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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.