Advice for answering AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 2

This is the third post in a sequence on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 2. They may be in far more detail than you could ever need or want, but the guidance is helpful for Q2-4 on Paper 1, as well as Question 3 on Paper 2. And English Literature. Useful there, too.

Previously, I looked at an overview of Paper 1 Question 2, commonly called ‘the language question’. In the follow-up post, I looked at the markscheme.

To summarise so far:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullet points in the question.
  • You don’t need to know very complex subject terminology (and I’m going to look more at that today).
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three, or one simple comment to come in at level two, and so on. You don’t need three paragraphs. Or more! This is an 8-mark question that should take a maximum of ten minutes to respond to.
  • The quality of your comments on the effect of language are what decide your level, finding or spotting language features.
  • You need to understand what you’re being assessed on, because if you don’t, you could end up hula hooping instead of designing a fancy costume.

So, today I’m going to explore a bit about subject terminology and that bit of your potential 8 marks on this question.

You can hear me talking a bit about it here too.

Basically, on Q2, you have to use some subject terminology. That can be as general as words, phrases, description, describes, writes about or as precise as epanodos or cataphoric reference.

Let me start by reminding you that there is no order of merit. Your epanodos is no better than your repetition. It is what you do with it that counts. “The writer uses the word…” can be the kind of thing I see in 7-mark responses as much as it is in 1-mark responses, and “the writer uses cataphoric reference…” could be 1 mark, or it could be 7. Yes, it flatters to deceive. It looks fancy. It might trick some people into thinking you have a better understanding of language, but any fool can be taught any one of the 250 terms on Wikipedia’s Figures of Speech page and can find an example of it in the passage if there is one. If you know all of them, when I read your answer, you could be 1 mark or 7, or anywhere in between, until I’ve decided on your comment’s level of quality. Finding fancy features does not mean top marks.

I’m reminded here of my favourite Betsy Byars’ character, Carlie, who says, “even a blind pig can find an acorn every now and again.”

She is very right.

Year 2 students learn to find alliteration. Those are six year olds. Finding alliteration is no more flashy than finding isocola, not really.

As I said, it’s what you do with it that counts.

So how do you make it count?

The first is in NOT taking a feature-spotting approach. I’m going to show you how that looks.

The second is in picking out some interesting bits of the language and writing about that. I’ll look at that next time.

Now, the text that is picked for the exam will be RICH with language features. Sickeningly rich, no doubt. It’s picked out so that every single student in the whole of the UK can find something to write about.

It calls for a different reading approach. I’m going to take a passage from a sample paper, taken from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

I’m going to show you three ways that people annotate over the next two posts (and perhaps more!) that reflect different thinking processes and get different results. Today, I’m going to focus on the approach I call “Feature Spotting”.


here’s the question:

How does the writer use language here to describe the effects of the weather?

And here is the passage:

The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat in a faint attempt to gain shelter from his own shoulders, while the dispirited horses plodded sullenly to his command, too broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked above their heads, while it swung between the numb fingers of the driver.

The wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank into the ruts on the road, and sometimes they flung up the soft spattered mud against the windows, where it mingled with the constant driving rain, and whatever view there might have been of the countryside was hopelessly obscured. 

So I’m going to show you how a feature spotter identifies details – and other approaches in a follow-up post.

Imagine, if you will, the copy you pick up from the exam room from a candidate who feature spots. It looks like this:

What they’ve done is highlight all the features they’ve been taught to look for.

As you can see from this, some of the features have been accurately identified, some have been incorrectly identified and some are dubious or debatable. Some will be helpful in the exam and some won’t be.

What this approach does is encourage you to find the things you’ve been taught in class, a bit like that mnemonic DAFOREST for paper 2. If you can’t find it, you’re reluctant to comment on it. It also drives you into saying things like “the writer has not used any metaphors”.

It leads to answers that look like this:

“The writer has used a present participle verb in the passage when she says ‘shaking’ …”

which is all well and good… but it then leads into this…

“The writer has used a present participle verb in the passage when she says ‘shaking’ which makes it seem like the coach is moving really violently.”

That’s okay. It does make it seem like that, but there’s no real understanding of language, so it’s a 3 or 4 mark comment at best.

Sometimes it leads to this:

“The writer has used a present participle verb in the passage when she says ‘shaking’ which are used to show action”

That’s okay too. It’s very general, so it would have to do a bit of work to get past 2 marks.

But a feature spotting approach also leads to this:

“The writer uses the powerful adverb ‘sullenly’ which shows how the man is feeling about the weather.”

Because I’m limited by the things I can find, even if they are super flashy things, it forces me to comment on quotes that are neither easy to write about nor particularly interesting.

And it might make me say things like:

“The writer uses sibilance in “soft spattering” mud…” which is okay, but so often turns into “The sibilance makes us think of snakes, which makess the mud seem wicked.”

First off, snakes are not the only thing that hisses. Gas hisses when it leaves a pipe. Does it make us think the mud is like gas hissing when it leaves a pipe? No, not really. Cats fighting? Bacon spitting? Water droplets in hot fat? Sibilance sounds like ALL of these, and the mud doesn’t sound like that. Not all hissing is wicked.

Or students might write: “The sibilance makes it sound like the mud hitting the side of the coach.”

Except it doesn’t. Mud doesn’t sound like sssssssssssss. It sounds like blup. Or something. I don’t know. But it doesn’t sound like ssssssssssssssss.

So often, feature-spotting approaches lead to candidates spotting any old thing they can find, and then they are very much constrained by which of the 250 figures of speech they’ve been taught, crammed into a helpful DAFOREST of some variety or other.

So it leads to poor identification of the really interesting bits, and often is inaccurate. Is “shaking” personification for instance? (no). Is ‘creaked’ a past participle? Not in this sense, no. ‘Creaked’ can be, but it isn’t here. It’s the simple past. A.K.A the preterite (you can tell I’ve taught too long abroad, since many French children will tell you about the dreaded English preterite!) Or is it the past continuous? (no) Or is it the perfect past? (yes, but that’s just another name for the preterite and the simple past). Waaaaah. Headache.

That all reminds me of another thing…. sometimes, there are more names for a word than there are words. And they can have subtle differences, be subsets of one another, be exactly the same….

And not any of them show that you actually understand language.

The main problems with this approach are:

  • It leads to candidates thinking there is some unspoken hierarchy of language features – that some asyndetic listing must be worth more than a simile. No such hierarchy exists. Sophisticated can mean “the word” and simple can mean “sibilance”. There is no rank order.
  • It is ripe for misidentification… if I had a penny for every Y11 student who couldn’t tell an adjective from an adverb, I wouldn’t need to work any more, ever again.
  • If we can’t identify simple stuff accurately, how accurate do you think students are when it comes to identifying more complex features? How easy is it to know your past participle from your simple past – and if it is a past participle, has it been used as an adjective? If it is a present participle, is it tacked on a past tense auxiliary to form the past continuous? You see how complex this is?
  • When students start misidentifying language features, I’m afraid I can’t see how that gets past 4 marks – “some understanding of language”. You can’t have a “clear understanding” of language if you say an adjective is an adverb. You just can’t. Those word types do different jobs.
  • It is easy to generalise about all alliteration, or all sibilance (or any other term) as if it always does the same thing. It leads to students divorcing feature from effect and not considering the actual words they have in front of them.
  • When you are happily finding sibilance, alliteration and onomatopoeia, most of those just draw attention to particular words. You need to think “why”, not “what”. Why has the writer used it here, with these words. Or avoid completely. Few and far between, the comments of quality that begin with identification of alliteration, assonance, consonance or sibilance. It’s possible, but it’s rare.
  • It focuses on identification of language features rather than discussion of the best bits of the text.
  • It leads to list-like responses.
  • It can lead to very ineffective comment on language.
  • It tricks students into thinking they have made a really great response.
  • It suggests that the feature is more important than the comment.
  • It suggests that students can KNOW language features rather than practising commenting on effect. Easier to revise, sure, but a bit of a dead end.

Better to think “what great words has the writer used here?” and then think afterwards if you can put a name to it. And if you can’t, write about it anyway and remember that the examiners are looking for great comments, not flashy features.

Now you’ve put feature spotting to the back of your mind, you’ll certainly want to know how you DO get great marks on this question, if writing like this doesn’t work.

For me, the secret is in the quotes you choose and the way you read.

Next time, I’ll look at how to pick out great references that WILL lead to great comments and show you an approach that the best students use to pick out the most juicy and interesting quotes.

