Last week, I looked at what kind of things you might want to discuss when responding to AQA’s English Language GCSE question about structure on Paper 1. Question 3 is a new style of question and it has thrown many people into a state of confusion, most of which has now settled following the first exam series.
To recap, there are several things to remember:
- You can look at a number of structural devices and techniques from zooming in to circular structures, but the main thing we are interested in is “Why THIS, HERE, NOW?”
- You don’t need to refer to complex terminology: there is no hierarchy that says ‘exposition’ is better than ‘development’ or that you need to know words like dénouement to get 7 or 8 marks. It’s what you do with the structural terminology that shows ‘sophisticated and accurate use’
- There are lots of things to avoid. Narrative viewpoint and sentence structures are two of those. They are hard to write about in terms of the arrangement of ideas. Best avoided unless you are absolutely sure about how you can use these to writer about how the ideas are arranged.
- It’s the quality of comment that is the important thing. We want to know what you think about the structure.
The following is a good list of things you MIGHT find, but it is not exhaustive and neither is it compulsory learning.
Some of the aspects you might want to explore are:
- changes from a big focus to a small focus
- narrowing in
- zooming out
- shifts of time
- shifts of topic
- shifts of person
- shifts of place
- sudden introductions or changes
- gradual introductions or changes
- shifts in narrative position
- external actions of characters
- internal thoughts of characters
- shifting point of view
- circular structures
Now, because structure involves dealing with a whole passage, and because I don’t want to reprint whole passages here, I’m going to ask you to refer to this Youtube video to show how I manage a whole text and what I’m looking for. The text is taken from Cambridge IGCSE in that it worked to talk about structure. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good example that loosely fits, even if it’s not from AQA.
The reason why you need to watch the video is because it’s lengthy to discuss how to approach exploring structure and I need to navigate back and forward across the whole text.
You can find a copy of the text here
In the video, I talk you through the broad aspects of the text I could write about. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are the possibilities:
- The mixed feelings of the crowd at the beginning
- How those feelings change first from growing positivity to ‘disarray’ by the end
- Anuja’s growing anger
- How Anuja goes from being the outsider to being the leader of the community group
- How Anuja changes the group’s view
- How Rufus Carmichael goes from being the confident salesman to becoming angry
- Why the writer zooms in on his face when he is angry
- Why the writer switches perspective from Rufus to Anuja several times like watching a tennis match – we switch focus from one side to another
- The focus on the falcon at the end and the insect
- The way the writer finishes on a cliffhanger with the ‘portent’ and possible foreshadowing
- Tracking through the shifting emotions and feelings of the crowd
- Why the writer gives us the details about the ‘cold drinks’ and the ‘glossy plans’
- The turning point, where Anuja wins the crowd back to conserving the common land
- The way the writer reveals Anuja’s internal thoughts vs the external description of Rufus
- The turning point where he loses control of the meeting
- What happens to Rufus at the end
- The metaphorical ‘dark cloud’ on his face and then the mention of the actual storm
- How and why the writer leaves us with a sense that FoodFreight will get their way
So you can see, without referring once to 1st person narrative, tense, sentence structures, sentence length, Freytag or Todorov, I still have plenty to say. The passage you will get will be the same. It will be so rich in structural stuff that you shouldn’t need to rely on spotting features.
Also, if you just take, at its most simple, what ideas, characters and themes we have at the beginning, or what the situation is at the beginning, and how those develop or change, you will have more than enough to say. You seriously won’t be stuck for ideas.
Okay, so you want to know what Level 1 – 4 look like. Remember, the question is marked in 4 levels, not in the 9 grades, which makes my head hurt. The question is worth 8 marks. Just to make it more confusing. There is nothing to say 7 or 8 marks is a grade 9, or that 1 or 2 is a grade 1…. confusing Maths headache!
But you want to know how do you get as many marks as possible.
Level 1 covers 1 or 2 marks.
Level 2 covers 3 or 4 marks.
Level 3 covers 5 or 6 marks.
Level 4 covers 7 or 8 marks.
Like Question 2, you will find the same key words. Simple understanding for Level 1, some understanding for Level 2, clear understanding for Level 3 and perceptive understanding for Level 4.
It’s practically the same markscheme you saw for Q2, except instead of saying textual detail, it say ‘examples’. That means you might refer to a part of the text or you might use a quote, but it doesn’t have to be a quote.
