Preparing GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

For many English Literature exams at GCSE, there’s a requirement to respond to unseen poetry. Most students do really well on this, and examiner reports say the responses are fresh and interesting. Nevertheless, it does instill a great deal of fear in the hearts of many candidates and the following four posts are designed to help you get your head around some of the most challenging poems ever written in order to help you revise and prepare for the unseen poetry questions.

There are three main things you’ll need to look at when responding to poetry: form, structure and language.

Most of you are fine with the language bit. You can spot similes at fifty paces; you know how to write about metaphors, and pathetic fallacy doesn’t phase you.

But many students really struggle when it comes to writing about form and structure. So the following posts are designed to look at three poems that will really develop your response to these two aspects of poetry.

Let’s define our terms first, though, so that we know what we’re dealing with.

Form

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?

When I approach a poem, I start first by identification of what’s there. Sometimes, if I don’t know where to start, I identify everything I can see.

When I’ve identified and can describe what the poet is doing with the form of the poem, then I start narrowing down. What’s unusual? What’s interesting? What links with the ideas in the poem? What supports the ideas in the poem?

Because I might be able to say 200 things about the form of the poem, but I can’t write 200 things in one paragraph in a short exam essay. Maximum, I’m looking for is a single paragraph on aspects of form and how they link to the ideas in the poem.

One thing we have to do, though, is step away from comments about how the poem LOOKS LIKE something. Really. Time to put those comments behind us.

Please don’t tell me the poem looks like blah blah thing in the poem.

I don’t know why students do this.

Ok, I kind of do. There’s a branch of poetry called ‘Concrete Poetry’, also known as ‘shape poetry’ or ‘pattern poetry’ where the poets wrote in shapes that reflected the content.

George Herbert’s The Altar is an example of this. Another of his poems, Easter Wings,  also does this:

It would be, then, perfectly reasonable to say you need to turn this poem on its side and then it looks like a pair of wings. I’m guessing angel wings on account of the fact that a)I’ve never seen an angel so I don’t know and b) they look like butterfly wings to me, but the poem isn’t really about butterflies.

But… BUT….

There are so few poems like this in the English language that you shouldn’t have to resort to comments like ‘If you turn the poem on its side, it looks like…’

And if you come across a poem that IS a Concrete poem, you’ll probably know.

Don’t be tempted to say anything about turning poems on their side or what the poem looks like. I hate this and most of the time it’s not at all what you say it is – your comment could be applied to thousands of other poems that look the same as the one you’ve got.

Pattern poems absolutely exist. Mostly, you’ll know that’s what you’ve got.

Do you see?

You’ll generally know without having to puzzle over it. I promise.

So now I’ve said ‘Don’t say the poems look like…’ where does that leave you? What can you say?

To start, we’re going to have a look at one of my favourite weird poems and think about form. I’m going to tell you what I see – all of it – and describe the form. Then I’m going to narrow down and think about what’s useful. Then I’ll think about what relates to the content and what I want to put in my single paragraph about the big idea.

And I’m starting with one that will REALLY make you think.

It gets worse, I must admit, but by the time you’ve read and thought about these poems in this series, you’ll be so happy to write about form that you’ll realise that you can do anything once you’ve tackled the meaningless and the complicated. The poems you’ll get in the exam will never, ever be this hard. So if you can happily write about the form in the poems that are coming up, nothing will ever be that difficult in the exam.

So let’s have a look at our first unseen poem: Ezra Pound’s brief “On a Station in the Metro” written in 1907

Yes, this is all of it.

Yes, it’s a poem. Well, at least those who know more than I do say it is. You might want to use this as a starting point to consider what makes ‘a poem’ – what the things we need to make a poem?

For me, I’m going to say: it’s not a play. It doesn’t have characters. That said, some plays are composed in poetry, like the early plays. It’s also not narrative.

In fact, it’s form that makes this a poem at all. Form is the very thing that makes something ‘not prose’. Cutting things up and putting them on the lines you want them to go on is the very essence of poetry. But you can have some very interesting discussions about ‘what is a poem?’ using this as a staple. It makes for some very interesting discussion.

So, let’s look at that form and I’ll tell you all the things I can see. You may see more, and that’s great – leave me your thoughts in the comments if you like.