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.


Tips for answering AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 2

Last time, I was looking at an overview of Question 2 on Paper 1 of AQA’s GCSE English Language. You can read about the question itself on that article. You can also listen to me chatting about that on Youtube if your eyes are sore but your ears are not.

To summarise, on question 2, you need to remember:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullets
  • You probably shouldn’t use fancy terms (especially if you don’t know the basics) and there is no obligation to use bizarre or over-complex names for language features. In fact, it can really backfire on you if you do
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three, or one simple comment to come in at level two, and so on.
  • The quality of your comments on the effect of language are what decide your level, not your identification of language features

Today, we’re going to look at what you are actually being assessed on, and what that means.

I’m going to start with a little story. It’s about a time I was very bad in class. I was 32 and it was a photography course I was doing. We’d had a change of teacher, and he was a great photographer. He did a lot of weddings, and he also did professional stuff for newspapers and magazines. Rubbish teacher.

We had an assignment that had been set by the exam board. I can’t even remember what it was on. Our previous teacher had been great, although she was only an amateur photographer. She’d always explain what we were doing and show us great examples of things, then we’d go and apply what we’d seen, what we’d practised and she’d give us some guidance as to where we could go and do our own stuff in that style. I never, ever failed to get great marks in her class because she always told us what she was looking for. And she’d have shown us examples.

So why was I badly behaved in class?

Because that guy set us an assignment and I asked him what he was going to be looking for when he marked it.

“Whatever you come up with!” he said.

“I know. But what specifically?”

“Well, a bit of creativity?” he said.

“What does that look like?”

In my head, I’m getting crosser and crosser. I don’t know what creativity looks like to him. I know what it looks like to me. I don’t know what he means by that.

“Well, you’ll use your imagination.”

At that point, I nearly left the class. I don’t have an imagination. I like clear guidelines as to stuff. Like, he could have said. “I want to see you taking an unusual view of a familiar object” or “I want to see if you have mastered dodging and burning in the darkroom,” or “You might want to do some stuff with cross processing.”

Excuse all the geeky tech talk. But if he’d have said those things, it’d have meant something to me. I know what dodging and burning looks like. I can read books and learn how to do it. I can watch Youtube or Vimeo videos. I can ask a friend to show me. I can copy him in the darkroom. I can ask for a demo. I can get help from a friend if I can’t get it right. I can look at what I’ve done and compare it to what other people have done and see if mine is as good, or worse, or better.

In other words, once you tell me what I have to do, I try and do it.

Sometimes I don’t do very well. But at least I can try.

If you say, “Emma, in a week, I am going to test you on the subjunctive form of être in the past perfect,” or any other piece of knowledge or skill, I can learn, practise and refine my performance.

I can’t do that if I don’t know what you are assessing. If I think you’re going to be marking my performance at hula hooping and you’re really marking my costume and my footwork, I’m going to fail.

That is why I am fixated, if not a little obsessed by, markschemes.

I like to know what I am being marked on. What are your criteria? And, more importantly, what does that mean in non-geek-speak, and what does it look like?

Now, back at A level, I had one of my best teachers ever. She would photocopy essays that other students did and show us them. Sure, those essays were from kids in the next year up and were their best work from the best kids. But it raised the bar. All this in the years before peer assessment.

I suspect that’s why so many of us look around and nosey at other people in tests, or check out their homework. We don’t want to copy or cheat, just to see if we’re doing it right.

A very good example from another education field I’m involved in: dog agility and trick training.

Once, we had a printed list of tricks our dogs would have to perform in a ring. One was ‘Peekaboo’. Now, to me, that meant my dog would be on the other side of an object and would hide his head, and so would I, and when I said ‘Peekaboo!’ we would both look at each other. Hard skill. It means teaching a dog to put its paws on an object, then teaching them how to duck their head down and hide under the rim of the object, then teaching them to pop up when I say ‘Peekaboo!’. It took about 2 weeks of training.

Turns out when we got to the ring that ‘Peekaboo!’ meant ‘come through your owner’s legs, sit between them and look up.’ Luckily, those are three behaviours my dog knows separately, so I could train it super-quick. Lucky because otherwise my amazingly overskilled dog would have got an F for a trick that taught him two weeks to learn, and not an A* for a trick that I managed to teach in ten minutes in a carpark. Can you imagine spending two weeks learning to do something and you fail, and everyone else who does a way simpler thing gets an A*?!!

So this is why I am so obsessed with understanding markschemes. I want to know what I am being marked on, because if I don’t, my ‘Peekaboo!’ will get me an F.

Back then to the paper and to the markscheme.

There are four levels. That’s confusing, because we have levels 1 – 9 now. I need you to forget level 9s and level 1s. There is no such thing as a level 9 response. Not really. It doesn’t work like that. So I’m going to talk about the FOUR levels on the markscheme, and the 8 marks that they cover. I don’t even really want to say they’re equivalent to any of the 9-1 levels, because they’re not. You’re going to see a lot of ‘Get a Level 9’ on the internet. I am going to say that too, but technically, it’s untrue and it’s confusing. So I just wanted to make it clear that all I’m talking about are the four levels on the markscheme.

^^^^^^^ This bit.

There are four. They cover 8 marks

Level 1 is worth 1-2 marks

Level 2 is worth 3-4 marks

Level 3 is worth 5-6 marks

Level 4 is worth 7-8 marks

The first and most important thing is that this is not a process of chipping away and getting a level.

By that, I mean you don’t do one paragraph that gets you 1 or 2, and then another that gets you 3 or 4. You don’t have to do 4 paragraphs. You could write 1 paragraph and get 1 mark, or write 1 paragraph and get 7 marks. It depends on the quality of your answer.

Likewise, and this is REALLY important, you could write 10 paragraphs and get 1 mark, or write 10 paragraphs and get 8 marks. Doing more of the same skill doesn’t get you a higher mark. Writing two comments about two quotes may get you 2 marks, and writing seventeen comments about seventeen quotes could still get you  2 marks.

Quality, not quantity.

Let me say that again: quality, not quantity.

So, I’m assuming you don’t want to write seventeen paragraphs that get you two marks, you want to write two paragraphs that get you eight marks?

How do you do that, if writing more isn’t the solution?

First, you need to understand that for Question 2 (and 3!) the quality of your comment is what is important. Really. We’re going to look at the examples on sample materials and so on, but you can use the same quotes and identify the same language features and have a 2 mark answer, or an 8 mark answer.

It is ALL about your comment. The comment is what carries the weight. But we’ll talk about the other bits too. I’m going to do it looking at the comments first, in the vain hope that you’ll understand the comments are the essential bit.

First, there is a thread for each of the three things we’re looking for on Question 2.

There is one on subject terminology. There is one on textual references. There is one on comment on effects of language. We’re starting with that one.

At level 1(1-2 marks) you need to offer simple comment on the effect of language.

At level 2 (3-4 marks) you need to attempt to comment on the effect of language.

At level 3 (5-6 marks) you need to explain clearly the effects of the writer’s choices of language.

At level 4 (7-8 marks) you need to analyse the effects of the writer’s choices of language.

Now, that is all nonsensey teacher-speak exam-board gobbledy-gook. What does that even mean at each level?

That, my lovelies, is a post for another week I’m afraid. Suffice to say, I can tell you very clearly how to know what that means, but it would take more words than you are prepared to read in one go. I can show you very clearly what ‘simple’ is and what ‘analysis’ looks like so that you have a better chance of doing the right ‘Peekaboo!’ on the day and at least you can practise the right thing.

Now, there are two other threads as well. And this is where I think there has been some lack of clarity.

Many teachers, Youtube posters and textbooks written by non-experts have put more of a focus on subject terminology than they should.

That is not what this question is about.

So many people have gone off on the notion that it’s about sophisticated and accurate subject terminology than it is about quality of comment.

That’s a real dead end. It’s meant that some students prioritise flashy, complicated terminology over good comments. Using the subject term ‘metaphor’ for example can get you level 1 or level 4 depending on what you do with it. Likewise, ‘epizeuxis’ can get you a level 1 or a level 4 depending on what you do with it. And ‘homeoteleuton’ can get you a level 1 or a level 4, depending on what you do with it.

We’ll look at some good examples of how subject terminology can be used well or can be used badly in the following posts, as well as what those ‘analytical’ comments look like.

