GCSE English Literature Poetry: What is Structure?

In last week’s posts, we worked through notions about form in poetry, the way the words are placed on the line and the ways in which we can write about form in both anthology poetry and in unseen poetry.

Today, I’m going to take you through aspects of structure, exploring what structure is. There are grey areas: some things that I’ve included may or may not be considered truly structural by other teachers, and that’s fine. I’ve included them here as they fit most naturally within aspects of structure for me.

Watch the following video where I take you through some things you might want to consider when thinking about how the poet has structured the poem.

SELF-STUDY When you’ve watched the videos, take one of the following five poems and make a list of:

  • the title
  • how the poem starts: what is it doing at the beginning?
  • how the poem ends: what is it doing at the end?
  • any turning points or voltas that you notice
  • any points that seem to intensify or soften the tone
  • the shifts from the beginning to the end
  • what you think the mood is at the beginning of the poem
  • what you think the mood is at the end of the poem
  • whether the poet uses a persona
  • whether this is the poet’s voice
  • internal thoughts vs external actions
  • what tense the poem is in
  • who the poem is addressed to
  • whether you think the poem was intended as private or public

Try to make a list of about ten things you notice. You don’t have to say what they mean or how they link to the ideas in the poem, as your first step is to just describe what’s going on. You’ve looked at these five poems before, so it should allow you to think more deeply about them.

Buffalo Bill’s Defunct by E E Cummings

What Were They Like by Denise Levertov

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Futility by Wilfred Owen

Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney

In tomorrow’s post, I’m going to be looking at an unseen poem and exploring the range of things I could write about structurally, then linking these to the big ideas in the poem before writing about these under exam conditions.


GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: sentence forms

Have you ever tried to use a range of sentence forms in your writing?

I have.

Let me tell you a story about a pair of tired old teachers who were knee-deep in exam papers. Some wag had decided to teach all their students to use the words of the question in the form of a question to start off their answer. Well, I guess that was what happened – I’m sure it had come from a place of wisdom rather than being an urban myth about how to pass GCSE that spread like wildfire among teenagers. Paper after paper came back with:

Have you ever been homeless?

Have you ever tried to organise an event for homeless people?

Have you ever thought about attending an event for homeless people?

And the likes.

It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that every single one of those questions was answered.

Have you ever been homeless? I have.

Have you ever tried to organise an event for homeless people? I have.

Have you ever thought about attending an event for homeless people? I have.

After about five, let’s just say that it became a kind of weird, cruel and unusual punishment.  I can’t see a question like this and not think of my friend reading them out in a quasi-serious way every time she stumbled across them.

It’s one reason I find myself longing for stories and descriptions on Paper 1.

But they crop up there too!

Have you ever been on a bus journey through a city? I have.

Have you ever met someone completely different from you? …

Have you ever made an unusual discovery?

Have you ever sat at the foot of the mountains and pondered the meaning of life?

Why then, dear readers, has this hideous trope become quite so ubiquitous for GCSE students?

I suspect it hinges on two things: the accidental attempts of students to use DAFOREST (or any other mnemonic of rhetorical devices) in inappropriate and clumsy ways, and the misguided attempts of students to use a range of sentence forms.

After all, that is what the mark scheme asks for:

Let’s see…

Level 1 is roughly Grades 1-3. That asks for a simple range. That’s three different types of sentence, right? Two is not a range. But three is.

Level 2 is roughly Grades 3-5. That asks for an attempt to vary sentence forms. That means there is some conscious attempt to use different types of sentence. A reader can see attempts to make variety. I might see a simple sentence for effect, for example, or a question.

Level 3 is roughly Grades 5-7. That asks for a variety for effect. So by these grades, they are working and there is some understanding of how you can use sentence forms to affect the reader. That’s moving beyond the occasional, and it’s using longer sentences for effect as well, not just the easier stuff.

By Level 4, roughly Grades 7-9, there is a full range of appropriate sentence forms for effect. Seems clear. A full range is using an extensive variety. Appropriately means using them right.

So why do students go with that hideous ‘have you ever …. blah blah’ nonsense?

A direct address and a question seem to hit both linguistic features (for content and organisation) and range of sentences (for technical accuracy).

I’d like to draw your attention to a curious little word for Level 3 (so roughly grades 5-7) writing: APPROPRIATE. It crops up at level 4 for technical accuracy too.

Linguistic devices should be appropriate. Sentence use should be too.

I’d largely argue that the horrible direct address at the beginning of a story or description was conscious (upper level 2 – Grade 4ish) rather than appropriate (lower level 3 – Grade 5ish). And for technical accuracy, you need to be appropriate to move into Level 4.

But, my dears, if I take that nasty little ‘have you ever’ feature away from you, where does that leave us?

What even is a ‘simple range’ or a ‘full range’ of sentence forms? What even are the forms available to us when we write.

For once, I am grateful for my time in French primary schools. They are obsessed by types and forms of sentences. Obsessed. I mean they teach it over and over. It makes little difference to the nine-year-old students, but it left an indelible mark in my mind.

What are sentence types?

As a general rule, there are five. I started with three, and then I said ‘But Emma, what about… ‘ and so the list grew. Some will say three. Some will say four. I think I can find you at least five.

I’m not sure it’s a definitive list, but it’s a list nonetheless.

The first are simple sentences. My French colleagues teach that this is a sentence with one verb and one subject.

He ran.

The verb being ran and the subject being the subjective pronoun he.

The subject could also be a noun, a nominal group/noun phrase, a proper noun, an infinitive or implied – as well as lots of other things:

He ran. (subjective pronoun)
Daniel ran. (Proper noun)
A wave of irrational terror ran through the boy. (Nominal group or noun phrase)
The cat ran. (Determiner & noun)
To run is the greatest pleasure a boy can have. (An infinitive)
Run! (Implied)

But in all cases, there’s one verb and one subject (who or what did the verb).

Just as a point of interest, the simple sentence is vastly underused. A mastery of the simple sentence for effect is very much an example of higher-level writing. When you know how useful they are for expressing simple ideas, for speeding up text, for adding drama, for making your point clear, then you realise how very useful they can be. There is a messy ground where sentences may have one subject with two verbs (John dodged and feinted), or two subjects with one verb (John and Barry ran), and they fall into some other realm. Technically, since they have an ‘and’, they’re a kind of compressed compound sentence for the French. See below!

After this, we have the compound sentence, which I discussed in my post about the semi-colon. A compound sentence is joined by a FANBOYS (co-ordinating conjunction) and it splices two (or more) simple sentences together. You may find semi-colons, colons, ellipsis or dashes doing a happy job of replacing the co-ordinating conjunction, but you’ve still got at least two verbs and at least two subjects.

The monster rose up behind him. John ran.

Two verbs. Two subjects. Two simple sentences.

The monster rose up behind him, so John ran.

There are lots of accidental compound sentences permeating the work of Grade 2 – 5 students – the hideous run-on sentence which should have full stops, commas and the likes, but do not. Spliced by FANBOYS. Sounds like a terrible horror movie. I went to the shop and I bought a book about grammar and then I picked up some pencils so I could write a letter to my mum. Or even those sentences that are spliced by commas. I went to the shop, I bought a book about grammar, then I picked up some pencils so I could write a letter to my mum. When I see these accidental compound sentences, I am not thinking about Level 3. It goes back to punctuation use and demarcation, but someone who writes using commas instead of full stops, or uses too many FANBOYS, is not someone who understands what sentences are or even what they do.

Then you get the complex sentence, which has a main clause (kind of like a simple sentence) and then a subordinate clause (which doesn’t make sense without the other bit and depends on it) which is worthy of a lesson or two all on its own.

Although I like savouries, I prefer sweets.
Despite the persistent rain, we went out for lunch anyway.
I wrote endlessly about sentence types because I was bored of living.

You can do playful things with those subordinate clauses, of course. You can stick them at the front of the sentence, or you can embed them but you should never leave them dangling.

The fourth type of sentence is not wholly appreciated by all, although I love them. The sentence fragment. A sentence fragment usually has the verb missing or the subject missing. Or both.

The sentence fragment. (No verb)
Or both. (No verb)
Silence! (No verb or subject)
Congratulations! (No verb or subject)
Outside! (No verb or subject)
Weird! (No verb or subject)

Sentence fragments are used accidentally by students at the lower grades, and purposefully by those striving for the top. How that works is that round about Level 2 and 3, I’ve got a loose expectation that you have a growing competence with compound and complex sentences. By the top of Level 3 and into Level 4 (let’s talk Grade 6-9 then) I’ve got an expectation that you’ll be using simple sentences and fragments much more purposefully and efficiently. That makes it easier on you because – hooray! – you don’t have to master the harder stuff to get to the better marks. Indeed, better scripts may certainly have more simple sentences and fragments than you might be expecting.

Sounds kind of counter-intuitive doesn’t it? Do simpler stuff more and get better marks?

I’ll talk about that balance later.

So you’re anxiously waiting to hear what the final two sentences forms in my repertoire are… let’s talk about compound-complex and complex-compound

By the way, if you refer to these on Question 2 or 3 of paper 1, I’d like to remind you that a) most of the time students write ‘compound-complex sentences’ they have little idea of what that actually means, and 100% of the time I’ve seen this it has a) NOT been a compound-complex sentence and b) Had no relevance for answering Question 2 or 3 and was utterly unhelpful.