Just a reminder… this is what I’m asking myself:

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.

Eighteen interesting things about the form:

  1. It’s a couplet.
  2. There are two lines.
  3. One line is longer than the other.
  4. The second line is shorter.
  5. There’s a title.
  6. The title tells us where it takes place.
  7. The first line has 12 syllables.
  8. The second line has 7 syllables.
  9. It reminds me a bit of a haiku (will come back to that later)
  10. There’s something rhythmic about the last words.
  11. ‘Crowd’ and ‘Bough’ have a ‘ow’ sound. Not rhyme, but assonance.
  12. Both lines contain an entire phrase.
  13. Neither idea or line has a verb.
  14. It’s a bit like a short list of two timeless things without those verbs.
  15. I really, really, really want to talk about that semi-colon.
  16. The semi-colon turns these into two linked ideas.
  17. It’s a pivot, a mirror, a turning point, a volta (that’s structure, I know).
  18. If you take the poem’s title as a line in the poem, you’ve got 7 – 12 – 7.

Now I know myself. I think I could easily write about the relevance of at least ten of those things. But I have about 12 minutes to write one section on form and it’s not possible.

From there, I have two options. One is to group them for an overall impression. There is, for instance, quite a lot of balance in those two lines – something even in the cadence. Not perfect, slightly offset by the length, but the ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’ are pleasant and smooth, long vowel sounds, mellifluous even, and they help create a sense of balance. The fact there is one statement on each line, neither with a verb. That semi-colon. The parallel monosyllables of ‘in the crowd’ and ‘wet, black bough’ which both have two short vowels and then a long vowel to finish. I could talk about why Ezra Pound does so much to make it neat and balanced.

Or I can drill down into one specific thing. Like the semi-colon for instance.

But Ezra Pound is long since dead and I can’t ask him what he meant by this poem. That means that everything I say about it is speculation, hypothesis, theory. An educated guess. So I can’t say ‘Pound did this because…’, only ‘The effect this has on the reader is…’, or ‘this makes us think that…’ and so on. Because I do know what people think about it. And whilst I may say ‘the reader’ or ‘we/us’, what I mean is ‘me’. I mean how could you possibly think otherwise?

Oh, okay. You do. That’s great. All I’m asking you to do is explain then to me and justify why you think this way about it. I write sometimes as if there is only one way to take a poem, when this is so untrue. You take from it what you like. As long as you can justify it, you’re on solid ground. That’s not to say that anything goes – it’s doesn’t. There are reasonable, rational evaluations, and there are crazy notions that don’t bear any real weighing up and fall apart under scrutiny.

For instance, let’s look at those two lines.

You might think ‘metro’… metros have two platforms. The two lines are like the platforms. So you could write “The two lines could represent the two platforms in a metro station”

And that might very well be true, except for the fact that one of those lines is shorter, and platforms are usually of fairly equal length. Also, lots of stations have more than one track, and some have only one.

You might as well say, “the poem looks like an equals sign”, or “the poem looks like a parallel line” or “the poem is like a double-yellow line” or “the poem is like metro train tracks”

Even if these things were true, would they add to the meaning?

So what IS worth commenting on?

For me, the couplet. The two lines seem very neat. In fact, you could also consider the title to be a third line I guess, in which case it would be even more like a haiku.

It’s at this point knowing some of the context for Pound is helpful, but in the unseen question, you don’t have any of that. I did want to explain a bit about the haiku statement, because no doubt, you’re scratching your head saying, “Really? But it’s two lines!”

If you knew that Ezra Pound was very interested in Japanese poetry (and also in Dante’s famous poem, Inferno, about hell) and you knew that he was interested in those neat little moments of Japanese poetry, then you can see why I might say this.

But you don’t have to know he was interested in Japanese poetry to see that this is a very simple, singular, timeless moment. Just looking at the ‘haiku’ page on Wikipedia, you can see it’s about the ‘juxtaposition of two images’. Does this poem do that? I think it does – the apparition of the faces and the petals. Haiku have a ‘turning word’, a pivot. Does the punctuation at the end of the line do that? I would argue that it does. Plus, different variations of this poem have different punctuation at the end of the line – which alters the meaning in interesting ways once you know what semi-colons and colons do, but a semi-colon is a joining thing. It says the ideas are connected. Second thing in common with a haiku. Also, a haiku may have a reference to a season. I think you could make the argument that the petals are evocative of spring, since spring is when most trees blossom, unlike flowers which may have flowers at other times of the year. A final thing is that haiku should be everyday kind of events, which seeing people on the metro station undoubtedly is.