To summarise:

  • There are three things you are being marked on in Question 2: your subject terminology, your use of text references and your comments on the effect of language.
  • The quality of your comment on the effect of language is the most important and most heavily weighted of these three things.
  • The key skill for Question 2 is analysis of language, not identification of figures of speech.
  • You don’t have to do level 1 and 2 to get to level 3. You can make one comment and hit level 3 or even level 4.
  • Nowhere in the markscheme does it say you have to write about everything in the bullet point list of the question (words, phrases, language features etc) and it does not specify which you have to write about. There is no rank order of merit that means identifying adjectives is worth less than identifying metaphors.

In the next post, we’ll look at how to read the text in ways that will help you make a good selection of quotes, pick out the quotes worth getting your teeth into and how to make the best use of your reading and planning.

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.

AQA English GCSE Paper 1 Question 2 advice and guidance

Last week, I looked at some of the ways candidates do well on question 1 of the English Language GCSE, as well as some common errors. Today, it’s the same, but with Question 2.

Question 2 is such a typical English Language question that I’m surprised that students don’t do well on it or don’t know how to handle it. I think there are plenty of ways candidates can move up through the levels, but much depends on a solid understanding of both what is being asked for, and the markscheme itself. In this post, I’m going to look at the question itself along with the markscheme, and next week I’ll look at how to answer.

So, the question itself is out of 8 marks, with these 8 marks being distributed across 4 levels, with Level 1 being weaker responses and Level 4 being the best responses. This is a question that it is absolutely vital that teachers get their head around, because it is marked differently than we are used to.

In the past, we often marked in what I’m going to call ‘a process of attrition’. Most students chipped away at a response and kind of got there as they went on. For instance, you can’t see a ‘range of relevant textual detail’ in one quote. One quote isn’t a range. So we always worked on the notion that there would be some quantity involved in the response. Two was not a range. Three or more is a range.

I suspect this is why many people still think you have to do something three or more times to get the higher bands. But more about that as we go through…

So what do you need to know?

Firstly, the question is 8 marks. That means 10 minutes. I want to say that again so you are clear. Ten minutes. Not twenty. Not thirty. Ten minutes is all you have. You’re given two sides (well, one and a half once you get the questiony bits out of the way) and that is all you need. Unless you have ridiculously large handwriting, you should not need an extra sheet of paper. It beggars belief that some people’s answers for Q2 and 3, both worth 8 marks, are more detailed than their response for Q4, worth 20 marks!

That said, it is not a test of quantity.

But even so… if you’re spending 15 minutes on Q2, 3 and 4, you need to sort your timing out. Seriously. These questions are not the same. They are not equally weighted. And if you are asking for extra paper for Q2 yet you have three empty pages on Q4, that says a little about where you could prioritise.

Now, also, 8 marks is 10% of the paper’s marks. That’s all. But because the language question was historically worth more, many teachers are still teaching it as if it is worth spending 20 minutes on.

That’s the marks out of the way.

Now the question.

The question is assessing your ability to write about how writers use language to influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views.

It’ll go something like this:

Look in detail at this extract from lines X to XX of the source:

[extract reprinted]

How does the writer use language here to [blah blah blah] ?

You could include the writer’s choice of:
words and phrases
language features and techniques
sentence forms

Okay…. so it’s not going to change much. It’s usually going to ask you about a bit that follows from Question 1, and to help you out so you don’t write about the wrong bit, the extract is printed for you. This works really well. Virtually nobody ever writes about the wrong bit of the text.

Where it gets contentious is what follows:

You could include…

Let me say that again…

You COULD include…

Once more with feeling..

You COULD include…

Now, I can’t understand for the life of me why there seems to be a popular bit of urban myth circulating the internet (and in classrooms!) to cross out ‘could’ and write ‘should’. It goes against AQA’s guidance. It goes against the Principal Examiner’s guidance. It goes against what you can feasibly and reasonably do in 10 minutes.

I’m going to say this in big, shouty letters so you get it…


No matter what you are told, no matter where on the dark internet you find that, you don’t have to write about all three things. In fact, it will arguably damage your response if you try to do so.

Seriously… take off a couple of minutes to read and think. Can anyone write three paragraphs of analysis in eight minutes?? That is 2.66 minutes per paragraph!

It also leads to a very harmful ‘feature spotting’ approach. You may not find any interesting sentence forms to talk about. Then what are you going to do? What if you find two really nice language features? Do you have to sacrifice one so you can go and talk about complex sentences?

You’ll see later why a feature spotting approach is not going to get you very far.

So… back to the bullets. Basically, they are there to give you ideas about things you could write about, and that’s pretty broad and vague. Words, phrases, language features, figurative techniques, sentence forms….

Unfortunately, there’s some kind of snobby value system going on in some guidance that implies some techniques are more ‘sophisticated’ than others which has led to some mind-boggling terminology.

Another message I want you to hear loud and clear is that feature spotting is not a valuable approach. And there is no more value in finding some casual stichomythia than there is in finding a really great simile. Don’t know what stichomythia is? Good. It won’t help you get a 9 more than it’ll help you get a 1. There’s no more value in finding some lovely metalepsis than there is in finding a metaphor, and no more value in your polysyndetic coordination than in your personification. We are not language snobs and we’re not awarding grades based on arcane or overly-complex feature spotting. It is not a test of how many weird language features you can find, seriously.

Asyndeton, polysyndeton, synaesthesia, semantic fields, aposiopesis, synathroesmus… will these help you get a better grade?

Not any more than using the word noun, simile, metaphor, adjective or adverb would.

When you go around identifying parts of speech, it’s what I would call an ‘arse-backward’ approach. In other words, when you start with a mental list in your head of figures of speech that you might find, then you go around finding them in the passage, you’re going about things in the wrong order.

Find some interesting uses of language and comment on them, using subject terminology where appropriate to help you.

Knowing fancy terms is not what you’re going to get marks for on this question. Neither is doing it three times.

In fact, this becomes even more essential when simple language classes aren’t identified accurately. If you can’t tell me what type of word ‘horribly’ is, or you don’t know that ‘sickening’ in ‘a sickening smell’ is not a verb, then make sure you know those terms inside out before you start trying to work on the silly stuff.

And do you need the silly stuff? No. I could (and will!) write you a lovely Level 4 example (so a grade 8) without using language features of more than two syllables.

So what do you get marked on?

First and foremost, this is a question testing your ability to explain in writing what you think the effects of language use are. You are getting marked on the way you comment on language.

Your examiner is going to have four choices to make here about your comments:

  • are they simple comments or statements?
  • are you attempting to comment on the effect of the language but not quite there yet?
  • are you clearly commenting on the effect of the language?
  • are you making perceptive and/or analytical comments on the effect of the language?

Now, teachers know this. They have a markscheme. So they prompt you to do the best of these, to make perceptive or analytical comments. But many of my students come to me rattling on about perceptive comments without understanding what that really means. I want to exemplify simple comments, attempted comments, clear comments and perceptive comments next time, as it’s too much to get into in one post (and you’ll go to sleep!) but basically it breaks down like this:

  • Simple comments are restating the text, putting the quote into their own words which mean roughly the same thing. Simple comments may also only be loosely right, or might be generalised (where you could say the same comment about any other use of that language) Simple comments are often restating or repeating the text.
  • Attempted comments are better. They’re about the language in the example you’ve picked out and they’re the ones that make me say, “ok, possibly” when I read it. Or “kind of”.
  • Clear comments are exactly that… they make a plausible statement about what something suggests, what it helps us understand, what it means, what it implies. By plausible, when I ask, “Is this true? Is this right?” I’m going to say, “yes”.
  • Perceptive comments are those I don’t have to ask this question of. They say interesting, plausible things about the examples and make me want to say, “Yes! THAT!”

Basically, every time I look at a comment, I ask myself, “Is this true? Is it right?” and if I say “okay, yes, but it’s just repeating what’s there” or “not really”, or “it’s about every time that device has literally been used in any text”, it’s Level 1. If I say, “ok, kind of”, then it’s Level 2. If I say, “Yes” it’s Level 3 and if I say “Wow!” it’s Level 4.

It can be really hard to know what ‘comments on effects’ look like, which is why I’ll give you lots of examples in the next post.

Once an examiner has decided what level of comments you’re making, then they start looking at your quotations and your subject terminology. Quality of comments first, then subject terminology. In other words, if your comments aren’t clear or perceptive, no amount of fancy features will help you. But if you have one or two clear comments, you can come in at level 3 straightaway in two or three sentences or so. In other words, the better the comment, the better your mark. And you only have to do it ONCE to hit the level. So one clear comment on the effect of language, and you’d be in at 5.