But, just to be brave, let’s talk compound-complex. This, logically, is one (or more) compound sentences where one of the clauses is dependent on another clause. The sentence that follows is – perhaps – a compound-complex sentence.

My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up “by hand.”

This is such a delight. Let’s look at the clauses…

I’ve taken out that little embedded name so that it’s a little less unwieldy.

I’ve put a full stop in and replaced the omitted subject. What you can see is that we have three sentences with three verbs. The last verb, ‘had brought’ is dependent on the ‘had established a great reputation’ because of the subordinating conjunction ‘because’.

If you’re still with me.

You can see then when the bits get put back in that there is one compound sentence, and one of those bits of the compound sentence is a complex sentence.

My brain ached and my eyes bled even though I thought it all made sense. 

Arguably, then, you may also find complex-compound sentences, which would be two or more complex sentences spliced together as a compound sentence with a FANBOYS.

I guess.

Although I had a good understanding of grammar, the complex-compound sentence foxed me completely, and I found myself in a bewildering minefield even though I had been teaching more years than I cared to confess, . 

Is that compound-complex, or complex-compound? Is there even a complex-compound? Does that even exist?!

Wait though. Does that mean you could have complex-complex sentences? Oh dear.

Luckily, though, it is not these ridiculous grammatical convolutions that will secure you the best marks, since it is all about what you do with those sentences.

Those are the forms of sentences.

That’s one way to get a ‘range of sentences’.

There are also types of sentence.

There are definitely four of those, and no quibbling.


I hate sentences.


Are you still with me?




Let’s leave them well enough alone. 

You could, I guess, also include affirmative and negative versions of these.

Negative declarative.

I don’t think there is anything left to say. 

Negative interrogative.

Haven’t you got anything better to do? 

Negative exclamative

I haven’t any examples!

Negative imperative

Don’t move! 

So there you have it… a bunch of different ways that you can use a range of sentences beyond the ‘have you ever had a brain aneurysm when trying to use different sentences? I have’ approach.

Just to summarise, these are the tools you have at your disposition:

  • simple sentences
  • compound sentences
  • complex sentences
  • sentence fragments
  • compound-complex (and maybe complex-compound – who knows in these turbulent and anarchic times?)
  • declarative sentences
  • interrogative sentences (a.k.a. questions)
  • exclamatory sentences
  • imperative sentences
  • and negative versions of all of the above.

The trick is how you use this glorious grammatical toolbox… but that is a topic for another day.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at how you can best use these sentences in Paper 1 and Paper 2 to gain maximum control, exploring how writers use this full range for specific effect.

Improving your technical accuracy for AQA GCSE English Question 5

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at how to plan for the descriptive and narrative tasks on AQA’s GCSE English (8700) Paper 1 Question 5.

As you know, there are 40 marks available for Question 5, and 16 of those marks are for technical accuracy.

Today I’m going to walk you through the marks given for punctuation and explain how those work. It’s a little difficult to pull out the punctuation strand on its own, so it will inevitably get bound up with sentence forms and demarcation.

Why I’m focusing on punctuation is that it is one way, along with variety of sentence forms, that you can really shape up your marks. Most secondary-age students have had little revision or discussion of punctuation, with the majority of the work about punctuation being done in primary schools. It’s a shame not to revisit it, because it’s a simply lush way to improve your mark.

It has another bonus, as well.

It doesn’t just pay off for the marks for technical accuracy, but it also pays off for the mark on content and organisation, since how you write is very much about ‘control’ at the top end. It affects how engaging your writing is because it’s one of those things that helps to make your writing interesting and compelling.

There are six strands to the 16 marks for technical accuracy:

  • demarcation of sentences
  • use of punctuation
  • range of sentence forms
  • use of Standard English
  • spelling
  • vocabulary

You can see how the way in which you use vocabulary is a kind of ‘double whammy’ since it is also rated for the 24 marks for content and organisation. However, it is not one of the things that helps me fix a level for technical accuracy. It helps me refine a mark, of course, but it is not the main priority for me when I’m deciding how technically accurate a piece of writing is.

Punctuation and sentence demarcation/variety are the main ways I decide on what level a piece of writing is coming in at.

The other stuff – Standard English, spelling and vocabulary – help me refine my mark within that level.

In other words, punctuation, demarcation and variety help me decide if you’re Level 1 (1-4 marks) or Level 4 (13-16 marks). And then Standard English, spelling and vocabulary help me decide whether you are 1 mark or 4 marks if I’ve decided you’re Level 1, or whether you’re 13 or 16 marks if you’re Level 4. In other words, the most atrocious spelling might stop me from thinking you were at the top of the level, but it wouldn’t make me think your work was very weak and only in Level 1. Spelling is a very superficial skill: easy to identify, hard to categorise and the bane of our lives. I’m still on a journey towards spelling perfection. With a heady mix of weird Latin, old Norse and Germanic throwbacks, we English writers are a little challenged compared to, say, the French or the Spanish. Punctuation and sentence variety don’t give us such a rough ride as spelling does. They’re easier because there are fewer of them.

And in actual fact, as you’ll see from this post and the one that will follow, punctuation can be really easy to improve, as can your sentence variety. I don’t know why more secondary teachers don’t focus on it.

Part of the problem is that students don’t always understand what is easy when it comes to punctuation, and what is challenging. Semi-colons and colons have taken on almost mythical proportions of breath-taking complexity, when in fact they are relatively straightforward and rule-driven. Commas, on the other hand, fox even the best linguistic minds I know. Also, and I HATE this with a passion, so few people now seem to understand semi-colons and colons that they seem to get relegated to writing lists. I would ban colons in lists on Paper 1 completely and utterly. They hurt my eyes and are wrong in ways I can’t even begin to explain.

Punctuation is not only hard because it’s not always taught post-primary, but also because much of it is about personal preference.

Plus, there are things that are 100% right or 100% wrong, like apostrophes and hyphens, and then there are rules that you can choose to live by or choose to ignore, depending on your preferences and even on your nationality. You think I’m kidding? Don’t get me started on the Oxford comma, for instance. The comma that divides the USA from pretty much the rest of the English-writing Punctuation World… that comma could cause wars among proof-readers, I promise.

When it comes to it, punctuation has a brief history and not even that much to learn. Some things, admittedly, have lots of rules and sub-rules and things you can ignore or not depending on your own style, but much of it comes down to you can’t use this here vs you could if you want to. Sometimes you get the occasional you should or you shouldn’t use such-and-such a piece of punctuation, and there are times when you get an absolute you need to.

That’s maybe what makes it all seem so very complicated.

Up until the last 1400 years or so, punctuation was kind of Do-As-You-Please. Text would all run together a bit like this and nobody bothered with spaces:


Then some people started putting stuff in to make it a bit easier, like spaces and even some punctuation which has been relegated to the history books, like the little-known diple. Curious, by the way, that other languages don’t have the same marks we do and don’t always use them in the same way. Punctuation is cool.

It was only with the invention of the printing press and the bringing of reading to the masses that punctuation, like spelling, became more regular out of necessity.

You don’t care about that, I know. You just want to know which marks will get you a Grade 1 and which will get you a Grade 9…

The fact is that the markscheme doesn’t have a hierarchy. I wish it did. It would be so nice.

Full stops = Grade 1
Speech marks = Grade 4
Semi-colons = Grade 6

That would be lovely and easy to mark. It would be lovely and easy to teach.

But the fact is that there is a hierarchy of sorts. A hierarchy of what’s easy and what’s hard. That doesn’t mean you get extra marks for what’s hard or fewer marks for what’s easy. It just means that from your perspective, it’s worth knowing that there are some you can learn quickly and get right 100% of the time because there are clear, comprehensible rules that make sense and apply 100% of the time. It also means that there are some that you’re going to find a challenge because they have about thirty ifs and buts.

But most students have the hierarchy wrong, and don’t understand what they need to do with their punctuation to get into each level.

So here’s what the markscheme says you need to do to get into each level:

Just a reminder… the markscheme talks about levels. It doesn’t talk about grades. Nobody can say “this is Grade 9 punctuation” and don’t believe anything you read that says otherwise. As a rough guide, you may consider Level 1 to be around Grade 1-3, Level 2 to be around Grade 3-5, Level 3 to be around Grade 5-7 and Level 4 to be around Grade 7-9, just to help you know where you are working. But that is just my approximations to give you a bit of a guide and I’m only doing it because I know those levels 1-4 are meaningless to you.

So, what do these mean?

Some evidence of conscious punctuation… let’s talk about that word ‘some’… ‘some’ is not 1. One purposeful full stop at the end is not ‘some’. ‘Some’ might be 2 punctuation marks, but is more likely 3 or more. That means that I’m looking for at least 3 punctuation marks that have been used on purpose. It’s not even really 3 different punctuation marks. It might well be three full stops. That would be some.