It doesn’t have the three lines of a haiku, or the syllabic patterns, which is why I’m saying this is ‘like’ a haiku rather than it is a haiku. But the point would be about what haiku DO. They capture a moment. They capture everyday events or occurrences and make poetry out of the mundane.

Couplet or haiku, that’s what I think this poem is doing. It makes you reflect on the world around you.

So what can I say in my one paragraph about the form of this poem? Let’s have a go:

In a Station of the Metro is a brief, two-line couplet. In itself, the couplet is complete and neat. Like the moments when waiting for a metro train, it’s brief and fleeting, just as those thoughts and impressions you get about the people who are waiting. It’s a fragment, a flash of a thought, like the couplet has captured that brief thought. Because it’s so brief, it helps us understand the brevity of the moment, yet also that it was complete in itself. The ‘apparition of the faces’ is made to seem like a short, transitory, fleeting thought. It’s a stark, simple image that is reinforced by the stark, simple form. Although it may not have much in common with Japanese haiku in terms of form (unless you consider the title to be a third line), it has some features in common such as the ‘volta’ or turning point, and the way that it captures a single moment or thought. The simplicity is deceptive: we end up doing as much thinking about it as we would for a longer poem, but at the same time, when we read it, we too experience the same transitory and fleeting moment as the poet does.

As you can see, I’m trying to move on from describing the poem and into evaluation. I say that it’s complete and neat, which is more of a judgement than “it has two lines” and then I go on to spend the rest of my paragraph explaining what the effect is. I’m not saying “Pound wants us to think” or trying to explain what I think Pound is doing. I don’t know. He’s dead. I can’t ask him. Even if I could he may not have replied. But I can say what we think when we read it. What I hope you can also see is that I’ve got three mini-descriptions and then three comments that explain my thoughts about that.

Now if I can say something sensible about two lines (yes, I’m aware of the irony that my commentary on form is longer than the actual poem) and if you have some ideas too about why it’s two lines and why you think it’s so simple, then you’re a long way on to making comments on a poem that is FREAKISHLY unique. If you can comment on this, then you can comment on longer things for sure.

That brings us to a very simple thing to consider, no matter what poem you’re looking at:

Is the poem brief and neat? If so, why do you think that is?

Is the poem waxing lyrical and dedicating hundreds of lines to the topic? Why do you think that is?

And how much of the poem is dedicated to one single idea?

Next time, I’m going to have a brief look at another freakishly unique poem and think about other aspects of form that might help you analyse poems in the exam. After all, if you can have a SENSIBLE thought about this ^^^^^^^ poem, you can have sensible thoughts about much less complex ideas without resorting to painful comments like “it looks like train tracks”.

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How to revise for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 4

This post is the last in a series looking at the reading section of Paper 2 for AQA’s GCSE English Language paper, specification 8700. You can find guidance on revising for question 1, question 2 and question 3, or for Paper 1 here.

Question 4 is the question with the highest marks on Paper 2. It allows you to build up to it and as it is worth 16 marks out of the 80 available on the paper, it is a question that needs a bit of practice and development.

Let’s look at the question first.

So as we go through the question, you can see that some things stay the same and that some things change. The first thing that stays the same is the guidance about what to explore:

For this question, you need to refer to the whole of Source A, together with the whole of Source B. 

That’s just a reminder of what the focus of the question is: your ability to write about both extracts and compare key aspects of it. As you may remember, the focus of paper 1 is exploring how writers create texts, and the focus on Paper 2 is how writers express viewpoints and perspectives. 

As we move on to the second part of the question, it tells us to compare how the two writers convey their 

At this point you could be asked about perspectives or attitudes – how they see things and how they feel about things. You’re being asked to look at their point of view and the way they share what they think about the topic that binds the two extracts together.

Now let’s look at the markscheme and pick out what you’re being assessed on.