So, to summarise:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullets
  • You probably shouldn’t use fancy terms (especially if you don’t know the basics) and there is no obligation to use bizarre or over-complex names for language features. In fact, it can really backfire on you if you do
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three
  • The quality of your comments on the effect of language are what decide your level, not your identification of language features

With that in mind, next time I’ll look at what the levels look like for question two, as well as giving you some advice on how to move from one to another.

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.



AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 1 advice and guidance

Following on from last week’s post with some thoughts about the new GCSE English paper 1 from AQA (8700), today I’m focusing in on Question 1. You wouldn’t think that this little question would be problematic, but lots of really bright students lose marks on it.

Basically, your marker is starting with the notion that all candidates should be able to get four marks on this question. It’s marked positively and candidates do well on it. Sometimes, it’ll be the only four marks they’ll get on the whole paper. And there’s a good reason it starts like that. Can you imagine any paper that started with a hard question that frightened off the majority of students?! The aim of this question is to get you four marks and set you on your way to the rest of the paper, not to make you all emotional.

So why doesn’t everyone get four marks, and why do better students often get lower marks? This post is designed to help you understand what the examiners are looking for and how you can get those crucial marks.

What do you need to know?

Firstly, you should give yourself about five minutes to do this question. The question is assessing your ability to find facts and information in a passage.

Question 1 asks you to look at one section, usually the first paragraph.

Read again the first part of the source, from lines X to XX.
List four things about [thing] from this part of the source.

Now you can already see where people go wrong. Question 2 is printed in the answer booklet, but Question 1 is not. That means the first hurdle that some students fall at is they don’t find a thing from the right lines.

Also, before the extract is an explanation of where the passage is taken from.

Here’s a slightly-amended example, from a Cambridge CIE 2015 paper with an AQA-style addition to the introduction.

This extract is taken from the middle of a novel by [name of writer] in which villagers meet to hear proposals from a large company wishing to develop a piece of common land.

Already, you can see my problem in creating it for you… CIE didn’t bother adding the writer, the type of text or who wrote it, which AQA do. Not only that, the CIE version is much less informative. So… read the introduction but do not make the mistake of using it in your answer. Lots of students do! You’ll see some examples shortly.

Now, onto the extract. I’ve included the first three paragraphs but the question would only refer to what usually forms the first paragraph. You’ll see why I had to extend my range in the ‘mistakes’ that come later.

The crowd swarmed into the building, many eager to hear plans that might bring prosperity to their town. Others wore grim expressions, aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site. Anuja scanned the people, many roughly dressed and weather-beaten from long hours of working outdoors. None looked well-fed – except the main speaker, the representative of the development company.

‘You know why we are here tonight,’ a leading member of the community began. ‘Food Freight wants to build a depot on our common land next to the river. Mr Carmichael is here to tell us why we should let them.’

The temperature in the room rose as the meeting wore on. Hands were swept across sweaty brows and some removed outer garments. A short break was announced during which people could look at the glossy plans and maps pinned up around the hall, and enjoy cool drinks and delicious-looking snacks thoughtfully provided by Food Freight. Fingers traced the lines of new roads on the maps.

So, a sample question would go like this: 

Read again the first part of the source, from lines 1 to 5.
List four things about the people in the crowd from this part of the source.

And there are plenty of things you could say.

Let’s start with what you don’t need to do.

  1. You don’t need to answer in full sentences
  2. You don’t need to use quote marks
  3. You don’t need to infer meaning

So what can you do (and these are ‘can’s not ‘should’s!)

  1. You can use the words of the question to start your answer off
  2. You can use quote marks
  3. You can quote directly
  4. You can paraphrase or put it into your own words
  5. You can make inferences (but you do not need to)

Here’s a helpful example response:

  1. The crowd “swarmed into the building”
  2. Many of the crowd “were eager to hear plans”
  3. Some of the crowd “wore grim expressions”
  4. Many people in the crowd “were roughly dressed”

Four points. Four marks. No inferences.

  1. The crowd swarmed into the building
  2. Many of the crowd were eager to hear plans
  3. Some of the crowd wore grim expressions
  4. Many people in the crowd were roughly dressed

Still four points. Still four marks. Still no inferences.

  1. They swarmed into the building
  2. Many were eager to hear plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

Still four points. Still four marks. Still no inferences.

Doesn’t seem that hard, does it?

Where it gets hard is where you start doing more than the question needs. Like if you refer to the opening.

  1. They’ve come to hear proposals from a large company.
  2. Many were eager to hear the plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

The first point is from the introduction, so even though it is true, it doesn’t get a mark. Three points from the right bit of the passage. Three marks.

This is also true if you refer to bits after the extract.

  1. The people were sweaty
  2. Many were eager to hear the plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

So even though it’s true, it’s from the wrong bit and it doesn’t get a mark. Three points from the right bit and one from the wrong bit. Three marks.

If you refer to anything other than the crowd, you also will not gain marks. Although Anuja and Rufus Carmichael are there, they are not “villagers in the crowd” as such because one is named and the other is not a villager and not in the crowd.

  1. Mr Carmichael was there to talk about the plan
  2. Many were eager to hear plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

Now, while the aim is to give four marks, there will be SO MUCH in the passage that you could use as your answer that it’s taking liberties if you refer to other bits and the examiner has to sit there thinking about whether that is included or not. So if it’s not about the crowd, don’t expect a mark.

For this reason, I’ve got two tips:

  • put a box around the right bit of the passage and only select your answers from that bit, even if you struggle;
  • start with the words of the question.

Those two things will help you stay on topic, write about the right topic and answer from the right bit.

The other reason candidates go wrong is they try too hard and try to draw inferences rather than just finding quotes. Examiners will have to think about whether your response is ‘fair’ or not.


  1. The people in the crowd were thin
  2. Many people were excited to hear the plans
  3. Some people in the crowd were prepared for the worst
  4. The people in the crowd were interested in the possible benefits of the plans

These are what we call ‘fair inferences’. The people were thin, as it says “none looked well-fed”. Some were “eager” and excited would be a fair inference for eager. Some were “aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site” so you could say they were prepared for the worst – or could you??! – I’ll come back to this. And if they were eager, they were “interested in the possible benefits” – but would this get a mark?

Response three would have me calling someone for a second opinion! Is “prepared for the worst” a fair interpretation of being aware of the fact they are going to need to fight to save the site? Honestly, I don’t know that it is. I think you could justify it to me if you had ten more lines, but you don’t. How I wish you’d written Some of the crowd was aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site !

And response four would also have me wondering, because it’s kind of similar to response two. Are they kind of the same? That’s another reason candidates lose marks, because they refer to the same point.

Waaaaah – examiner headache!

But some students make it even worse by making an inference that’s a bit of a leap. It’s not a fair inference.

  1. Some of the crowd were furious
  2. Many of the crowd were desperate to hear the plans
  3. The crowd were desperate for money
  4. They were poor.

All four of these are a bit of a leap. “Grim expressions” is not the same as furious. Being “eager” is not the same as being “desperate” and even though their clothes are roughly-dressed and “none looked well-fed”, we don’t know it’s because they are poor. We can guess, but it’s a guess rather than something we know for sure.

So on Question 1, a lot of candidates talk themselves out of marks by referring to things that are not in the passage. You can also stay on topic by using full sentences that start with the topic of the question – it’s pretty tough to stray if you do that, I promise you! You can also include quotes and you may drive yourself into a lower mark by trying to make inferences and not getting it quite right.

Remember KISS… Keep It Simple, Students 😉

This is a really simple question and the majority of students gain a quick four marks here, which is often more than the marks they get on Question 2 or Question 3 (which I’ll write about next week and the week after)

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.



AQA GCSE English Paper 1 and Paper 2

Guidelines and summary

In the following series of articles, I’ll be looking at each of the questions on AQA GCSE English papers to look at how students can access the full range of marks, and give examples of what mistakes are commonly made as well as advice as to how to improve the marks through the levels. In taking each question in turn, it should help you get to grips with the demands of the exam.

It’s a bit of a deviation from working through the poetry anthology for GCSE English Literature, but a season of marking does help make things much more clear that were less so before. For students, there is always a tendency to prioritise English Literature, because it is easier to revise. It is easier to learn 10 quotes from each poem, or key quotes on Macbeth than it is to revise ‘description’ for example. Teachers spend longer on English Literature, this blog certainly has, and that is reflected in what students do too. Apologies to all you lovelies who are expecting a continuation of the poetry – but this seemed to be more pertinent!