What does ‘on purpose’ mean? Well, it doesn’t really mean ‘right’ or ‘correct’, just that they’ve been used deliberately. For example:

Are they any ? old legends attached to the castle asked conrad of his sister conrad was, a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently. practical family

Can you see how random those punctuation marks are? They’re conscious though… definitely on purpose. The ‘are’ at the beginning suggests a question. You have to think about a question mark in order to stick it in the wrong place. There are three punctuation marks in this answer, and they are a bit accidental, but they are there. This is the kind of punctuation we might see in level 1. Usually, it’s not that random. It’s more like this:

Are they any old legends attached to the castle? asked conrad of his sister, Conrad was a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently practical family.

What you get at Level 1 are some full stops in the right place and the occasional comma splice. A  comma splice, by the way, is where you use a comma instead of a full stop. Some students use an ‘and’ instead of a comma or a full stop and their sentences are spliced by connectives. Comma splicing is widely, largely indicative of fairly low level of control. Kind of Level 2ish. If I were teaching a class with comma-splicing habits, I would definitely, definitely be trying to weed that nasty habit out. It is, in my opinion, the biggest reason students don’t get more than half marks for technical accuracy.

Another example of the same bit, just punctuated differently:

Are they any old legends attached to the castle, asked conrad of his sister, Conrad was a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently practical family.

In short, you have to have a vague nod towards the notion of punctuation and sentences to be working at Level 1.

Most students come in at Level 2 or 3.

Level 2 states that you have some control of a range of punctuation. 

So, some is more than 1 out of 3 being right, isn’t it? As a kind of percentage of accuracy, it’s probably around 30% – 50%. It’s more than ‘occasional’, but less than ‘more’. I do so hate these qualitative adjectives. In other words, if you use commas, sometimes, they’re in the right place sometimes.

Now the other word in there that is interesting is ‘range’.

A range is not one type of punctuation. A range is probably not two, either. To be safe, a range is probably three.

In descriptive or narrative, that probably means commas, full stops and apostrophes. I do a lot of work on sentence fragments using a passage from action writer Lee Child, and over the 300 words of the passage, there are commas, full stops, some apostrophes and a couple of hyphens. That in itself is not horrible. I’m sure best-selling writers don’t get their work returned by stroppy editors saying ‘Lee, this is a Level 2. You need a wider range of punctuation.’

On Paper 2, however, you’re going to find it more natural and more easy to use a wider range, but we’ll get to that.

So, in essence, if you’re looking for 5-8 marks out of 16 for technical accuracy, you’ll have 3 or more types of punctuation and you’ll be using them right sometimes. 

But you don’t want Level 2. No, you want to know how you can get more than half marks.

So what does Level 3 mean?

This also says a range of punctuation is used. So we’re still looking for that 3 or more. And this says ‘mostly with success’. So… if you were 50:50 at Level 2, what does ‘mostly’ mean?

For me, 4 out of 5 is ‘mostly’. Or 8 out of 10. Roughly.

Now when I’m marking, it’s really reductionist. I look at each type of punctuation you’ve used and I ask myself, ‘Is this wrong?’ – if it’s not wrong, then it’s acceptable. It falls into that ‘mostly successful’.

I’m not asking myself if I would have used it.

I’m not asking myself if it’s the best choice.

I’m not asking myself if it really should have been a colon, since what follows is an explanation.

I’m asking myself if it is wrong, like that Level 1 question mark. If it’s wrong, it’s not successful. I’m asking myself if it’s acceptable or not. Does it work? Is it okay? In that case, it’s successful. If you’re at around 80% accuracy overall, then you’re ‘mostly accurate’. That’s a very rough number, and I’m not a bean counter sitting there weighing up percentages of being right for full stops vs being right for commas vs being right for apostrophes, then trying to balance them out and arguing in my head that commas must be worth more since they’re harder. I would never, ever finish marking. But it’s largely how my impressions are formed. I might take three random apostrophes and if two are right and one is wrong, then that’s ‘mostly’. If the wrong one is in it’s which a lot of professional writers get wrong, then I may even say you’re Level 4. This is why they’ll never teach computers to mark English because you have to balance out about a gazillion choices.

Suffice to say you have still a big margin of error if you need it at Level 3. You can still hit those notional Grades 5-7 with a fair few mistakes.

As for Level 4, the level to which we may all aspire, then you can see ‘wide range’ comes in there, and ‘high level of accuracy’. Now, if 3 is a range, what’s a wide range? Are we saying 5 or so? For me 5 or so is definitey a ‘wide’ range. There are about 14 marks in common use, and 5 is a wide range for a story or description.

Using a wide range is not a be-all-and-end-all though. Not at all. You can’t just say “I’m going to use 5 different types of punctuation” and expect to fall in Level 4. Plenty of students who try to use all 14 regular punctuation marks are going to still be in Level 2 or 3 if they aren’t used accurately or in the right place.

What I hate, by the way, are the responses from my students where they’ve done a little tick-list at the beginning and they’re forcing in a colon and a semi-colon. I hate that. I wish the word ‘natural’ was in there with ‘wide range’. A part of me dies inside when I see a punctuation checklist. You can’t reduce a Level 4 to a checklist.

What you get when people try to force in ALL those punctuation marks is this:

.,:;?!”” – ()’ — …

And then a diligent attempt to include them in a description or narrative.

We went upstairs. In the bedroom, there was: a bed; a cabinet; a wardrobe; a rug, and a rocking chair.


Just ouch.

First off, I never, ever want you to force punctuation into a piece of writing just to meet some notional idea about what a ‘wide range’ means.

Never, ever.

Secondly, if the only way you know how to use colons and semi-colons is in using a list, you need to go and have a word with your teachers. I don’t ever want to see a list in a story unless you are supremely gifted and a Grade 9 is a walk in the park. There are a multitude of lovely ways to use colons and semi-colons in writing, and you may well find yourself drawn to use them (appropriately) on Paper 2 by introducing a bullet-point list if that is in keeping with the form you’ve been asked to write in, but when I see them in a narrative or description, it makes me want to set fire to my eyes. Really.

Now, let’s get back to the punctuation I expect to see right and those where I’m less fussed if you make an error.

What we have to work with:

  • full stops
  • question marks
  • exclamation marks
  • ellipsis
  • omissive apostrophes
  • possessive apostrophes
  • speech marks
  • commas
  • dashes
  • semi-colons
  • colons
  • hyphens
  • brackets
  • paired dashes
  • paired commas

Basically, four kinds of category: those that mark the end of a sentence, those that float in the air, those in the middle of a sentence or splicing sentences, and those which add extra bits.

Let’s talk about which are hard and which are easy. Which do you expect students should get right and which are devilishly difficult?

Most students’ lists of ‘easy’ punctuation and ‘difficult’ punctuation looks a bit like this:

Ironically, this is loosely the order these are taught in at primary school.

But this is a bit of a false picture. In fact, when you think about easiness and difficulty in punctuation, the picture looks more like this:

In other words, what you think is difficult and what is actually difficult are very different.

I will explain. Omissive apostrophes (like won’t and don’t) are either right or wrong, on the whole. They are few in number and a limited number of places they can go. They are so easy that word-processing designers can teach word-processing software to identify where you’ve made a mistake, and your spellcheck software will tell you with that nasty little underlining and a ‘Do you mean won’t ?’ even if you meant wont. It’s a word, I promise. I look to omissive apostrophes as the most simple thing. Few rules. Few uses. Right or wrong. So if someone’s getting them wrong, then they’re not up in the echelons of “mostly successful”.

Speech marks are also fairly easy. They’re usually right or wrong. They have simple rules about where they go and what needs to go with them. I can look at a story and look at the dialogue and say, “Yes, this is fine!” or “no theyve not quite got it yet” (and if you’ve got eagle eyes, you’ll have seen where I made errors in that last bit of speech!) and it’s a good benchmark of Level-Three-Ness or Not-Level-Three-Ness.

Also, coincidentally and most fabulously, omissive apostrophes and speech marks are going to help you get a “wide range” because they crop up naturally in stories and description, and now you know that they are super-easy with few rules and clear ‘yes/no’ places to go, then you’ll be more interested in using them.

After that, question marks are also pretty easy. They have few rules and as long as you know how to form a question, you can get it right fairly easily, can’t you? Are there students who don’t know how to invert a verb and subject? What if they don’t know about question words? Perhaps they don’t get that it’s just about tone?

Possessive apostrophes are harder than omissive apostrophes, simply because you’ve got to know about plural nouns and not sticking an apostrophe in before (or after) every s at the end of the word. But there are rules. They are right or wrong. There’s a bit of a debate (if you’re an editor extraordinaire) on ridiculously complex things like whether you’re using words as adjectives or nouns, but by and large, there are clear rules and yes/no answers. Like if you’re writing about Emma’s blog, it’s going to have an apostrophe before the s and if you’re writing about the dog’s dinner, it depends on how many dogs (the dogs’ dinner or the dog’s dinner?) but if you mean one, it goes before and if you mean two it goes after. Okay, there are confusions about names and nouns ending in s (James’ bike or James’s bike?) but there are still rules.

Ellipsis are pretty easy too… I call them the ‘bumper car’ of punctuation. It’s pretty hard to actually use them wrongly… you can overuse them, sure, but … well… hard to get in a big, nasty catastrophic crash with them…

By the way, if you’re a master of the simple omissive apostrophe, speech marks, question marks, ellipsis and possessive apostrophes as well as full stops, you’ve got a ‘wide range’ of… duh duh duh… exactly the kind of punctuation that regularly crops up in narratives.