Like question 4 on Paper 2, you are assessed on four things here. That often means that there will be one or two things that you’ll forget, as you’ll be concentrating so hard on doing the others.

As I wrote on the previous post about question 3, we’re going to discuss levels here, not grades. The 16 marks are split into 4 levels. I can’t tell you what grade you’re working at because grades are for the whole paper and your mark out of 160 across the two papers, not how you do on a particular question. So I can’t say ‘this is a Grade 9 answer’ because such a thing doesn’t really exist. I can say ‘this is a 13 mark answer’ though and I can say that, very very roughly as a massive generalisation, the grades might be split like this:

Level 1 (1-4 marks) = Grade 1 to somewhere in Grade 3
Level 2 (5-8 marks) = Somewhere in Grade 3 to Grade 4/5
Level 3 (9-12 marks) = Grade 5 to somewhere in Grade 7
Level 4 (13-16 marks)  = Somewhere in Grade 7 to Grade 9

So you can adjust yourself accordingly. If you’re aiming to get Grade 7, you should be aiming to get to the top of Level 3 or into Level 4 on all aspects of the paper. Were you to do that across the whole paper then you’d be hitting Grade 7 kind of territory. At the end of the day, though, it depends on a set of really, really complex mathematics and assessment of standards, so those grade boundaries change for every paper – and even every year group that take it.

Cautionary waffle over.

Let’s look at those four strands a little more carefully:

The first is about comparing the ideas and perspectives.

The second is about writers’ methods

The third is about references

The fourth is about identifying the ideas.

For each of those four strands, there is an increasing difficulty or complexity as you’d expect. It’s not that L1 students DO different THINGS than L4 students: they do things DIFFERENTLY

Let’s take each strand in turn, starting with the main one: comparison.

Level 1 responses will be making simple cross references. That means you’re making simple links between the two texts. At Level 2, responses are attempting to compare. Level 3 responses have a clear and relevant comparison and Level 4 responses have a perceptive and detailed comparison

That works with the next strand about references.

Level 1 responses will be have simple references or detail. At Level 2, responses have some appropriate detail. Level 3 responses have revelant detail and Level 4 responses have a range of judicious supporting detail

You can see this continue in the strand about writers’ methods:

Level 1 responses will be make simple identification of methods. At Level 2, responses have some comment on methods. Level 3 responses have clear explanation of methods and Level 4 responses have analysis of how the methods are used

Finally that works in the strand about ideas and perspectives:

Level 1 responses will be make simple awareness of ideas and perspectives. At Level 2, responses identify some ideas and perspectives. Level 3 responses have a clear understanding of ideas and perspectives and Level 4 responses have a detailed understanding of ideas and perspectives.

So I’ve got a loose framework to support me:

Ideas and perspectives – detail – methods – comparison

One thing to be especially focused on though, and absolutely not to forget, are the writers’ methods.

My loose framework turns into a more clear structure:

  1. Identify an idea or viewpoint in Source 1
  2. Use a quote to support my point
  3. Mention the method and say what the quote means
  4. Explain the method and effect
  5. Link to point in Source 2
  6. Use a quote to support my point
  7. Mention the method and say what the quote means
  8. Explain the method and the effect

Method, by the way, simply means anything the writer is doing. It doesn’t mean to drag out your asyndetic listing again. It’s really such a lovely, vague term that you shouldn’t need to go feature spotting. Don’t feature spot – it will severely hamper your response.

So where do you start?

Start by your identification of quotes from both texts. Do your broad brushstrokes underlining, by going through both texts and underlining or highlighting literally anything that is a viewpoint or perspective, attitude or feeling, or suggests one. Don’t be stingy. Underline everything that’s useful, even if you end up with 75% of the text underlined.

When you’ve done this for both texts, you can then narrow down.

For a 16 mark question, you’re looking to write about 16-20 minutes, which gives you time to write about 3 good paragraphs. That means you’re looking for 3 pairs of linked quotes across the two texts. So I look at my two texts and I then narrow down on things that match. And then I might even narrow down one more time if I have too much to go off.

First is my long list of quotes from Source A, then Source B, then I’ll narrow down.