So how do you prepare for and revise GCSE English?

There are two main approaches: familiarity and practice.

Yesterday, I was coaching a lovely Y6 student for the 11+. At one point, I said something about an approach and she corrected me. “It won’t work like that on this paper,” she said. And she was absolutely right. It wouldn’t have. Luckily she was there to correct me and 11 year olds feel less bound by teacher-student relationships to correct a teacher when it’s needed.

It was actually the best thing she could have said, because not only was she absolutely correct, she clearly knew the exam paper she is going to take, whilst my head is swimming with five different 11+ formats.

That’s what every student needs before going into this exam. Complete and confident understanding of the exam paper.

That comes through extensive practice. This in itself is a little more challenging because it’s a new syllabus and there just isn’t that much out there. Contrast this to the Edexcel IGCSE which I also teach, and you’ve got 8 years of past papers, twice a year. 16 sets of papers to practise on.

It’s also challenging because there is SUCH misinformation out there. Appalling and shameless misinformation from noisy social media experts with busy Youtube channels who do not mark and who have no concept of a markscheme in practice. Misinformation spread among teachers that goes against what AQA and the Chief Examiner for this subject are actually saying.

Ask yourself before you take on this guidance how someone knows how to get a 9 in English.

The answer is that they do not. They cannot know how to, because the grade boundaries are not fixed and are not set in stone. Ask yourself if they know how to get top marks on each question, and ask yourself HOW they know. “Being a teacher” shouldn’t be the answer you are looking for. Having a popular and glitzy Youtube channel isn’t either. I know how you get top marks on each question because I spend my summer marking it and I pay attention to the Chief Examiner. They know, because they set the paper. Sadly, the misinformation about how to get good results on this paper severely hindered some students – misinformation that deliberately and wilfully went against the guidance from AQA, even in Q1!

The truth is that in all change of syllabus, we need to be respectful of the fact that it is new to all of us. I work with markers who have marked papers for 30+ years. I’ve marked for 20 years. It’s new to all of us. I learned a lot this season and I hope that what I learned will help you. All of the material I will link to is directly from AQA and available on the main GCSE English page. I’ll try to respect the usual laws of schools and not use the June 2017 paper until June 2018, as many schools will use this as a mock paper.

What I intend to do over the coming posts is take each question in turn and take it apart so that teachers and students can fully understand what it is they have to do on each question. No misinformation. No red herrings. What I will say will link to the report on the exam from the Chief Examiner and all of it is rooted in practice.

About the papers

There are two papers. Both are worth 80 marks. Both papers have 40 marks for reading and 40 marks for writing. There are five questions on both papers. Both papers are 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

On Paper 1, you will have one comprehension. It is based on a fictional text from the 20th or 21st Century. That is not important in itself, but it is important to remember that it is fictional. As it says in the GCSE syllabus ” It will include extracts from novels and short stories and focus on openings, endings, narrative perspectives and points of view, narrative or descriptive passages, character, atmospheric descriptions and other appropriate narrative and descriptive approaches.

Q1 asks you to find four pieces of information. It is worth 4 marks.

Q2 asks you to write about the writer’s use of language in a short excerpt. It is worth 8 marks.

Q3 asks you to write about the effects of structure in the text. It is also worth 8 marks.

Q4 asks you to construct an argument in support or disagreement with a given statement. You are required to root your interpretation in the text and to express a supported opinion about how the writer has used a range of methods. It is worth 20 marks.

Q5 is a writing question. You are given two choices. It may be descriptive or narrative. In some years, you may find two descriptive questions. In others, you may find two narratives. The question is worth 40 marks. The topic of this is always linked to the themes or ideas in the reading text.

On Paper 2, you will have two non-fiction texts. The first will be either from the 20th or the 21st Century depending on the century from which the Paper 1 text is chosen, as all three texts must cover the 19th, 20th and 21st Century. It’s not massively important to know this, but I thought I’d share how they are selected. Neither is it important to know about the fact the texts are non-fiction except in understanding that this paper is very much about viewpoint.

Choice of genre will include high quality journalism, articles, reports, essays, travel writing, accounts, sketches, letters, diaries, autobiography and biographical passages or other appropriate non-fiction and literary non-fiction forms.

Q1 is a multiple-choice question and asks students to decide which of 8 statements is true. It is worth 4 marks.

Q2 is a comparison of the two passages and asks students to explore the writer’s ideas and compare them across two texts. It will give students the opportunity to compare two texts and to make inferences or explain effects. It is worth 8 marks.

Q3 asks students to explore how language has been used in the second text. It is worth 12 marks.

Q4 is a comparison of the two sources and asks students to look at the attitudes of the writers to the theme that links the two texts, and explore how they present their views. It is worth 16 marks.

Q5 is a writing question that asks students to compose a text in which they give their own views on the theme in the reading question. It is worth 40 marks. On both writing questions, 24 marks are available for content and organisation, and 16 marks are available for technical accuracy.

It is very sensible for students to work out how many minutes to spend on each question. Timing is vital, and many students spend far too long on Q2 and 3 to the detriment of Q4 and 5, which are worth much more. Thus there are 80 marks to be gained in 105 minutes, so timing could be split as follows:

4 mark questions = 5 minutes

8 mark questions = 10 minutes

12 mark questions = 15 minutes

16 mark questions = 20 minutes

20 mark questions = 25 minutes

40 mark questions = 50 minutes

That gives students time to check the paper through and manage the reading. Of course, they will need to read the texts also. How I suggest they do this is that they read the texts in entirety before looking at the questions. Students should know the questions on the reading section anyway, as they do not change. Then they should read the questions, mark off the sections that each question asks about and then re-read more closely with a pencil or highlighter to underline the pertinent information. Finally, they can answer the question. In reality, that means they will probably spend a couple of minutes for each reading question in re-reading and highlighting.

One thing for students and teachers to bear in mind is that 8 mark questions do not need to be more than 2 sections/paragraphs or ideas. It’s frustrating to see that the exam paper clearly says the bullet points COULD provide areas to focus on, only to see huge numbers of students cross out COULD and write SHOULD or MUST. There is NO obligation to write about all three bullet points and, indeed, doing so will impede their progress on other questions which will suffer as a consequence.

Students should not need to ask for extra sheets of paper to complete their responses.

It’s disheartening to see students write almost as much or often more for 8-mark questions than they do for 20-mark questions. Whilst responses are not marked in terms of quantity or length, they have different marks and different numbers of pages to respond in because it is expected they will respond in more detail on higher-mark questions. Similarly on Q5, there is no need to write a response that goes over the number of pages allocated and doing so can be detrimental to the final mark in that writing tends to become sloppier and less succinct or focused. Whilst 1 page would generally be inappropriate to show the detail needed for higher levels, 5 pages are also unnecessary in many cases.

One final remark that I’ll make that goes across all questions is that over-answering is detrimental to students. By this I mean that if you are teaching things on A level syllabuses or undergraduate linguistic analysis, it is unnecessary and does not help students in any way. I’m going to harp on about this because I have no idea why even very capable candidates can’t recognise a simple adverb and thousands write about asyndetic listing instead. Freytag’s Pyramid, Todorov’s narrative sequence, rhetorical devices taken from 1960s Latin textbooks and parsing of sentences that would generally be seen in post-grad linguistics have no place in GCSE English if it means students do not have a firm grasp of the rudiments of language. Focusing in on polysyndetic listing gains no more marks than focusing in on a simile. Referring to Freytag’s Pyramid gains no more marks than referring to a twist or turning point in the narrative. It’s incredibly frustrating to see students attempting valiantly, over and over, to explain the effects of obscure language devices when they are missing out on some quite lovely language elsewhere. I’m going to make this point so many times that you’ll be sick of hearing it. It’s a point worth labouring though.

Once, a Year 11 girl asked her substitute English teacher if she needed to explain how to use litotes and metonymy in her GCSE English Language exam.

“No,” that English teacher replied. “Emma, if I have to go and get a literary devices dictionary out, then it’s going to make me very cross indeed.”

That English teacher was Mrs Ashworth, otherwise known as Sherry Ashworth, the writer. That student was me. I managed to get through GCSE, A level and an undergraduate degree without ever needing to pick out litotes or metonymy.