Nice. The easy stuff is actually the useful stuff. No need maybe for those brackets or semi-colons.

But you want a few more under your belt maybe?

Exclamation marks are a style thing, but again they have rules! Emotional outbursts might need them. Orders could have them. Some people over-use them, and others don’t use them enough. I once responded to an email like this:


Because they said everything that needed to be said.

Personally, I think you can easily overdo them, but you shouldn’t leave them out altogether. Some people these days are like the Exclamation Police and would rather remove them from everything. Still, I can tell you if you’ve over-used them or if you’ve used one in the wrong place. So they’re easy-ish. Too many and it’s like being repeatedly slapped in the face, though. If your writing is peppered with ! and !! and even !!! then you need more drama from your words and construction, not your punctuation.

After that, we fall into the realms of ‘kind of complicated’, with full stops. Yes, I know we use them most of all, but loads of the time people get them wrong. Hence students who think a comma splice is okay. To understand full stops, you also have to know about sentence structures, have an understanding of grammatical stuff like subjects and verbs, objects and clauses. Very easy to get them wrong. Also, there are ‘rules’ like sentences should have finite verbs, and then there are sentences that break rules, like sentence fragments and minor sentences, which I love. Because they are so ubiquitous, they are hard and students make mistakes with them.

You’ll notice I’ve put colons and semi-colons on the same line. It’s my humble opinion that these should be taught more frequently and used more frequently. After all, if you can use ‘and’ to splice two sentences together, you can use a semi-colon. I’ll come back to these again and give you some more guidance, as I appreciate it’s not enough to say ‘they’re easy’ and leave it to you.

Hyphens are also a very under-rated punctuation mark. Again, simple rules, places where they aid meaning, and often very natural in most writing. Most of my students come to me not knowing when and where to use a hyphen, and that’s a travesty. Even Lee Child used a hyphen in his spartan, pared-down narrative. If you’re struggling for a ‘wide range’, a hyphen will definitely help you reach your five a day. For that, they too deserve a post of their own.

After this come the parenthetical punctuation marks – the punctuation that we use when we add additional information. Now these are not a one-size-fits-all type of punctuation: there are clear places where you’d use brackets over parenthetical commas, and much of that is to do with tone, text type and purpose. I know that may sound ludicrous but you are more likely to use brackets in information or explanation writing than you are in a story, for example.

Dashes are highly underrated and one of my favourites; I use them frequently. I don’t know why. I guess I think they add a bit of a zip. However, they can often do the work of a semi-colon, colon, ellipsis or comma – and for that reason, you’ve got to understand a lot of rules before you get to them. That said, they are – like the ellipsis – pretty hard to make errors with. They are definitely influenced by tone, register and purpose though – so you can’t go using them willy-nilly. And yes – they are definitely different from a hyphen.

Finally, we come to my bête-noir… the punctuation mark I despise. The comma. Why do I hate you so, little tadpole? Well, frankly, it’s because there are SO many rules. So many. They are used in so many ways, like with stacked adjectives and in lists. It separates clauses and marks off funky, fancy things like fronted adverbials. It’s used to clarify meaning when you repeat words next to each other. They mark out certain adverbs, moreover, but not others. So they have hundreds of rules to learn. That is not the be-all-and-end-all of this hideous little thing. I’m not even going to refer back to comma splicing which blights the end of sentences with weak and woeful punctuating. That horrible little mark causes wars, I tell you. Wars. Just get an editor from Chicago together with an editor from London and present them with this:

The Oxford Comma: discuss.

I mean, they can’t even decide if it’s the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma. If you’re not in the know, it’s whether or not you can put a comma before an ‘and’ in a list. People just have to agree to disagree.

And that’s what makes the comma the hardest, if you ask me. It’s a style thing. It’s got hundreds of rules, which you may or may not want to abide by. It’s so easy to get them wrong and so hard to get them perfect. Yet most students sail blithely through Question 5 with ne’er a thought about whether or not their comma use is acceptable or not. Commas are often the second mark used by students in a story, and one of the marks I use to justify to myself whether there is a range or not, yet most of the time they are very hit-and-miss in terms of accuracy. Often, they are the defining mark that make me decide whether a script is Level 3 or not.

So… I will do a further insight into semi-colons, colons and hyphens, since they are often so poorly used. I’ll also take you through some of the complications of punctuation in my next post and look at how you can use punctuation to really marshall and shape your words.

Before I leave you though, it’s important to say:

  • Include a range of punctuation by all means, and be conscious of having a range. Don’t be tempted to force that range though, and if you put in a list of objects to find a use of a colon in a story, don’t be surprised to find yourself with a Level 2.
  • Capital letters are not really punctuation. They’re typography and almost akin to spelling. A capital at the beginning of a sentence is related to sentence demarcation, not to punctuation, so if you ask me, an upper-case letter is not a punctuation mark. I won’t be counting it to make up a range if I get a story or description that relies only on full stops and commas.
  • Don’t overlook the humble hyphen. They should be used more than they are.
  • Absolutely don’t mess up your it’s and your its. I know ‘professional’ writers that do this and it is SO easy to correct. Plus it’s 100% right or 100% wrong. I don’t expect errors with omissive apostrophes if I’m going to award Level 3. Personally, I wouldn’t employ someone to write anything for me if they don’t know it’s and its.
  • Revise your punctuation and practise it! There are 14 or so marks in common use. Even if you decided to perfect your comma use and learn (and practise!) every single rule, it’ll take you less time than it would to try and improve your spelling.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking semi-colons or colons are difficult, or that full stops are easy.

If you’re a teacher or a parent, be pedantic and persistent with punctuation. There is no reason for sloppiness. Carelessness with comma splicing is worse than not knowing how to spell handkerchief or conscience. In about five hours of hands-on teaching and practice, you can see real dividends in terms of grades, and it’s the most simple way to secure a Level 3 or bump up to a Level 4.

Next time, a look at how you can use punctuation in practice, rather than me waxing lyrical about it.




Advice and Guidance for planning GCSE English Paper 1 Question 5: Narrative writing

Last time I was looking at Paper 1 Question 5 – descriptive writing – and today it’s the turn of narrative writing.

You can find information about Section A Questions 1 – 4 here:

You can find information on Section A here:

And some general guidance about question 5 here.

Personally, I prefer the narrative response, and my students generally tend to get better responses and marks with it, but that’s not to say you should always choose the narrative, should it be available to you. Don’t forget, there will be times when you will have a choice of TWO narratives or TWO descriptions, and that the description may not always be based on the photograph. You could easily get a narrative based on the photograph given too. The moral is to be prepared for all eventualities.

Whilst I prefer the narrative, it is easy to do a simple descriptive piece and cram a lot in, whereas a narrative can get a little unwieldy. Sometimes, you’re just stuck for a storyline. Description tends to be based on things most students are familiar with, and so it’s not as challenging if you are stuck for an idea.

If you prefer to avoid the fragrant romps with purple prose, narrative may well be the option for you.

Narrative in itself has a sense of chronology or time progression. The moving on of time gives you an innate structure. That’s something that descriptive writing doesn’t always have.

You can use this innate structure to help you plan.

Beginning – Middle – End.

It can be that simple.

You can make it more complicated if you think of

Situation – Complication – Resolution.

But again, it’s the same as Beginning – Middle – End, it just sounds more fancy.

And really, for a 50-minute narrative, you really do not want to be more detailed than that.

Things to avoid:

  • Casts of thousands. One or two characters, maybe three. That’s it. The November 2018 paper had a narrative based on a photo that had one person in it. If you write a story with one person in it, or one main character, you’ll be less likely to end up overcomplicating things. If you think simple stories with a limited number of characters can’t be developed, you need to have a look at Z for Zachariah, The Road or I am Legend. But you’ll rarely (ever?) find a short story with an enormous cast.
  • Starting the story way before the action. I don’t care that you woke up and ate your cornflakes if it has nothing to do with what later happens. Why do people think that stories must start at the very beginning of the day? Start in the moments before the action.
  • Feeling like you need to give an explained ending. Many of the stories I’ve read would have been much better without the last couple of paragraphs. If you write yourself into a corner, stop. Stop right where you are. I’ve seen too many good stories ruined by some kind of attempt to finish it off. If you get to the point where you can’t find a solution to your story, just leave it on a cliffhanger. I’d prefer a cliffhanger than a ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘it was all a dream’, I promise.

Start your plan with the solution. A simple twist in the tale is always nice.

Like… what if a school bully turns out not to be a school bully? What if the mild-mannered janitor turns out to be a spy? What if the dog saves the day?

And then work back.

Why would someone think the bully was a bully? Why would someone think the janitor wasn’t a spy? Why would a dog need to save the day?

That’s then the ‘complication’ or problem.

And then put them in a scene in which that problem can happen.

A scene where someone thinks the school bully will hurt them – turns out the bully isn’t a bully.