  • the longest and shortest year of my life
  • it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family
  • I simply mean that I haven’t slept for a year and I don’t really know how time works any more.
  • It’s honestly quite hard to grasp.
  • With every tiny development – every new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.
  • He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.
  • He’ll never again be the tiny baby who…
  • But I’ve had a year of this and it’s ok.
  • He’s never going to stop changing, and I don’t want him to.
  • This sadness, this constant sense of loss… is an important part of this process
  • the silly old fools who tell him how much he’s grown.
  • You just have to make the most of what you have.

Then I do the same with Source B

  • But my eyes are aching for the sight of cut paper upon the floor
  • I want to see crumbs on the carpet,
  • But my ears are aching for the pattering of little feet
  • I want responsibilities
  • My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.
  • I wish he were still a little boy in a long white night gown
  • If I only had my little boy again, how patient I would be!
  • I wonder if they know they are living their very best days; that now is the time to really enjoy their children!
  • I think if I had been more to my little boy I might now be more to my grown up one.

As I read and outline all the things that could possibly be an attitude or viewpoint, I’m starting to get a feel for the big ideas.

For instance, in Source A, he feels that “it’s okay” that his son is changing, whereas Source B seems filled with a sense of profound sadness and loss.

In Source B, she mentions fretting and scolding, and things she found annoying, whereas in Source A, he just seems amazed by his child, if a little bewildered. Source B, however, finds the grown boy in front of her to be bewildering.

I’m aiming for three differences for my plan though, so I need to look closer. Both have a sense of regret (though this isn’t unlike my first paragraph) but Source A seems to be “ok’ with the future. I think I can develop that idea into two paragraphs. Also though when I look back at my quotes, Source A says that he feels like his son has always been a part of the family, whereas Source B seems to see her son as a stranger.

So let’s narrow down. I need three pairs of quotes (and supporting bits that will go with it.

Feelings about child growing up:

  1. They’re part of the family, “it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family” vs “He calls me mother, but I am rather unwilling to own him.” as if he is a stranger to her. He feels his son is part of the family even though he jokes about it, whereas she feels as if he is a stranger.
  2. “It’s ok” vs regret. “He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.” and “he’ll never again be the baby who…” but ” it’s ok.” vs “But my eyes/ears are aching” My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.”
  3. Child is incomprehensible ” irrationally terrified of my dad.  “for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever work out.” He doesn’t understand his child as the child grows, vs ” How much I would bear, and how little I would fret and scold!” but her regrets and wishes come from the fact her son is older and she can’t change what she’s done, whereas for Source A, the writer has yet to really see his child grow up and regret (or not) the role he played in that.

So then it comes to the writing. Can you see how a good plan, some narrowing down and some re-reading really helps me get to the bottom of those viewpoints? Time thinking and planning is never time wasted.

Just a final reminder… this is a question about methods!

I’m going to add some methods to my plan.

  1. They’re part of the family, “it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family” vs “He calls me mother, but I am rather unwilling to own him.” as if he is a stranger to her. He feels his son is part of the family even though he jokes about it, whereas she feels as if he is a stranger. Explaining feelings. 1st person narrative viewpoint.
  2. “It’s ok” vs regret. “He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.” and “he’ll never again be the baby who…” but ” it’s ok.” vs “But my eyes/ears are aching” My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.” Metaphor and contrast. Making the abstract imaginable. Helping reader understand and empathise with emotions.
  3. Child is incomprehensible ” irrationally terrified of my dad.  “for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever work out.” He doesn’t understand his child as the child grows, vs ” How much I would bear, and how little I would fret and scold!” but her regrets and wishes come from the fact her son is older and she can’t change what she’s done, whereas for Source A, the writer has yet to really see his child grow up and regret (or not) the role he played in that. Some conditionals. Source A isn’t conditional. Some future tense.

That’s better! Saved me from falling into the big Question 4 trap!

Once I’ve done that, I’m ready to write. 16 marks should be about 20 minutes, so I’ve time to write 3 longer paragraphs using the formula outlined above.

This is the final post for the essentials for AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 and Paper 2. You can find all the links by clicking – and there’s plenty there to keep you busy. Good luck in your exams!