So you want to know what each level looks like and why it gets the mark it does?
At the beginning of the source, the writer focuses our attention on the crowd, as they are introduced in the first sentence. Then there is a shift of focus to Anuja before it moves back to the crowd who are waiting to hear the plans about the town. This structure is interesting as it could make us interested in Anuja because she is in the first part of the text and we may want to see what happens to her in the rest of the passage. The way the writer structures the text makes me interested as a reader and want to read on to find out what happens.
The writer then changes the focus to Rufus Carmichael. This interests the reader as we can link back to the beginning.
The story is written in chronological order which adds a further perspective to the story. The reader is interested as the events continue and it adds a sense of drama.
This is a very good example of what Level 1 answers look like. It has many simple comments (underlined) which could be about practically any text, but they show a simple understanding of structure. The comments are very general. It mentions the main characters and the crowd briefly, but that’s all we get. There are some references to structural features (in orange) which also shows some simple understanding of structure. There are some simple references to parts of the text (non-italicised). It does everything to get a mark of 2.
If you want to move up from Level 1 to Level 2, you have to cut right back on the simple comments like ‘makes you want to read on’, ‘grabs your attention’, ‘make it interesting for the reader’, ‘give a better image for the reader’. You have to cut these right back to zero.
At the beginning of the source, the writer describes the crowd “many eager to hear plans that might bring prosperity to the town. Others wore grim expressions” which gives an overall feeling about how the crowd are feeling interested but also annoyed. This allows the reader to understand the feelings in the room As the source develops the writer changes our focus onto Rufus Carmichael who tells them that the site is an eyesore and that it is no use so they might as well build on it which makes the reader agree with him as it sounds disgusting. After that the writer shows us Anuja getting angry which we don’t understand. At the end of the source the writer introduces a falcon and uses foreshadowing which indicates there is conflict and to possibly show the next actions of Rufus Carmichael.
This is a very good example of a level 2 response. It has some more specific comments on the aspects of structure that it has picked out, although mostly that involves putting it into their own words or explaining briefly how it sounds. It’s picked out some relevant details (in italics) and uses some subject terminology (in orange) that shows the candidate has some understanding of structural features, but they haven’t quite got it yet.
To move up to level 3, the response needs to really address why that specific structural feature is important or interesting to be positioned right there. Why is it important we understand the feelings of the crowd at the beginning? Why is it important that we agree with Rufus Carmichael when he is speaking at that point? Why is it interesting that it finishes with some foreshadowing and the image of the falcon and the insect?
At the beginning of this extract, we are introduced to a scene in which there is a crowd. We are also told about a person named Anuja who has been specifically named, which makes us think that she might be important. We also find out that it is a meeting about a development which might bring money into the town. This is giving us the background information that we need to understand why the meeting is being held. We are told that the crowd have mixed feelings, with some being “eager” and some being “grim”, so we understand the atmosphere. The way that Anuja “scanned” the people makes her seem like a bit of an observer at the beginning, rather than telling us if she is also eager about the plans or if she is unhappy.
As we move to the middle, the mood in the crowd changes and they seem to be more eager and convinced that the development plan is a good idea. The writer only focuses on Rufus and on Anuja whilst he is speaking, and then they say “people squirmed in their seats, turning to their neighbours to exchange excited comments” and we see that instead of feeling angry like Anuja does, they actually feel excited. This is so we understand that Anuja’s views are different from the crowd and we understand why she “could stand it no longer”. Everybody else is being won over and she feels that they are being bribed and taken advantage of, so she has to speak up.
At the end although the meeting breaks up “in disarray” and we feel like Rufus has lost his battle, we get the feeling that it is not over yet. Rufus Carmichael says “We will get our way!” and the writer uses foreshadowing with the image of the falcon, which makes us think that FoodFreight is the falcon who will come and snap up the common land for their depot.
This is a good example of Level 3 for six marks. It clearly understands the sequence and position of ideas. It has a number of clear comments (underlined) about what the position of the ideas makes us think at each point. It also picks out some clear examples and references to the text (in italics) and has some clear understanding of why the writer has chosen to position the ideas where they have.
To move up into Level 4, a more careful selection of structural features will help the candidate be more perceptive. It’s all about the selection. An overview of the whole passage will also help. Writing in more detail about each detail selected (having picked out fewer details) will also help with the ‘detailed’ side of Level 4.
