It’s also quite possible that he bullet points in the Sheila question could actively promote a way of thinking which risks taking students further away from the original question. The first bullet could quite feasibly lead students to discuss Sheila’s separate responses to the other members of her family, without making these relevant by linking each back to the way it results in the changes to her world view or sense of morality. The second bullet point finally suggests to students that they should view Shiela as a literary construct, crafted by Priestley. However, there is no reference to changes, alterations or shifts in her character in the last bullet point and my concern is that this creates an unnecessary barrier to students crafting an effective response. The question itself has prompted one way of thinking and therefore writing. The bullet points suggest a different approach.
The question itself should lead towards success within the terms of the mark scheme. In this, and other cases, it does not.
One reason why teachers revert to teaching a PEE/PEEL/PEEZ style structure as a basic form for structuring the parts of a response is that you can feel like you’re wangling the different parts of the acronym around to address the different parts of the mark scheme. This, you might think, mitigates against a dodgy question like the one about Sheila.
There are four Assessment Objectives covered in the English Literature qualification:
AO1 – Read, understand and respond to texts:
- Maintain a critical style and develop an informed, personal response.
- Use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations.
AO2 – Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate.
AO3 – Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written.
AO4 – Use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect with accurate spelling and punctuation.
PEE covers some of this, but not all. In the next post in this sequence, I’m going to look at where PEE comes from and pull some responses to literature from people who’ve not been taught such a structured response to see what they do.