Revise AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 3

This post is part of a series on AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 to help you revise each question and prepare for your exams. You’ll also find posts on Question 1 and Question 2. If you are looking for materials on Paper 1 or the writing sections, you can find those by clicking here.

Essentially, Question 3 on Paper 2, also known as ‘the language question’ is similar not only in style but also in markscheme to Question 2 on Paper 1, also a ‘language’ question. Like that question, it was dogged by poor preparation and an over-reliance on subject terminology at the cost of evaluation. This question is worth more marks, and so there are some small but subtle differences that you might want to focus on.

How you prepare is exactly the same as you would for paper 1, and so a lot of the advice is going to be the same.

Let’s start by looking at the question.

So as you can see, it tells you to look at one specific source text, and refers to the lines you’ll need to stay within (on the two ‘live’ papers, at least – the last is from the specimen paper). It starts with how does [writer] use language to… 

After that, there are subtle differences which are dependent, I’d guess, on the purpose of the source.

The question is worth 12 marks, so look to spend between 12 and 15 minutes on it. I would be looking to write three developed paragraphs in that time.

The reason it asks you to stay within the lines is that the best and richest language use will be focused on those lines, so it is an attempt to help you, not hinder you. Don’t try to be smart and work outside the lines given. Put a box around the lines and make sure you stick to them.

Now let’s look at how you’re being assessed: what is it that you need to do in the exam to gain marks?

As you may know, there are four levels. These don’t mean grades. It’s meaningless to tell you ‘this is how you’ll get Grade 9’, because it depends on the year, the cohort, the test, maths, statistical analysis and analysis of standards which are waaaaay above most people’s tolerance for waffle. Roughly, though, you might want to think of it this way:

Level 1 = Grade 1 to somewhere in Grade 3
Level 2 = Somewhere in Grade 3 to Grade 4/5
Level 3 = Grade 5 to somewhere in Grade 7
Level 4 = Somewhere in Grade 7 to Grade 9

Like I say elsewhere though, that is absolutely my spin on it. You don’t get a grade for the question. You get a grade for the total mark across both papers. So I can’t tell you how to get Grade 9 on this question, and neither can anyone else. If they say they can, they are most probably a charlatan and a rogue!

But I can tell you how to get Level 1 (1-3 marks) or Level 2 (4-6 marks) and so on.

Let’s look at the assessment features for Level 1, right at the lowest end.

Now, like Paper 1, these bullets are not equally weighted. The first is the most important and it decides whether you come in at 1, 4, 7 or 10 marks. One comment could mean you’re 1 mark or you’re 10 marks depending on the quality of it.

If you make a simple comment, you’re Level 1, an attempted comment, you’re Level 2, a clear comment you’re Level 3 and a perceptive comment, you’re Level 4. It’s why you can write 4 sides and still be 3 marks, or write 1 side and be 12 marks. It all depends on the quality of what you write.

So, your comment is much of everything.

Why do so many candidates fail to get out of Level 1? Almost 20% of June 2017’s marks were 1, 2 or 3.

First, because they make such general, waffly comments that could apply to literally any text ever committed to paper. It makes you want to read on. It hooks the reader. It tantalises the reader. It engages the reader. It baffles the reader. It arouses the reader’s curiosity. You can be as fancy as you like, but if you really mean ‘it makes us want to read on’, you’re going to get stuck at 3 marks.

Second, because identifying synaesthesia, asyndetic listing, synecdoche or hyperbole isn’t what’s being assessed here. You could spot zoomorphism at twenty paces and still not get out of Level 1. Even if you’re right. And most people aren’t. To misquote TS Eliot, the naming of words is a difficult matter. It also won’t lead you to twelve marks. There is no hierarchy of language features. Nowhere in the markscheme is anaphora marked more highly than ‘the writer describes’.

This is straight from the examiners’ report, which is now in the public domain. So you don’t just have to take my word for it.

So how do you go about preparing for this question?

A lot of it is actually in the things you do before you answer. That comes down to your identification of ‘juicy’ bits of the text to explore. Believe it or not, given all those words, better candidates rely time and time again on a very narrow bank of useful quotations. They won’t mean to select from such a limited range, but by and large, candidates at the top end have unconsciously focused in on the exact same kind of quotes.

A lot of how you can prepare is in doing a double read through.