This passage focuses on the changing emotions of a village as they hear a proposal about a new depot that could be built. At first, the crowd are divided between being “eager” and having “grim expressions”, but they are quickly won over by the sales pitch from the FoodFreight representative. After the turning point where Anuja stands up and reminds the villagers of the importance of the plot of land, it is clear that the villagers have won the first battle in what will probably be a war with the company, but there is a sense that the “titanic battle” is far from over.
At the beginning, the writer allows us to see the internal thoughts of the villagers, describing some as “eager”, but the writer also focuses on the external reactions of their faces, with “grim expressions”. For Anuja, who will play the pivotal role in shifting the villagers’ feelings, she is doing nothing other than observing the room and we are unaware of her own feelings about the proposed depot. There is a juxtaposition between the wealth of the representative, who looks “well-fed” and the crowd who are “roughly dressed” and “weather beaten”. We get a sense that they are definitely the underdogs and as we move through the passage, it is clear Anuja thinks they are being taken advantage of and ‘bribed’.
In the middle of the text, we see the mood swing as Carmichael convinces them that the land is a health hazard that is of no use. It’s important that we see this shift towards him. The writer also switches each paragraph from a focus on Carmichael to a focus on Anuja. We see Carmichael’s words (but not his internal thoughts) compared to Anuja’s internal thoughts which give us an idea of how angry she is and how amazed that Carmichael could suggest the place is infested with vermin, not recognising that it is a sanctuary for the falcons. The pivotal moment where she stands up and redirects the crowd shows how easily they were tricked by the sales talk, but also how valuable the land is to them really.
By the end, then, it is clear the villagers have ‘won’ the battle. Carmichael’s final words are menacing, when he says “we will have our way”, and the falcon takes on a different meaning. At first, we saw the falcon as a symbol of the beauty and value of the land, a natural image that reminds us of the beauty of nature, but by the end we remember that it is a predator, not unlike the company, and that it is the natural order of life that predators will pick off ‘insects’, which is perhaps a subtle reference to the fact that the battle will indeed be ‘titanic’ as the “weather-beaten” villagers will have to fight off the slick and ‘glossy’ power of the development company. However, we don’t know if the falcon caught the insect in the final image, as the writer says the falcon “swooped” then “veered away” and we don’t know if the insect lived to see another day. There is a sense of inevitability by the end that the development company will have their way, and the ‘dark clouds’ that pass across Carmichael’s face are picked up with the image of the rain and lightning giving us a sense that the battle is really only beginning.
This is my own response – it took me 12 minutes, so it’s on the long side. You know me well enough by now to know that I have a problem reining in the word count. To be honest, it’s the over-the-top 8 of an English teacher, but I wanted to show you how important it is to have an overview and to pick up on the most interesting details. By tracking through the text and tracing the establishment and development of ideas, you can see how easy it is to comment on structure without relying on sentence forms, sentence lengths, narrative voice or Freytag’s pyramid. Better answers will have embedded quotations, a very carefully selected range of quotations or references, a clear understanding of structural features in general as well as the ability to apply that understanding to the text before them. They will pick up on subtle, less obvious details which show a careful reading. Subject terminology will also be embedded and you will not find a “feature first” approach.
For teachers reading this, I would be working with my students on careful reading of the text. Broad brushstrokes first, then narrowing down to precise details. I would be teaching students how to look at the beginning and the ending, looking at what changes from the start to the end, and why we need to know what we do at the beginning. I’d be teaching how to use those narrow details in embedded sentences. I’d run through four or five extracts in modelled and shared reading sessions in which we’d look at all the toolkit of common structural features and think about why they are used in general before asking how that specifically relates to the text in front of them. For instance, why would a writer generally use a flashback or foreshadowing, why would they use juxtaposition or explain the internal thoughts of a character? Then apply that understanding to the text.
For students, I’d be practising with a range of different texts. Since the exam from AQA is new and it has been a while since there have been fiction passages on the paper, you could always look at Edexcel, OCR or Eduqas fiction papers from other years as a source. You want to practise in a range of ways. Practise giving yourself lots of time, then under timed conditions. The more you do, the better you’ll get at those careful readings.
If I have to summarise:
- Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
- Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
- Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.
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