A set of spies have a meeting – a janitor clears up – he’s the spy

A school picnic – a boy gets lost – a dog finds him

Now I know they don’t sound like the most scintillating of plots. But they are the basis for so many stories. See how we all thought Snape was going to be the bad guy in Harry Potter? Story two is essentially Hong Kong Phoey-meets-Scooby Doo, and the last is every plot of Lassie or the Littlest Hobo. Simple plots are the stuff of our lives. It’s how you write them that counts.

And you’ll find another list of three to help you with that, too.

Narration (action) – Description – Dialogue.

I like to kind of portion it out. Start with a bit of action. Then add some description. Then some dialogue. Then some action.

I loosely plan three or four lines of conversation, then a bit of description using the same method as I used in the previous post.

Here’s an example short story that I wrote in the time. I typed it, which gave me a bit of a handicap. It runs in at about 600 words.

Although the safe haven and familiarity of school was only minutes behind him, the darkness made easy work of its last remnants of light and security. It cut him off from everything that was comfortable, everything that was known, and cast him out like a hesitant explorer. The inky darkness spilled through the cracks, forcing its way into forgotten corners, slipping through the streets, eating up the vestigial remains of the day. Beyond the distant gates, you could just see the faint lights of the estate; one by one, they were all turning off for the night, until he was left standing in the darkness. Staring at the darkness. He stood completely alone, between the isolated street lights, his only connection with the rest of the universe. 

Everything was silent, except for the flicker and hum of the lights above.

Daniel hated the walk home. He hated the darkness. He hated the long passageway that cut under the railway tracks. Most of all, he hated the boys who hung around at the tunnel, waiting for boys like him. Maybe tonight, they’d all have gone home. He’d been so long at the club in school that they were sure to have gone home by now, weren’t they? He hoped so. The silence seemed to confirm his thoughts.

As he reached the edge of the tunnel, the last street light seemed to flicker and fade, fizzing and buzzing, then dying. It seemed to find life once more, spluttered into life, and then died one final time.

He took a deep breath. The tunnel seemed darker than ever, with only the faintest pinprick of amber light from the other side. Daniel picked up speed and decided to run for it. The mouth of the tunnel opened cavernously. It was far from reassuring. He took a breath. Then another. Then he ran.

Panting hard, his coat billowing, his rucksack marking out each pace thumping at his back, his legs pounding, arms pumping, he made it a quarter way. Fifty yards. Then a hundred.

“Oi you!”

Daniel pulled up to a stop, only metres before the end of the tunnel and the relative security of the street lights. He turned around, the dread surging up from the pit of his stomach and he choked a little. Behind him, he could see nothing. The tunnel swallowed up the light. He took a breath and tried to reason with himself. Maybe he’d imagined the voice. Maybe it wasn’t meant for him. 

It was then that the streetlight chose to flicker back to life. 

For one horrible second, Marvin McGoran was lit up in an amber spotlight before the light faded for good. 

Marvin McGoran. Known for his enormous bulk and his love of violence. Marvin, who was every cartoon villain rolled into one. Marvin, the terror of the tunnel. 

It couldn’t have been worse. 

Through the darkness, Daniel heard the sound of footsteps. Not the usual heavy, singular, staccato footfall of Marvin at rest. No. The fast thudding of Marvin on the rampage. A thudding growing ever closer, punctuated by huge exhalations of breath as Marvin steamed towards him. 

Nothing for it. He had to run. Daniel turned on his heels and started into an immediate sprint, hoping that he could find the energy to outrun the certain terror that lay behind him. He picked up speed, finding a motivation from within that he didn’t know he had. Twenty yards left. Then five. 

Behind him, Daniel heard a huge crash as Marvin came tumbling to the ground. An advantage for sure. He smiled and slowed his pace. He’d live another day. There were grunts and groans as Marvin struggled to regain his feet. 

“Stop will yer?!”

Something in the panic of that voice brought Daniel to a halt. He stopped and turned to take a look. Marvin lay belly down on the concrete, like a conquered bull. 

“Can you give me a hand?”

Daniel would never understand what drove him to go back and help Marvin to his feet. Stupidity perhaps. Bravado brought on by lack of oxygen? Camaraderie for a fallen comrade? He took tentative steps towards the boy on the ground and put out his hand, before pulling him with some effort to his feet. 

“Alright? Sorry… I don’t know yer name. I’m Marvin… D’yer mind if I walk home with yer? I hate the dark.”

And that, my readers, is where I would leave that story. No point explaining how they got home. No point labouring it and dragging it out. I know there are faults in this simple narrative. Of course they are. I am a humble English teacher, not a novelist used to churning out short stories without the benefit of a good editor and a proofreader. Nevertheless, it serves as a simple example of the kind of story that combines those triple elements of dialogue, description and action. I’m going to use it again to dissect in terms of punctuation and sentence structures.

You can see I’ve made decisions about where to slow down the pace and add a little description, trying to create a little atmosphere and intrigue. You can also see how I’ve used dialogue to interrupt the action and speed it up. I’ve got a simple two-character story that I’ve fleshed out, a simple situation – a walk home from school – and a simple twist in the tale. We’re not talking Booker Prize winning, but then this is GCSE.


Tips to help you with AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

Last time, I was having a look at the mechanics of Question 4, the essay question on AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 1, and today it’s time to have a look at how you can best prepare to answer.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

And today, I’ll be looking at Question 4 once again. This is the same reading approach that you saw for Question 2, and it’s very much about your reading, annotation of the passage and your planning time. You may find it helpful to go back and re-read those on Question 2 if you haven’t already.

To summarise the previous post:

  • Question 4 is the longest comprehension question and you should treat it with respect. It shouldn’t be the same length as Q2 or Q3. If it is, you’re either over-answering Q2 and 3 or you’re under-answering Q4.
  • It’s a 20 mark question
  • You should spend about 20-25 minutes answering it
  • It gives you a statement and asks you to find evidence to support (or disprove) the statement, giving your opinions.
  • It asks you to explore HOW the writer does something.
  • You need to use a range of select, embedded quotations.
  • You should be writing explanations of how the writer’s language works
  • You need to write about writer’s methods
  • Writer’s methods includes any single thing the writer has done, from figurative language through to viewpoint and perspective. If you want to write about sentence length or type, you can do so with safety here (although I’m not sure it’s necessary – and it’s certainly not compulsory!)
  • Really, we don’t care less if you agree, if you disagree, if you are making a balanced argument. This is not a question that is asking you to make an argument (that’s a writing task). It’s asking you to respond to a statement, find evidence to support or contradict that statement, and then explain what the writer is up to. That ‘to what extent do you agree?’ is a bit of a dead end. It suggests it should be an argument, but really it’s just a way to get you to respond to the statement.

When you get to what we’re doing today, you’ll have already looked at the statement and picked out the key words. For this, I’m going to give general reading advice based on a slightly-adapted extract from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s not perfect but you have seriously no idea how hard it is to find things that work perfectly. I picked it because it’s a little similar to the November 2017 paper. I could have wasted hours looking for something that works. Plus, It’s a big extract to deal with and there are a variety of different types of questions that we’ve seen so far.

The extract I’ll be working with over the next two posts is taken from a short story called “The Temple” by Joyce Carol Oates (with a few abridged moments).

THERE, again, the vexing, mysterious sound! – a faint mewing cry followed by a
muffled scratching, as of something being raked by nails, or claws. At first the woman believed the sound must be coming from somewhere inside the house, a small animal, perhaps a squirrel, trapped in the attic beneath the eaves, or in a remote corner of the earthen-floored cellar; after she searched the house thoroughly, she had to conclude that it came from somewhere outside, at the bottom of the old garden, perhaps. It was far more distinct at certain times than at others, depending upon the direction and power of the wind.

She had no choice, then, did she? – She must trace the sound to its origin. She set
about the task calmly enough one morning, stepping out into unexpectedly bright,
warm sunshine, and making her way into the lush tangle of vegetation that had been her mother’s garden of thirty years before. The mewing sound, the scratching — it seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden, close by a stained concrete drainage ditch that marked the end of the property. As soon as she listened for it, however, it ceased.

Out of the old garage, that had once been a stable, the woman got a shovel, a
spade, a rake, these implements festooned in cobwebs and dust, and began to dig. It was awkward work and her soft hands ached after only minutes, so she returned to the garage to fetch gardening gloves-these too covered in cobwebs and dust, and stiffened with dirt. The mid-morning sun was ablaze so she located an old straw hat of her mother’s: it fitted her head oddly, as if its band had been sweated through and dried, stiffened asymmetrically

So she set again to work. First, she dug away sinewy weeds and vines, chicory,
wild mustard, tall grasses, in the area out of which the cry had emanated; she
managed to uncover the earth, which was rich with compost, very dark, moist. Almost beneath her feet, the plaintive mewing sounded!

“Yes. Yes. I’m here,” she whispered.

She paused, very excited; she heard a brief flurry of scratching, then silence. “I’m
here, now.” She grunted as she pushed the shovel into the earth, urging it downward with her weight, her foot. 

She dug. She spaded, and raked. She dug again, deepening and broadening the
hole which was like a wound in the jungle-like vegetation. Chips and shards of aged brick, glass, stones were uncovered, striking the shovel. Beetles scurried away, their shells glinting darkly in the sunshine. Earthworms squirmed, some of them cut cruelly in two. For some time the woman worked in silence, hearing only her quickened heartbeat and a roaring pulse in her ears; then, distinctly, with the impact of a shout, there came the pleading cry again, so close she nearly dropped the shovel.