First, put a box around the given lines.

Then take a highlighter or pencil and underline absolutely everything that is interesting to you. You don’t need to be selective or precise. This is a lot how middle grade students read – they think everything is useful. It stops you focusing in on random things or things just from the beginning.

Don’t think about language features at this point. I promise you that if you go looking for similes or zoomorphism, you won’t do as well as you would with this method.

So once you’ve underlined everything that could be useful, it’s time to think like the most successful students do: narrow down and focus in on three or four really, really interesting bits. By and large, you’re looking for single words or short phrases, not huge chunks. It’s also generally true that the longer your quote, the fewer marks you’ll get. I want to see you focus in on a small number of words.

I’ll show you how here:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot there on my first go-through. Lots of those bits are interesting.

When I narrow down, you can see what I’ll focus on:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

Whilst I could happily have explored everything I’ve underlined, I’ve got to be more careful than that. Better candidates hone in on things, selecting. They are judicious and wise about their quotes. That requires elimination of the crappy quotes.

Once I’ve got my quotes, I’m ready to start answering.

I’m going to start with the words of the question, give a little away about what the writer is trying to show, use my quote, mention the language feature if I know it and then try to put it into my own words and explain the effect. Just like Q2 on this paper and on Paper 1, I’m going to use some of the following starters to get me going on my explanation:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

Let’s put that all together:

The writer describes how his son has changed, saying he “was a sleepy ball of scrunched up flesh” but “is now determinedly his own person”, with the tense change highlighting what he once was and  how he now is. It’s the way he described his son as having been a “ball of scrunched-up flesh” that is most interesting, with the “flesh” sounding like he’s almost not even alive or human, that he was unrecognisable even as a human being, but as he has grown older he is described as being “determinedly his own person”, which shows how he has grown up not just physically but developmentally, becoming “determined” which could suggest he is strong-minded or stubborn, certainly that he is has become an individual – and that he is almost driven to be individual – rather than that unidentifiable “ball” of “flesh” he once was. It sounds as if the writer is both proud and a little scared of how single-minded and obstinate his son is at being “his own person”. 

Those words were actually very juicy indeed, looking back on them! I certainly could tie it in easily to the next bit about his son throwing “his entire body” into barking “gibberish”.

If I want to take it further, I’d certainly look at that quote, as well as the sense of being “confronted by” the changes, which make the parents seem passive and powerless, like the changes are sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes amusing and sometimes terrifyingly fast, as well as a little heart-breaking, since the writer finishes by saying he leaves a little piece of himself behind with each milestone.

If I have to summarise:

  1. 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.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

Next time, a look at Question 4 on Paper 2 to complete the series. Don’t forget, you can always find the full index here.

Advice and revision for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 2

Following on from the previous post about Question 1 on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 1, this time I’m looking at Paper 2 Question 2 to give you a few revision tips and hints for the exam.

Let’s have a look at the question first of all.

This is June 2017

and here is November 2017

As you can see, some things change and some things don’t. Let’s look at the ones that don’t.

First, it says You need to refer to Source A and Source B for this question. 

That gives you your first indication of the marking. This is a question asking you to handle two different sources of information.

What follows is then a statement that focuses you in on a small part of both texts and tells you the focus point for those differences.

You’d do well to underline the subject and the focus point as this will help you narrow in on what to look for. After all, this question is actually asking you to look at a very small part of the text.

So I know I need to look for stuff generally to do with ‘the boys’ in both texts, and specifically ‘how they spend their time playing’. This second statement tells me how to narrow down and where to look.

The third bit has some bits the same Use details from both sources to write a summary of the differences/different and then it repeats the subject ‘boy’ and the focus ‘activities’ and ‘enjoyed’.

So, it’s telling you in two different ways what to focus in on.

The final thing the question tells us is that it’s worth 8 marks. That means I need to spend about ten minutes on it. I won’t need extra paper and I don’t need to write three paragraphs or find four differences or any nonsense like that.

What I do next is locate everything to do with what the boy does in Source A. I underline all of it. This is a technique that I call ‘broad brushstrokes’ and whilst it means a double read-through, it really does help get to the ‘right’ quotes. So often teachers find that students who hit the top grades are really picking from a very small range of quotes available to them, whereas lower down the grades, it’s more hit and miss. Using broad brushstrokes helps you focus in and then narrow down.

