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:


  1. englishtutoronline4u · December 9, 2017

    Thank you, this is really helpful. It has certainly given me a clearer insight into how the difficult concept of Context can be taught.


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