Write the Theme Tune, Sing the Theme Tune

Write the Theme Tune

One of my favourite blog posts from last year was The Exam Essay Question and How To Avoid Answering Them from Mark Roberts, in which he proposes six, possibly controversial principles for approaching exam essays.

  • Know which quotations you’ll use before you go into the exam.
  • Know which parts of the quotations you’ll analyse.
  • Know what the content of that analysis will be.
  • Know how to fit that analysis to just about any task.
  • Know how to twist the question to your own ends.
  • Have a full essay ready to reproduce so that your planning time is used fitting this esssay to the question rather than starting from scratch.

“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got”

With the increased level of challenge in the new GCSEs it can sometimes, with some groups, feel as if there is such a volume of knowledge which needs to be retained that getting them to wade through the exam will be a Herculean task. I like the way Mark’s post provides an efficient approach to preparing for a content heavy, terminal, closed book GCSE exam in English Literature. I also couldn’t help but smile at the way the post reflects my own experience of studying for A-Levels in three essay based subjects: English Literature, History and Politics.

We spent most of Year 12 (or Lower Sixth in old money) covering the content for each module. Year 13 (Upper Sixth pre-decimalisation) was largely spent doing timed practice questions. By Christmas, I’d realised there were only so many question topics which were likely to come up and these could be grouped. As long as you’d learnt the right content and developed a strategy for making that content relevant to the questions, then you could score highly in all three subjects. I planned out generic essay outlines which I could manipulate and deliberately practiced crafting these into full responses with as many past paper questions as I could. You reach a point, in doing this, where you are lifting chunks of memorised paragraphs from one essay, tweaking a few words or popping in key words from the question and dropping them into a new essay.

“Now this is the story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.”

Since reading Mark’s post, I’ve been working on a strategy for the AQA English Literature papers – specifically the Shakespeare, 19th Century Novel and Modern Text. First of all, this involved looking closely at the kinds of questions which will come up. Those about Macbeth on the AQA paper will always be based on an extract. In the sample materials, these extracts are, on average, about twenty lines in length. Students will be asked to write about a particular feature of the extract and then link this to other parts of the play. All of the questions I’ve encountered, can be categorised into one of the following groups: character, theme or combination.

Character Questions:

  • Starting with this speech explain how Shakespeare presents Macbeth
  • Starting with this extract explain how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth
  • Starting with this extract explain how Shakespeare presents the witches

Theme Questions:

  • Starting with this soliloquy, explain how Shakespeare presents ambition
  • Starting with this speech explain how Shakespeare presents the supernatural

Combination Questions:

  • Starting with this extract explain how Shakespeare presents the effects of the supernatural on Macbeth
  • Starting with this speech explain how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a powerful woman

It’s also worth noting four aspects of the Level 6 descriptors in the mark scheme.

Students need to use “judicious” quotations. In practice, this means they need to be relevant to the specific point the student is making at that moment in their essay as well as short and embedded in the line of their argument. This will require memorisation as well as practice in using the quotations.

They need to write an “exploratory” response. This means they need to know a range of interpretations of at least some of the quotations they memorise so that they can weave them into their response.

They’re required to craft a “conceptualised” answer, meaning they need to have a clear thread of themes and ideas running through their response. If the question is thematic, this is relatively easy. If the question focuses on a character, it is more challenging. What they need to do in this case, is consider the way Shakespeare uses the character(s) as constructs to impact on our thinking about the themes.

They have to make detailed links between the task, text and context. As a result, they’ll need to have in their memories a range of contextual knowledge which is directly linked to the themes, quotations, and analytical points they’ve revised.

Before I outline what I’ve come up with in terms of a strategy, I have to emphasise that students shouldn’t and can’t get away with this if they don’t have a sound knowledge of the texts (the plot, the characters, the context) already and if they aren’t taught and don’t know how to twist the material to suit the question. If these things have been taught and retained, then I think it could feasibly work.

“What’ll I do when you are far away and skies are blue? What’ll I do?”

So, using Macbeth as an example, I’ll break the strategy down into three stages:

  • Before the exam
  • Planning in the exam
  • Crafting the response

The rest of this post will look at the first two of these stages and the next will look at crafting the response.

“I don’t wanna wait til our lives will be over”

Before the exam:

Having studied the texts, read through various revision guides and looked at the sample papers and other documents produced by the exam board and other teachers, I’ve created four groupings of themes (Fear vs Courage, Ambition vs Acceptance, Superntatural vs Natural order and Truth vs Illusion). Each grouping contains a number of synonyms and antonyms. There is no way I’ve covered all possible themes here, but there are enough to ensure that students could feasibly respond well to questions which are likely to come up in a GCSE exam about Macbeth if they memorise these, as I hope you see when we get onto the planning phase.

In the run up to the examination, to focus students’ revision. I’ve created lists of quotations linked to each of these themed groups. These have then been added to the Quizlet app which students can access. We’ve also printed them off as flashcards in packs. Specific words or phrases have been deliberately removed from the quotations and placed on the reverse of the flashcards so that students, during their revision, are memorising these words and their word classes or phrases and their connected literary terms. Grouping the quotations in this way is intended to support the students in learning them as clusters. Each quotation is linked to a specific character too, in case the task in the exam is character based instead of thematic.

We’ll work with students on modelling how to make use of these quotations in their responses, adding to the flashcards with analysis of the quotations which they can memorise too. The thinking behind this links to this piece by Andy Tharby on teaching interpretations of literature as facts.

“Don’t know about the future, that’s anybody’s guess. Ain’t no good reason for getting all depressed”


Even if they know the text and the extract well and they’ve done plenty of practice questions, students just can’t know what the actual question they’ll be confronted with in the exam will be. Of the fifty minutes we’re encouraging students to use for the Macbeth question, we’re suggesting that about ten to fifteen minutes should be annotating, preparing their thoughts and ideas with planning. I’ve developed the following steps to success for the planning phase, using the KAP acronym I’ve drawn from an unknown origin. Having a strategy is important in terms of keeping a clear head in the exam itself.

Steps to success:

Step 1: KAP The question

  • Find the Key focus of the question.
  • Annotate the extract using the FAST annotation method – jot down the key theme words beside the extract, then find and annotate key quotation in the extract which link both to the key focus of the question and these themes.
  • Plan the four Points you’ll make in your answer.
  1. Each of these should link to the question and could link to one of the FAST themes (Fear, Ambition, Supernatural, Truth or their acronyms).
  2. Remember to think about Shakespeare in all your points so that you stay focused on the writer.
  3. Look to include the aspects of context from each of the FAST sections you choose

Step 2: Decide on the quotations which you’ll use to support your points – at least one from the extract and at least one from the FAST theme lists.

So far, our experience is that the process has led to students producing plans which are much more focused on the question, systematic and likely to lead to a thematic or conceptualised approach to the question. In particular, there are fewer annotations which treat characters as if they are real people. There is a risk here that the FAST approach could reduce the text to just these four themes. The intention is that these open up the gateway to a wider approach to the text, but that pragmatically, two months prior to the exam, students need to focus their attention on a process which will make them most successful.

In the next post, I’ll go through the crafting process we’re using and share a few sample responses. In the meantime, here are:


  1. maryrugman · September 18, 2017

    Quick question: wasn’t there a statement question for Jekyll and Hyde this year?


    • nsmwells · September 19, 2017

      I believe so. I don’t think that it would change my approach much other than to highlight the possibility of one arising again, modelling how to answer and getting students to practice. They need all the same things.

      Liked by 1 person

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