Already you can see there is not much to work with – and that’s fine.

I do the same with source B and underline absolutely everything that the boy in Source B seems to enjoy doing.

Then I go back to Source A, having Source B fresh in my head, and focus in on the points that are connected or come under a bigger idea. For instance, both sources refer to the boys making noise, or their relationship with adults, enjoying contact with parents.

So I underline once again and pick out a few pairs of things that are different.

‘he throws his entire body into … bark[ing] gibberish’ vs ‘a habit of whistling’ and ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’

and then I do the same with another difference:

‘rests his head on my shoulder whenever he gets tired’ vs ‘holding his hand in mine’

But when I think about it, it’s the boy in Source A who initiates contact whereas the boy in Source B doesn’t. He bounds ‘away to school’ with ‘nimble feet’.

So now I’ve got some differences and some quotes, I’m ready to look at the markscheme and what it is I need to do.

Like other parts of the markscheme, there are three parts to this question. They are also not equally weighted.

The first bullet point is about the differences between the two texts.

The second is about your use of textual detail.

The third is about inferring meaning from what this tells us.

Some comment then from the principal examiner’s report that will help you understand what’s being assessed and what’s not…

This question is testing your ability to synthesise, as is Question 4. That’s crucial. You absolutely need to find those differences and bring them together. You are looking for connecting points. Weaker responses will mostly be making a connection and giving a quote, whereas better responses will be inferring meaning. You also need to remember that the focus of this question is very narrow – the boys and their activities – and so you’ll need to only look for those things and write about those things. You also need to make sure you aren’t mentioning language features. That’s Question 3 and can’t be marked here. It may be the very best language analysis that has ever existed, but it’s like you’ve started writing chemical formulations rather than answering about inferences relating to a specific focus. It may be the best chemistry that has ever existed but it’s not what the examiner is looking for. Also, don’t write more than you are being asked for. Two paragraphs is more than enough for 8 marks. Unless you have incredibly large handwriting, you don’t need extra paper to respond to this task.

Before we start writing, then, some final words from the examiner’s report, which is now in the public domain:

Students still aren’t moving past 4 marks on average though, which means you have a bit of work to do to make a clear inference.

We’re going to look at how you make those clear inferences today.

So, I had my quotes in response to the June 2017 question above:

I’ve decided that I don’t think I will look at the way they seek out parents as it’s not about how they play. I will however look at the fact the second boy in Source B plays loads more with toys and things, compared to Source A where the boy seems to rely on human interaction.

I’m going to follow the guidance from the examiners’ report and start with a difference, a quote, some inferences, then contrast, more quotes, more inference.

In Source A, the boy seems to enjoy making a lot of noise, as he ‘throws his entire body’ into ‘bark[ing] gibberish’ which suggests that he is so enthusiastic about this shouting that he does it whole-heartedly and without any reserve or hesitation. However, in Source B, whilst the boy also seemed to enjoy making noise as a child, as he had a ‘a habit of whistling’ and his mother mentions a number of noisy toys or behaviours such as ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’, it seems that he has a wider range of noises. Also, it may be that the ‘barking gibberish’ is related more to the fact that the younger child in Source A is ‘tired’ rather than actually enjoying it. It could be frustration rather than pleasure which is causing this behaviour. 

So here, I was trying to follow a loose formula …

a) In Source A [subject & focus from question] and make a point, followed by a quote.

b) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests.

c) Contrast with Source B [using subject & focus from question] and make another point, followed by a second quote.

d) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests and how that’s different from Source A.

e) Add an ‘also’ and take it further, explain the difference more deeply or give reasons for the difference.

Making inferences is the tough bit. You’ve really got to think about what it suggests or what it means. I like the following phrases for doing this:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

These are all really useful ways to explain or draw an inference from the text. Pick four or five that you feel comfortable with, and keep using them!

Next up, revision tips for Paper 2 Question 3.

Don’t forget you can find links to all my free material on 8700 AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 and Paper 2 here. All you could ever need, and more. Why not book a lesson if you want individualised support that’s focused on your own performance?