At last, covered in sweat, her hands shaking, the woman struck something solid.
She dropped to her knees and groped in the moist dark earth and lifted something
round and hollow — a human skull? But it was small, hardly half the size of an adult’s skull.

“My God!” the woman whispered.

Squatting then above the jagged hole, turning the skull in her fingers. How light it
was! The color of parchment badly stained from the soil. She brushed bits of damp
earth away, marveling at the subtle contours of the cranium. Not a hair remained. The delicate bone was cracked in several places and its texture minutely scarified, like a ceramic glaze. A few of the teeth were missing, but most appeared to be intact, though caked with dirt. The perfectly formed jaws, the slope of the cheekbones! The empty eye sockets, so round… The woman lifted the skull to stare into the sockets as if staring into mirror-eyes, eyes of an eerie transparency. A kind of knowledge passed between her and these eyes yet she did not know: was this a child’s skull? had a child been buried here, it must have been decades ago, on her family’s property? Unnamed, unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?

For several fevered hours the woman dug deeper into the earth. She was panting
in the overhead sun, which seemed to penetrate the straw hat as if it were made of
gauze; her sturdy body was clammy with sweat. She discovered a number of scattered bones — a slender forearm, curving ribs, part of a hand, fingers — these too parchment-colored, child-sized. What small, graceful fingers! How they had 
scratched, clawed, for release! Following this morning, forever, the finger bones
would be at peace.

By early afternoon, the woman gave up her digging. She could find no more of the
skeleton than a dozen or so random bones.

I picked this one because it’s kind of similar to the ‘Alice’ text and it works for a similar type of question. So, you know that Question 4 is less usual than Q2 or 3, but it follows a regular format, year upon year. First, it will specify a part of the text for you to focus on.

Focus this part of your answer on the second half of the source from line 23 to the end. 

For the sake of this, which has no lines, I’m going from ‘So she again set to work’.

You already know there is a little bit of a difference from Q1 and Q2, in which you absolutely must write from the lines mentioned. In this you must ‘focus’, which means you will be spending the majority – if not all – of your time looking at those lines. It doesn’t, however, mean that if you refer to bits from lines 1-22 to support what you are saying about lines 23 to the end, that we can’t mark it.

Then you have a statement:

A reader said, ‘This part of the story, where the woman uncovers the skull, is very mysterious, and it sounds as if she is compelled to continue digging’.

To what extent do you agree?

In your response you could:
* consider the reasons why the woman keeps digging
* evaluate how the writer creates a sense of mystery
* support your response with references to the text

This is probably harder than the question (and the text!) you’d find on the paper as that word ‘compelled’ would be a challenge for candidates working at the lower grades. That said, it’s going to be okay for us to work through Levels 2 – 4 from 6 to 20 marks next time in examples.

So where do you start?

Similarly to Question 2, what you want is to do two quick read-throughs. On your first, use two colours. Underline or highlight everything that is related to ‘mysterious’ in one, and everything that is related to ‘compelled to keep digging’ in the other. There may be some cross-over!

So you can see how this ensures I’m going to be answering both bits of the question and that I have more than enough to say. You aren’t going to use broad brushstrokes to answer, but it’s kind of how middle-ability candidates go about selecting.

Then you do the precision, detail work that better candidates do. You appraise all of those quotes and you decide which to narrow down on.

For Question 2, you were really looking for 4 – 6 quotes to give you enough to write about. Here, you’ve got a little more flexibility, and two parts of the question, so you may find yourself looking for around 12 – 15 mini-quotes. That means grouping similar quotes together. There are level 4 20 mark answers that use 3 quotes, 6 quotes and 20 quotes, so it’s not about number, it’s about what you do with it. Even so, a narrowing down is important.

Narrowing down helps you pinpoint the useful, evaluate what is essential and assess the value and validity of your quotes. Those are all important skills that point to ‘judicious’ quotations. More importantly, what you say should be absolutely rooted in the the text, and this approach helps you do that.

So circle or underline a more precise selection:

And I may even narrow down once more if I felt I had too much for a 25-minute essay. Personally, I like to run quotes together and focus on a couple of words in each groups so this selection works for me. I know equally though that there will be candidates who will go straight for 2 or 3 quotes in each colour and that will be fantastic.

Why this approach helps you get a level 4 is in two ways. Firstly, going from broad brushstrokes to narrowing in helps to stop the ‘scattergun’ effect where you just pick out hundreds of target quotes and there is no real sense that you have evaluated them or appraised their value. Secondly, for those who normally go straight for the sniper approach of ‘boom – boom – boom’, putting in the step before helps you ensure you’re not missing anything. Two read-throughs is never, ever a bad thing even for candidates who can slamdunk 20/20 time after time.

What I do then is I begin to shift these into my plan.

I’ve got four paragraphs. Two on mystery. Two on why she seems compelled.

My first paragraph is about the mysterious noise and how the writer makes it sound mysterious – ‘vexing… faint… muffled… distinct at certain times’, how it ‘seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden’, then how ‘it ceased’ and then came again with ‘the impact of a shout’ when the woman finds the skull.

My second paragraph is about the mystery of the skull and all the questions, ‘unnamed? Unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?’

My third paragraph is about how she is compelled to dig, how she searched ‘thoroughly’, the question, ‘she had no choice, then, did she?’ and that word ‘must’.

My fourth paragraph is about how her efforts show how she was compelled to dig, to unearth all the bones, the repetition of ‘she dug’, the way the writer says ‘She dug. She spaded and raked.’ and ‘deepening and broadening’ the hole until she ends up ‘panting’ and her activity is described as ‘fevered’.

Here, all I’m doing is grouping them together. Four paragraphs is a lot for 25 minutes, but if I aimed for 2 in 8-10 minues, this should not be a stretch. It’s a nice even number that allows me to address both of the key words in the statement twice.

I just wanted to stop a minute and remind you that you can really see here that I’m not thinking whether I agree or not with the statement. I’m just trying to find evidence of the statement. Then I’ve got some nice language and structural features I can comment on in both strands.

To summarise then:

  • Read through the statement.
  • Highlight key words and identify if you’ve more than one part of the question that you need to refer to
  • Use as many colours as you have key words, finding evidence and colour-coding as you go
  • Use broad brushstrokes and underline everything that may be useful
  • Then refine and narrow down
  • Aim to have anywhere between 5 and 15 quotes but don’t worry too much if you are such a sniper that you start with 3 or such a scattergun shooter that you end up with 20
  • Once you have your quotes, group them
  • You need roughly two groups per strand
  • Start to identify the main things the writer is doing in your plan, or summarise the main things that are happening

When you’ve done this, you’re ready to move on to answering.

Next time, I’ll take you through an 8 mark answer, a 13 mark answer and a 20 mark answer so that you can see what they look like, and how you move from one to another.



AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 Question 2 practical guidance

After having had a really good look at some feedback for Paper 1 Question 2 (the ‘language’ question) about how the question is marked, about the markscheme itself and about how to use subject terminology and why you shouldn’t take a feature-spotting approach, in this post, I’m going beyond the shoulds and shouldn’ts of the question to give you some practical guidance that will make a difference to your marks.

To summarise so far:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullet points in the question.
  • 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 key skill for Question 2 is analysis of language, not identification of figures of speech.
  • You don’t need to know very complex subject terminology and there’s no hierarchy that says you need to write about semantic fields rather than adjectives for example. 
  • The quality of your comment on the effect of language is the most important and most heavily weighted of these three things.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Whether you are aiming for a grade 4 or a grade 9, much depends on what you do before you start writing.

What do I even mean before you start writing?

How can I even mark BEFORE you start writing?!

Truthfully, no teacher starts marking what you do before you start writing. That’s not even possible. It’s not like we can see into your head or that we even mark any annotations or notes you make.

But the things you do before you start writing impact strongly on the answer you give. In the following post, I’m going to write a lot about broad brushstrokes and narrowing in.

Broad brushstrokes are big sections of underlined bits. In art, you use the broad brushstrokes to pick up the big details, and that’s what they do. No refinement, no focus, just big chunks. Narrowing in is precisely that – focusing in on one or two key words in a quote.

Better candidates are always more precise, but you may see broad brushstrokes at first in their answer.

Let’s look at some of the things that candidates do before they start answering the question. This is based on Question 2 from November 2017, the ‘Alice’ paper.

So what do people do?

#1 Nothing

Some people do nothing. Well, they read it. You guess that they read it because they have written about it. The reproduced bit of text shows zero sign that it has been read. They certainly haven’t used the reprinted text for anything. 

#2 Underline practically everything.

Some people underline everything. They don’t always refer to it all (how can they?!) and what they’ve underlined, at least some of it makes its way as a quote into their answer. This one used “it’s her first time in the Pyrenees” in the answer, and “it’s a place of secrets”. A bit from the beginning, a bit from the end. Their annotation is their broad brushstrokes – it’s ALL worth commenting on!

Some of these candidates may use these big chunks in their response. Others narrow in during their answer, as this one did.

Underline practically everything – quote practically everything


Underline practically everything – quote practically nothing.