Another time, a Year 11 student asked, “Is this a simile, Miss?”

“Yes.” she said. “Good stuff.”

“Will I get an A* for that?”

“No, I’m sorry, Luke. You won’t.”

“Will I get a C?”

“Probably not. Can you tell me why the writer used it?”

“Because his English teacher told him that he needed to put more similes in?”

That teacher was me, and my student was Luke, who could spot a simile at 50 paces.

Substitute simile for “agentless passive” or any other overly complex term and what you have got are students who can feature spot.

I’ve been saying it for years… divorcing the ability to spot features from the ability to comment on what they tell us is pointless. It doesn’t take much to make a nice comment. I’ll refer you to an example from the long-defunct KS3 paper. The text was one from Treasure Island, where Jim and Long John Silver approach some buried treasure.

What does the writer suggest when he says Long John Silver’s “nostrils stood out and quivered”?

“It means he was like a human gold detector.” one response read. In that brief response, it was quite clear that the student had absolutely got it. That’s what we are looking for – students who absolutely understand what the writer is saying and who can appreciate the effect, not that they can parse sentences and identify arcane language or structural features. Teachers who commit to chasing language features at the expense of focusing on effect are prioritising techniques that will not benefit their students.

Please, please feel free to comment, question and enter into a dialogue about this. I fear that it may take several years for the message to get through when there is so much out there that encourages students to chase this feature-spotting red herring. I do not want to suggest that students shouldn’t be able to identify language parts, or that learning correct terminology is unhelpful, only that this should not come at the expense of inaccurate identification of the basics, nor should it come at the expense of understanding or appreciation.

In the next post, I’ll be focusing in on Paper 1 Question 1 and looking at ways students get all four marks, as well as those who don’t.



An analysis of the context, form and structure of Poppies by Jane Weir

This poem looks at a female perspective on conflict, and as such, it offers us our first female voice in the ‘Power and Conflict’ section of AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology. We see conflict from a mother’s perspective, a position that is both objective, looking on, and subjectively involved. The poet takes on the persona of a mother -it is not important whether she’s writing in character, or writing about her own experiences. It seems ostensibly about a child leaving for school, not a soldier leaving to fight, with the “yellow bias” on the “blazer” which gives it more in common with Cecil Day Lewis’s poem Walking Away in the ‘Love and Relationships’ section of the anthology. She says she deliberately left out any specific war: “after all, there are lots of wars”, which makes it relevant to whichever war – all wars – and she says she was deliberately thinking about mothers, including Susan Owen, Wilfred Owen’s mother. It shows you don’t have to be directly involved in conflict for it to affect you. 

So, when considering the form… When I think about the form of the poem, I think about the following:


How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

So, Poppies… what do we notice this form? What effects might it have on the reader? 

The poem is written in a very natural way. It’s almost like the line breaks are artificial and just there to make it look like a poem. If you remove the line breaks, it’s very hard to know where they would go, and it works well as a piece of prose. In those ways, it just slices the text up to make it look like a poem, without it having much by way of purposeful effect. It makes use of caesura and enjambment, but not for any particularly dramatic effect like Seamus Heaney or Simon Armitage do. It does beg the question about why she does this. For instance, why this: 

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves. Before you left,
I pinned one onto your lapel…

And not this:

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves.
Before you left, I pinned one onto your lapel…

When you aren’t governed by where you put the words, why leave that “Before you left” dangling at the end of the line, hanging after the caesura?

For me, I think there are several effects worth considering. The first is that it makes the form seem almost redundant and accidental, like it doesn’t matter. That’s fine, of course. The form can be just a blank plate to serve words up on, and in the same ways as I discussed in the form of Remains, it could just be a meaningless form on which to serve ideas.

But I don’t think so.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

But this is not “neat” book justification, just poor computer justification. The typesetter will take much more care than I have over the space between words and making sure the space is exactly even without huge gaps between the words. Poppies seems it’s been arranged by a sloppy typesetter, or a computer algorithm, careless and unartistic. Functional.

In other ways, it could be much more purposeful – when you don’t stick to the ‘natural’ line breaks and you split sentences, use plenty of enjambment and caesura, you end up with something that is quite fragmented and disjointed, with unnatural pauses and hesitations in places you wouldn’t normally find them. For me, this causes the poem to ‘catch’ in strange places, like our breath catches and our sentences jar when we are upset and trying not to show it. We have that little ‘catch’ in a mother’s breath when she says, “Before you left,” where the line break adds weight to that comma pause. If you agree with me about this being the effect, it certainly does seem to catch and jar there.

She breaks down a noun phrase too in the first stanza, “disrupting a blockade/of yellow bias” – when you disrupt a noun phrase with a line break and you’ve even got the word “disrupting” in there, the enjambment and caesura seem much more purposeful.

Again, we have the catch and jar in her voice in stanza two, with the “shirt’s/upturned collar” and how she “steeled the softening/of [her] face” which I think seems to support the notion that the fragmenting, enjambment and caesura are indeed purposeful rather than just being sloppy about what words go where. She is a woman hardening herself so as not to give her emotions away, and the disjointed nature of some of those details makes it seem very much as if she has to stop a second to “steel” herself and gain control over her emotions.

Stanza two runs into stanza three, just like her words…

All my words
flattened, rolled, turned into felt,

slowly melting.

Here the lines do exactly what the words do, slowly melt into one another, adding to that kind of jumbled, formless effect, drifting from line to line before regaining a little compsure. Weir uses the final words at the end of those first lines in stanza three to add emphasis, to leave them hanging a moment for you to think about.

We land on “threw” which becomes so much more dynamic as a result of that line break pause that follows on the page. We do the same with “overflowing” and “a split second”. When we get to line five in that stanza with the full stop at the end, the word “intoxicated” is given so much more emphasis because of it. These are things I’ll discuss and consider further when thinking about the language of the poem.

By the time we get to the run-on lines of the final lines in stanza three, the words drift once more over the lines, just like the bird and the stitching. There’s a freedom and fluidity there which is not constrained by the line breaks or the sense of the lines. The rhyme of “tree… me… busy” also helps these lines speed up and run on into the next, picking up pace. They’re easier to read and more fluid.

The form in the last stanza is more assured. There are fewer unnatural breaks – sometimes verbs split from their object in “traced/the inscriptions” and “hoping to hear/your playground voice” (okay, split from its second object in that, since “to hear” is the first object) but it feels less disjointed than the earlier stanzas, like the poet has found her words and is no longer hesitating over them.

When we think about the stanza breaks, we are also asked to contemplate the structure and organisation of the poem, as well as the voice, tense and tone.

When I think about structure, I think about the following:

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

We have four ‘paragraphs’ rather than stanzas, per se. Much of the reasoning behind these seems to fall into the domain of structure and organisation, since they seem to have rough ‘topics’ or ideas. The first is about Poppies in themselves. The second is about the mother’s attempts to care for her child and her final reflections before her child leaves. I’ll refer to the child as ‘he’ by the way, only because there is no real indication of whether it is a boy or a girl, only, perhaps the ‘gelled blackthorns’ of the hair, although girls can of course have a short haircut and wear gel. It could be a male or a female child, of course. I shan’t comment on my own innate sexism that the child ‘must be’ a boy since the poem is about conflict and seems to be set with a backdrop of war.

The poem opens with a mother who is reminiscing about a moment when she pinned a poppy to her child’s lapel, and it ends with an impromptu visit to the war memorial where the mother comes into the present moment. It is all written in the past tense, making it more reflective than a present-tense moment: it is a narrated account of internal conflict, of a mother caring for her child, setting them free and then the anxiety and worry that plague her having done so, as she tries to catch a last remnant of her child in the playground.

The first person narration is ambiguous. We do not know whether it is Jane Weir herself or a persona that she has adopted. It could well be some other mother, or it could be her. The first person narration allows us to see her internal conflict more clearly than an external viewpoint would have done: we get to see the inner workings of her thoughts.

In the next post, I will explore the way Jane Weir uses language and imagery in Poppies to create a moment of tension and conflict.

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An Analysis of the language and imagery in Remains by Simon Armitage

In the last post, I looked at the context, form and structure in Simon Armitage’s poem Remains which is in AQA’s GCSE English Literature ‘Power and Conflict’ Anthology. I’ll pick up on some of those features once again as we look at language and imagery, as language is not divorced from form and structure, but the two work together.