#3 Underline big chunks, but fewer of them

You can see this one kind of has a theme. They might as well have written the features in the margin. You know they are going to comment on colours and then a second paragraph about contrasts. That is exactly what they did. Kind of broad brushstrokes, just with fewer of them.

#4 Underline a lot of precise quotes

This approach is a more precise one, but it’s still not very helpful because there are too many things to write about. In their essay, they narrowed down again to focus in on ‘jagged’, ‘covered’ and ‘beautiful’.

#5 Underline a lot of precise quotes and annotate everything with features that have been spotted and some comments

This approach means the candidate has spent a good three or four minutes of their ten on the plan. You could actually mark the planning. There are a lot of features on there and this kind of candidate has obviously been taught the importance of thinking before they write, but not how to do it in a way that will help them.

These five approaches exemplify some very important learning points:

  • Underlining nothing is unhelpful. It really doesn’t help you to only think in your head. You may have a great idea or an interesting thought about something and it disappears into the 10-minute ether as you write. Not even the most able candidates can do that.
  • Underlining too much is unhelpful. It really doesn’t help you prioritise.
  • Annotating with features and comments is very labour-intensive and can be very restrictive not only in time but also in your thinking, although it does help you to have an organised approach.
  • Underlining stuff and not narrowing down is also really unhelpful.

Time for a cautionary tale about two girls. One is called Emma (that’s me) and one is called Liz (that was my uber-smart classmate). I annotated everything.


My entire copy of Pride and Prejudice is underlined and written on. There is not a spare space or page. I did this because I wasn’t confident and I couldn’t sift. I couldn’t prioritise. It was ALL important to me and it made me nervous having to pick out particular bits, like I was going to miss out on some marvellously important thing. Chronic underlining of everything is a sign of a candidate who can’t zero in. It’s a mid-grade kind of thing that says you really, really want to do well at English but you haven’t got the confidence or the understanding to decide what is important and what is not. That’s fine if you want to comment on everything, and if you have the time, but it’s really unhelpful if you don’t.

Then there’s the Liz approach. Underline some stuff. Highlight the most important bits of those underlined bits once you’ve finished and had a bit of a think about what’s useful. This is often what better candidates do automatically. They kind of go straight for the juicy bits that they can squeeze a lot of use out of and instinctively know which bits will lead them up a dead end, comment-wise.

If you are a Level 4 or 5 chronic underliner of everything, how you become a Level 7, 8 or 9 is in how you narrow down. Do the chronic underlining first, then read again and narrow down.

I’ll show you how.

This is the passage:

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

And this is the question:

How does the writer use language here to describe the mountain area?

So the first thing I’m going to do is underline everything I might want to use about the mountain area.

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

Now as you can see, that is far too much. I could write about all of that if I had five hours and nothing else to do. But I have ten minutes. That means four quotes as an absolute maximum.

There are things to help me pick out those four things:

  1. It must be brief. One word is fine. Four is okay. Seven is not. It’s not up to the examiner to look at what you’ve picked out and decide which they think you thought the relevant detail was. Be brief.
  2. It’s helpful to look across the whole passage, rather than focusing too much on things at the beginning.
  3. It’s helpful to look for repeated ideas as they help you really think about the bigger themes.
  4. At this point, it CAN be helpful to look at what the writer is doing as well, in terms of language use.

When I look at the passage then, I can see some interesting words to focus in on. I like ‘jagged’ as it gives me plenty to say. I like ‘peep out’ as well, which reminds me there is quite a lot of personification in the passage to focus on. ‘Delicate’ kind of sits with ‘peeping’ and I can tell I’ll have more to day about that. I like the bit about the sun ‘flattening’ the landscape, and although the quote is long, I can focus on ‘flattened… into submission’ as my keywords. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘inhospitable’ are nice and give me a sense of the contrast of the place, so I think I’ll use these to help me form my answer. They seem to sum up the place. It’s beautiful but unwelcoming.

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

Now I could equally write about the ‘place of secrets’ and the ‘seen too much, concealed too much’ as well, but the only thing making me want to do so is lack of confidence in what I have picked out. So I have to take a breath and say, ‘Emma, six is more than enough. It’s an 10-minute response, not an analysis of the Works of Shakespeare.

Now that I have done that, I have moved from the nervy ‘waaah, want to include it all’ to ‘a clear selection of quotation’.

All before I’ve even started writing.

To sum up, then…

  • Use the printed passage to underline. Then, if you haven’t been selective enough, narrow down.
  • Pick out four main words or phrases.
  • Be brief and be precise. One or two words to focus on in each of you two paragraphs is more than enough.
  • When you pick out the words and phrases, think about ‘what here does the writer think is important? Which words are unusual or interesting?’ Look for the juicy words that you can squeeze a lot out of.
  • Look for parallels and linked ideas.
  • Think about any particularly nice figurative language – metaphors, similes and personification – if you can see some come up and you think you can write about it.
  • Try not to just focus on the first two lines you fall over.

Above all, think about what is the main idea the writer is trying to convey. For me, in this passage, the place is both dangerous and delicate. I want to explore those in my answer. So, ask yourself, “what’s the big thing the writer wants me to think about?” and select your quotes accordingly.

Many middle-grade candidates fail to access the upper grades simply because they are not narrowing down. Narrowing down is what Liz did naturally and which I did not (and still struggle with!)

Knowing which quotes will give you plenty to write about and which you can discard is a vital step in moving up the levels.

You can also have a look at me exploring quote selection on this video

Next time, I’ll look at how to make great comments based on your quote selection that will help you understand what a 2-mark comment looks like compared to an 8-mark comment.

The five posts in which I explore Question 2 are as follows:

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

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.

The five posts in which I explore Question 2 are as follows:

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


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.



An analysis of the language and imagery in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

In the last post, I explored the use of form and structure in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes, which is in this year’s AQA GCSE English Literature anthology for exams from 2017.  Today, I’ll be exploring how language works with the form and structure to convey Hughes’ viewpoint about the themes of conflict explored in the poem.

Bayonet Charge starts in the middle of the action, unlike some other poems in the anthology, which give you the necessary back story you need to make sense of it. Here, all we get is the title, an unknown war, an unknown time. It isn’t an entire story like The Charge of the Light Brigade.

So, what’s the effect of starting in the middle of something?

It’s immediately more dramatic. We’re dropped into the action, unprepared, perhaps like the soldier himself. The opening word ‘Suddenly’ emphasises this. It’s as much a shock for us as it is for the soldier. We also see that it’s past tense. This is another point of comparison with The Charge of the Light Brigade which is also past tense.

Here, you’ve got to think about the effect of tense. Present tense makes something more real, more ‘now’ – it’s as if it is happening now in front of our very eyes. We don’t know, just as the characters don’t, what will happen. Past tense is reflection. It gives us time to think, to consider our angle. I suppose, in a way, present tense is a little less biased – it’s presenting what happens, as it happens. Of course, this is only an illusion. All poems are written after the event, rather than during it. It’s not as if they unravel as time does. Past tense means that you’re reflecting on a completed action. There isn’t much, however, that is reflective about this poem. However, writing after the fact means that Ted Hughes, just like Tennyson, is allowed to consider his ‘spin’, his angle on things, to add his views and to polish the writing. Past tense is more commonly used with narrative and reflective writing. Present tense is more vivid in some ways, because it’s like watching something as it happens.

There’s something peculiar about what’s happening. The soldier, who is as yet un-named, and his role unidentified (we don’t know that he’s a soldier – it just says ‘he’ – and we can only guess from the title) is awake and immediately running. It’s odd. We don’t normally wake up and then start running. Why would we do this? Because we’re under threat? Are we running to something, or away from something?

The word ‘raw’ is separated by a dash from the line. The poet makes us stop and think about this word. It stands alone, brief and ‘raw’. And then he repeats it in the next line, so if we were in any doubt about the importance of this word, we aren’t now. So what does raw tell us? It tells us that something is unfinished or unprocessed (like ‘raw’ crude, which is petrol as it comes out of the ground, unrefined) and like his seams, which aren’t sewn over, aren’t made for comfort. They’re rubbing against him, making his skin ‘raw’. When our skin is ‘raw’, we’re often describing a wound. His skin has been chaffed until it is red. It’s painful. It’s a word that evokes pain. It’s what happens when something abrasive has rubbed on your skin. It’s also a word that when we use about emotions means emotions that are really clear, really on the surface, “strong and undisguised” (Oxford Dictionary) which could mean that all his emotions are on show, for everyone to see.

There are other things we could say about this word ‘raw’

  • Is he like a ‘raw’ recruit, unpolished, unrefined, inexperienced?
  • Is it that his skin is raw on a literal level?
  • Is he emotionally raw, on a metaphorical level?
  • Are his emotions strong and undisguised, like ‘raw anger’?

This little fragmented, repeated word gives us a lot to think about and it works on lots of levels.

The word ‘khaki’ is our first sign that this is an army situation. Khaki is the colour of army uniforms, and it’s often used in a military sense. It’s little clues like this that make it overtly about the war, in ways that we have only seen so far in Charge of the Light Brigade. 