I’ve already explored the start of the poem with the words, “On another occasion,” which acts as a sort of unmentioned exophoric reference to other ‘occasions’ that the persona in the poem has spoken or written about. It sounds like oral history, as I also said before, and it acts as a sort of marker that makes it clear that the events that happen in the poem are part of a series or sequence, or that they are nothing out of the ordinary. It just sounds like he is about to tell us some very matter-of-fact, routine, mundane, everyday sort of event. What comes is very much a surprise following this very conversational and banal phrase. It’s a very ordinary, unsurprising opening. It very much is in keeping with that four-line regular, humdrum verse and the unrhymed blank verse. Conversational and ordinary.

I’ve also already talked about the use of the present tense, which also gives it a conversational feel, but also makes it feel very much as if the persona is reliving the event as much as he is retelling it. It is very much the here-and-now for him. Sometimes the present tense is just a way we talk: it’s just a feature of spontaneous spoken English when we’re narrating a story – a way that we make it vivid. “I see this guy walking towards me and I’m all ‘come on, then!’ and just thinking ‘bring it on, mate. Bring it on!'” So that could be one thing Armitage is doing – making it sound like spontaneous spoken English.

Another thing he could be doing is using it to show how, for the soldier, the event is very much ‘now’ – the effect of which is to show how real and current this event is for the soldier, something that he is reliving and something he is unable to move on from. This very much fits with the notion of post-traumatic stress, that the person suffering from it feels like they can’t put the event behind them and move on from it: they are constantly reliving it.

Another way we could look at that present tense is that it makes this soldier, and this event, something that is current – an event that will never date. There will always be incidents like this in some war zone of some country or other. It makes it now. Wilfred Owen does the same thing in Exposure.

Again, no reason it can’t be doing all three things.

It has a very simple colloquial register to it as well, with the “sent out” and “tackle”. It’s a passive construction of a sort. They are “sent”. We have no idea who is sending them or why. This helps us understand that, like the soldiers in Owen’s poem and the soldiers in The Charging of the Light Brigade, they are not really clear on the reasons why. Theirs is not to reason why, indeed. We also have the plural inclusive “we” which could refer to a large number or a small number. We don’t know who this “we” is. Couple that with the present tense and you’ve got a similar voice and tense to Exposure that generalises it, makes it apply to all soldiers, any soldier, and to all wars, any war.

The word “tackle” is kind of innocuous. It’s reminiscent of a football match. Again, it’s colloquial. It sounds as if dealing with the looting should be easy: an everyday occurrence for the soldiers. Looting in itself is also a kind of petty euphemism. Looting means to steal, particularly during a war or riot. In the past, armies who’d laid siege to a city would loot and pillage, not that I am okay with that kind of practice; it implies opportunistic thievery rather than something downright criminal. Not to underplay it, but they aren’t cutting the heads off babies if they’re looting.

There are plenty of other more colloquial terms in the poem, and we catch one in the next line as well, the looter “legs it”. The verse ends with a contemplation as to whether he is armed, “probably armed, possibly not.” The parallel construction shows the weighing up the soldiers have to do in the instant. You’ve also got an interesting thing with the rhythm here: “POSS-i/bly ARMED,/ PROBab/ly NOT.” where we have a trochee followed by an iamb, repeated twice. It gives it a strong rhythm that seems to give it a bit of speed – not unlike the rhythm in The Charge of the Light Brigade. I think it seems to speed the verse up, both towards the inevitable “remains” and also at that moment, emphasising the spur-of-the-moment choices they have to make.

As we move into verse two, we have the “well” which is so indicative of colloquial spontaneous spoken English, adding to that effect that this is an oral history. Some of the details have become blurred; he can’t remember who he was with. Still, we have that strong rhythmic momentum, “and SOMEbody else and SOMEbody else” which drives us on and shows the confusion of the moment. The enjambment also runs the line on, increasing momentum, as does the lack of punctuation. We speed on through the three lines to the “open fire”, which comes as a complete shock – the “are of the same mind” has kind of foxed us, because we had no idea what they were up to.

There’s a real emphasis on three here, “me and somebody else and somebody else”, “all three of us open fire,” and “three of a kind all letting fly”.  I don’t know why this is. I can tell you the symbolism of three in itself, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the importance of this number as a religious digit, but that doesn’t seem to sit with me. I really have no explanation at all why this number is so important to him.

This second verse runs on into the next courtesy of the enjambed line leaving the “and I swear” hanging there, wondering what it is he is about to swear. The moment goes into slow motion as he recounts every single detail, the bullets. There’s a bizarre turn of phrase with “rips through his life”, which I could only really find references for that relate to this poem… it’s not a usual expression by any stretch of the imagination. The alliteration on the r in “round” and “rips” also echoes the sound of the machine gun fire. The dash at the end of the line carries us on into the next, the emphasis on “I see” which is now repeated a second time, focusing us on the fact that the unnamed persona in the poem is reliving this, moment by moment, but in some kind of glorious technicolour movie style – he couldn’t possibly have seen every bullet rip through the looter, and where he may have seen it rip through the looter’s body, he uses the metaphorical “life” instead. It’s not just a body to the soldier. You can’t see a bullet rip through an abstraction, like ‘life’ unless you are using it as a synonym for the body. The colloquial “broad daylight” is also part of this slow-motion scene – it’s clearly not possible to see broad daylight in the wake of a bullet, but the event has become hyper-real to the soldier and he is filling in the gaps.

The “sort of inside out” is again very spoken in style. Not poetic. Not imaginative. Not clever use of adjectives or metaphor, simile or alliteration. Just “sort of inside out”, an approximation. He lacks the words to describe how the looter looks after the bullets have torn through him. I’d say it’s a metaphor, but it’s not, is it? He probably had got more of him outside than in.

But then that struggle to voice what the dead looter looks like intensifies as we move on into the next verse. The line and verse break let us pause before moving on into the second attempt by the soldier to describe the body: “pain itself”. I’m struggling to pinpoint the exact language feature here, except to say that it is an almost reverse personification. One abstract idea becomes real in that dead – or dying – body. The same thing happens with the third detail, the “image of agony”. A tripartite image.

Now it becomes difficult to avoid talking about the threes in this poem. I still don’t know what it means though. I don’t in all sincerity think the three images here have much to do with the repeated three of the soldiers who opened fire. I think, in some ways, it has a lot to do with an avant-garde art movement of the early Twentieth Century: Cubism.

Cubism is an art movement that tried to capture the three dimensions of a thing. You find it in Literature too, in some of the works from this period. This is how Wikipedia defines Cubism: “In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form” – which is exactly what happens in this image. It is analysed, “sort of inside out”, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form: “pain itself, the image of agony”. The point of it is that it gives the object being described a more ‘real’ substance, allowing the writer (or painter) to present something in all of what it means to them at one captured moment of time. Writers would do this by using repetition and repeated phrases… kind of what Armitage is doing here. If you want to see this at work in a head-spinning kind of way, Gertrude Stein’s poem, “A Completed Portrait of Picasso” will show you. But other poets picked up on the repetition and the use of multiple perspectives.

Perhaps then, it’s one attempt to describe the body by each one of the soldiers who were involved in the shooting?

Who knows?

What we can definitely say is that the tripartite image allows the persona narrator to really try to fix on what the body looked like, to recreate the image in our mind. It also shows how he’s dwelling on that image, yet he can’t find a way to describe it in ways that please him, which is why he perhaps has three attempts at doing so. Or, it’s his attempt to make it clear to us: we often repeat ourselves when we worry that we will not be understood.

Then the poem slips out of that moment again, “One of my mates goes by”, and the scene comes to life again. There’s a carelessness to the way he “tosses” the “guts back into his body” and he’s “carted off in the back of a lorry”, which is evocative of other things by Wilfred Owen… the image in Dulce et Decorum Est where they “flung” the body of a soldier who had suffered a chemical gas attack into the back of a “wagon”. For me, it’s another of those “everyday” details that makes this seem like a run-of-the-mill event, as if it’s something that happened all the time. It’s not exactly disrespectful, just ‘hurried’, but in that the soldiers in both poems have no time to stop and reflect on the death they have just witnessed, it reminds us of the internal psychological conflict that many soldiers must go through in such circumstances. As Armitage says, “End of story. Except not really.”

For Armitage, the physical and the psychological, the past and the present all merge. It’s the “End of Story” physically… the body has been removed. But it hasn’t, “not really”, since the remains of the looter’s blood stay “on the street”, that “blood shadow”. Physically, it’s not exactly the end of the story for the body. Nor is the body leaving the end of the psychological effects for the soldier. That “blood shadow” is indelibly fixed in his psyche – it’s etched in his mind. He has no way to escape it. It’s not the end of the story psychologically. The past – the death, the killing – stick in the present with that “blood shadow” which reminds the man constantly of what happened, of “the image of agony”.

When the narrator says he has to “walk over it week after week”, we know that it isn’t just the shadow that he’s talking about, but the memory too. He is reliving that week after week. There’s a change of pace towards the end of this verse as the pace becomes more disjointed and choppy. “Then I’m home on leave” is entirely onomatopoeic, curt, brief. A change of scene. I’m imagining he thought that the blood shadow would disappear for good. That caesura followed by “But I blink”, which dangles at the end of the verse and the line, not unlike the technique Owen uses in Exposure. We don’t know what’s coming left. We’re left hanging, waiting for an answer. The connective, “but” sets up a change of direction. We’re guessing that home on leave is a good thing, but the change of direction in this word is as unexpected for us as it probably is for the narrator. Blinking seems such a natural, simple thing. In that blink, we are left, waiting. The enjambment runs us into the next verse hastily for an answer. When the narrator blinks, he sees the incident all over again. He doesn’t just see it. He relives it. It is present tense, at that moment, as real in his imagination as it was in real life. Look at all of those plosive B sounds as well. “But I blink… bursts… bank”

We’ve got other plosive sounds in there as well that makes this particularly abrupt, the K at the end of “blink” and the d in “door”. Those hard sounds add to the intensely monosyllabic line and bring that flashback to life for us just as it comes to life as the narrator blinks. It’s frightening because blinking is such a frequent and natural occurrence. You don’t even have to think about doing it. Also, you can’t stop yourself blinking. So we now that the writer cannot escape the flashbacks that can appear in the flash of an eye.

We have a second time that the flashbacks appear. He can’t even escape when he is asleep. “Sleep”, and we’ve got the repetition of “probably armed, possibly not” (ah, see…. it’s more like Gertrude Stein with her Picasso poem picking up on those repeated images… in fact, it’s at this point that I want to make a little aside to say that I found this poem quite simplistic to start, and seeing these avant-garde Cubist writerly techniques is giving me a new respect for something that felt a bit ‘churned out’, especially in recycling Owen’s body-flinging and tortured reliving of battle…) This repetition is powerful, looping back in. He can’t escape those memories and they haunt him in the exact same way, the exact same loop as happened at the time. He isn’t just remembering, he is reliving it in the present tense. Sleep too reminds me of Macbeth and his tortured “Macbeth shall sleep no more!” speech. “The balm of hurt minds,” Shakespeare called it. Certainly the narrator’s mind is in need of some balm or healing.

“Dream” follows the same pattern, and there’s that three again. “Blink. Sleep. Dream.” This time, it’s a loose rephrasing. “He’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.”

The final line of this verse really conveys that tortured mind so very well. “The drink and the drugs won’t flush him out”. We see what the narrator has been doing to escape this moment, to stop reliving it. It’s woefully inadequate, of course, self-medication. But it is a metaphor that is not a metaphor for the narrator. It feels like the memory is an enemy soldier inside his brain, sitting it out and attacking at random, or even when the narrator is most vulnerable. Of course, he is not physically inside the narrator’s head – it’s just a memory. But it feels real to the narrator, and that’s what’s important. Again, it’s monosyllabic which makes it more simple, more curt, more direct. It also relies on the rhythm of the repeated “dr” sound in “the DRINK and the DRUGS” as well as the stresses which fall on these words. It mixes in the loosely war-time/hunting metaphor about being “flushed out”. I imagine that war-time use of this word came from the hunting term, but it’s hard to know for sure. Simply put, if your enemy has “gone to ground”, is hidden or camouflaged, like a pheasant in the hedgerows, “flushing him out” is one way to get him to appear so that you can kill him.

But “flushing out” has another meaning as well, particularly one associated with liquids. We flush the toilet to “flush out” our waste. You can flush out your eyes if you get a foreign object in there. Detox people will tell you about flushing out your kidneys… it just means using water or liquid to clean something by flooding it and using water to dislodge it. You can see how this works on two levels with the alcohol. He’s using drink to try and dislodge the memory of the event, just as he is with the (non-liquid) drugs.

Particularly evocative word choices there.

As we move into the penultimate stanza, he carries on the image of the looter who has almost taken root in the soldier’s mind, “dug in behind enemy lines”. This works as a metaphor, the enemy lines being the soldier’s mind. A soldier who has “dug in” has dug a trench and is preparing to attack. It feels here as if the soldier is literally under siege from the enemy memory within his own head. It contrasts also with the ease of killing the escaping looter in the street, since this memory is proving much more difficult to eliminate than the looter was in real life.

We follow the same, terse, curt monosyllabic patterns following the enjambed dash between the two stanzas, “he’s here in my head”, where the “h” is a breathy alliteration that perhaps evokes (bear with me on this… It’s a bit of a stretch in terms of an effect, and it’s highly speculative! I wouldn’t want anyone taking it as read that these meanings are why Armitage is using the alliteration here!) the panicked breathing of the soldier (try three sharp “huh – huh – huh” breaths) or even the airy, intangible nature of the looter. I would very much doubt Armitage thought “I am deliberately going to stick in three ‘h’s in a row to make it sound like panicked breathing!” but I think it’s a nice effect nonetheless. It does sound to me like panicked breathing – a little. But the other sounds detract from that of course. You could almost say it sounds like a whisper. That works as well as an explanation of the effect of the alliteration there. Of course the soldier would be whispering if he didn’t want to alert the image in his mind. If that’s the effect you’re going for, there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t say that whispery sound evokes his paranoid state of mind. It certainly could. And there’s no reason at all why it can’t be doing both.

The stanza begins almost to rhyme as well, from “eyes” to “lines”, then a true rhyme in “land” and “sand” – then “hands” in the final couplet. I don’t know why it does that. Armitage does rhyme superbly – he uses it to eerie effect and to emphasise lines in many of his poems. I can’t say with any certainty what I think Armitage’s purpose is in doing so here. It feels to me like he’s using the rhyme to speed us to a final conclusion. It moves from colloquial to poetic, like he’s polished these words in his mind. Armitage likes patterns and plays around with them – it’s something I leave with you to consider, mainly because I don’t have any answers myself. For me, it certainly seems to drive on towards a desperate conclusion and that final line about how it is to take a life. I spent a lot of time on Google this morning looking at a variety of comments on Armitage’s rhyme across his poems (and even an article in The Guardian by Armitage where he seems to revel in the joys of the Arctic Monkeys’ internal rhyme) – there are lots of people, intelligent people, and guide books etc who point out that Armitage likes rhyme, perfect rhyme, internal rhyme and all other facets of rhyme, and not any of them talk about the effect. For me, it’s often pleasure or discomfort where Armitage uses rhyme. I think he uses it like a highlighter in his poetry to draw attention to emotion. But the jury is out and you are very welcome to give me your explanation of the effect of that building climactic perfect rhyme.

Another thing that seems to show a pondering of ideas, a climactic (cubist?!) build-up is the “distant, sun-stunned, sand-smothered land” where you can’t ignore the alliteration on the ‘s’ either…. the ending with its rhyme and alliteration is much more polished than the colloquial opening. The tone changes from the colloquial to the poetically rich. For me, it shows a polishing of those words, a deliberation on them.

We move in the final couplet to the alliterative “near to the knuckle”, which shows that neither time nor space can put distance between the narrator and the incident with the looter. It finishes with the very metaphoric “his bloody life in my bloody hands” which also plays on the rhythms there… “his BLOODy LIFE in my BLOODy HANDS”

We use this clichéd metaphor regularly… “my life is in your hands”. It usually means that we are responsible for whether someone lives or dies – or metaphorically – that we owe them a debt, we’re relying on them – not that our lives really depend on them. It’s a phrase that is at least a good couple of hundred years old, and Armitage uses it to show the narrator feels that he was (or is) responsible for the man’s life. But since we know that the looter died, we understand how profoundly guilty the soldier feels for having taken the life of the looter. It brings to mind the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, how she feels unable to wash away the spot of blood on her hands, how it tortures her, destroys her sleep and her peace of mind. It leaves us in no doubt that the narrator will forever be tortured by the death of the looter.

Next time, on through the anthology with Jane Weir’s Poppies

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.