The third line starts with ‘stumbling’. Like all the great verbs in The Charge of the Light Brigade, this is a very evocative word. If you stumble, it’s like you’re out of control. Wilfred Owen says a man caught in a mustard gas attack was ‘stumbling’ in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est – it doesn’t sound like the noble, brave or glorious soldiers in The Charge of the Light Brigade with all their sabres flashing, racing on proud horses into battle. This sounds like a man running to escape, desperate. If we stumble, we are hesitant. We stumble when we are unsure, when we have made a mistake. It sounds as if this man is at great risk. Yet we are three lines into the poem, and other than the title, we have no concept of why he is running. 

Like other poems in the selection, Bayonet Charge also uses the natural as a contrast. He races towards a ‘green hedge’ – it seems strangely out of place on this battlefield. We’re reminded that often, battlefields are exactly that: fields. And yet, other than his khaki clothing and the title, we’ve had little other clue that this man is a soldier or is involved in a battle. We see here how incongruous a war would be, out in the countryside. It doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t seem natural. 

The first five lines use enjambment to run the lines into each other, so you end up saying them like this:

Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy, Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing Bullets smacking the belly out of the air –

It’s all one long breathless sentence – and it still doesn’t have a full stop when we get to line 5. So why would Ted Hughes want us to be breathless? Does it evoke and recreate the soldier’s own breathlessness, unable to take a pause?

Not only that, but we stumble over our words too, when reading it aloud. It makes us read the words in a halting, hesitant manner, although speeding through it. The line breaks don’t fall where maybe they might, similar in ways to Heaney in Storm on the Island. In contrast to that poem, though, where the secterian violence is an unmentioned backdrop to the poem, where the lexical field of war is used to paint a picture of how nature attacks the island, here it is the war which seems out of place. 

The fourth line is where we begin to see the images of war: the hedge is dazzling with ‘rifle fire’ – which makes us wonder why he’s running to the hedge – surely, if that’s where all the bullets are going, he’s better behind the bullet line? Is he just running into danger? The verb ‘dazzled’ is very reminiscent of words in The Charge of the Light Brigade, which also uses words like ‘flashed’ to describe the weaponry. It’s these verbs that make the poem so vivid and recreate the sights of conflict. ‘Dazzled’, to me, doesn’t have the same visceral brutality as ‘smacked’ in the next line. Dazzled, if anything, is quite pretty. Smacked is not.

Ted Hughes personifies nature here, the air, saying the bullets ‘smacked’ the belly out of the air. It’s as if nature itself is the target: it’s the hedge being shot up, it’s the air that is being shot in the belly. Belly is also a fairly basic, evocative word. In fact, the word belly was banned from the Bible for a couple of centuries! Still, children often say ‘tummy’ rather than ‘belly’ and if you ask a grown-up they might say stomach, or a doctor might say ‘abdomen’ – belly is still a word that has got a fairly crude whiff about it. It’s a brutal, basic word. The Bible sees the belly as the seat of all our more primitive emotions, lust, greed and so on. Put it with ‘smacking’ and you’ve got some fairly brutal, harsh language. Couple that with the image of the air being shot at, and you’ve got a really powerful image. The ‘b’s in this line are also fairly plosive. Your mouth closes to say the ‘b’ (like other plosive sounds) and then pushes it from your mouth. Plosive sounds are often used by Hughes and his contemporary, Heaney, to have an oral effect. And the effect of a plosive explosion of ‘b’s? It’s harsh, basic and violent. Those plosive words ‘belly’ and ‘bullets’ really add to the effect of the poem, how violent it sounds. You might think I’m labouring the point but there are only four ‘b’ plosive sounds in the first verse, and two of them are on this line. This image of nature being attacked by war is the reverse of the images that we see in Exposure where it is nature that is the enemy.

Following these harsh plosives and the personification of the air, we have a simile: ‘he lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm’. This image shows how the rifle has become almost like an extra limb – albeit a useless one. It’s dead weight. It’s also a very violent image – a ‘smashed’ arm – not just broken, but ‘smashed’. It couldn’t be much more brutal. It reminds us that the machinery and weaponry of war is senseless, literally, unfeeling. It’s a part of him, like an arm, but also it’s not a part of him – it’s useless, a hindrance.

Hughes moves to the pluperfect tense when he describes the patriotism that ‘had’ driven this man, suggesting that it is not there now. Now it is ‘sweating like molten iron’ from him – iron being heavy, weighing him down, but also metal – an inanimate object as unfeeling as the rifle. All of these metallic images seem to make him sound ‘robotic’ – like he is being replaced by metal and weaponry, like Robocop.

At that moment, he is ‘bewildered’, confused. And what confuses him? That confusion also echoes the confusion of Owen in Exposure. It reminds me here of another Owen poem too, Futility, where Owen reflects on God and life, how pointless the miracle of the universe seems when lives are snuffed out so easily and without consequence or even recognition. 

Where Owen refers to the ‘cold’ emotionless clay that formed the world in Futility, Hughes calls it a ‘cold clockwork’ suggesting something emotionless and mechanical, inhuman. The alliteration of ‘c’ – cuh – is cutting. It’s another plosive sound – kuh – and it’s cacophonous – dischordant. It stands out. It emphasises the ‘cold clockwork’ – making us think about it. The alliteration draws attention to it. Again, like many of the other poems in the selection, God is not present in this war. It continues the theme of this literally ‘god-forsaken’ war – a war that God can have no part in. All we are is ‘cold clockwork’ – the universe is something mechanised, something emotionless. The soldier ponders his place in time, where all this conflict fits in the grand scheme of things. In the billions of years that have passed and may pass, what is the significance of this war? Like Owen, even like Tennyson, he raises questions that almost cannot be answered, because the answer is that life, death and conflict are meaningless, pointless. And that very nihilistic thought is almost too depressing to live with. No wonder the soldier almost stops.

He ‘listens’ for the reason for things, and finds no reason at all.

Out in the middle of this chaos, where the soldier is frozen like a statue, a ‘yellow hare’ appears. The land here is ‘shot slashed’ and it reminds me that no matter where you go in a war-ravaged area, you cannot but think of the tragedy and the blood spilt, that the rain and seasons have now washed away. We don’t know if the hare has been shot, but it seems injured. It is ‘threshing’, in a circle, like an animal might do with a broken leg, unable to go in a straight line. It comes from the word ‘thrashing’, as in ‘thrashing about’ – moving ‘in a violent and convulsive way’ – it doesn’t head for freedom. Its mouth is ‘wide/Open silent,’ and here, Hughes uses the enjambment and the semi-caesura of the comma to make this bit fractured and fragmented, disjointed. It’s a terrible image, this hare in pain on the battlefield, reminding us that war is totally opposite to what is natural and good. It destroys the natural order of things. It gets worse. The hare isn’t just thrashing about violently in a circle, with its mouth open, as if screaming silently, but its eyes are ‘standing out’ – it’s terrified. Its last moments are in pain, terror and fear. It’s a hideous image. But then, is it any different for any of the soldiers who die? The hare seems almost a euphemistic, softer way of making us think about the soldiers who died in similar ways. It’s almost too painful to imagine.

Still, this spurs the soldier on, to make it to the safety of the green hedge, if safety is what he’ll find there. Hedges are often homes and protection for small birds, small countryside animals like voles and mice, protecting them from predators, and here, I’m reminded of the sanctuary a hedge provides for smaller creatures from things like hawks. A hedge is their fortress. Yet we know a hedge isn’t going to protect this soldier from bullets or bayonets.

What spurs him on? Patriotism. ‘King, honour, human dignity’ – like Henry V spurring on his men in Shakespeare’s play, who rallies his men with ‘cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George!’ (and if you want a great rallying call that picks up on patriotism and loyalty, Henry V’s speech is a great place to start, since it picks up on loads of great images that are used to spur men on to be victorious in battle, like Henry V was at Agincourt) – but Hughes undermines the effect of this little tripartite rally (there’s your little persuasive list of three, like ‘Harry, England and St George!’) with ‘etcetera’ as if he can’t be bothered to name all the other trite and meaningless words that fill his spirit. It’s a real anticlimax. Shakespeare finishes on ‘St George’ – a real build-up – and yet  Hughes undermines his with this little ‘etcetera’ – as if you already know how it goes. It really shows how hollow and pointless this is, this use of anticlimax at the end. If those words did make you feel patriotic, then ‘etcetera’ bursts that patriotic bubble.

Hughes calls these thoughts ‘luxuries’ – as if in war, he can’t afford to be driven by these thoughts. A luxury is something we can do without, something non-essential, something additional or extra to what we need. Still, it is these thoughts that spur him on to finally make his way to safety. If, again, that’s what the hedge is. I can’t help but think if the hedge is ‘dazzling’ with gun shot, he’s actually going to find this isn’t a safe haven at all. A luxury can be a comfort, though, and we get the feeling that although these feelings of patriotism aren’t essential to battle, it’s what keeps him going. When he stops to question what it is all about, Hughes tells us: country, honour, dignity. It’s a battle for something more than land. You are doing it for something bigger than you will ever be. And it’s enough to light this man’s fuse.

We then get a sense that the hedge is hiding the enemy – he gets his bayonet out and runs at the hedge. It’s as if he’s attacking nature. Of course, Hughes doesn’t say that he’s running into the enemy. This soldier has gone ‘over the top’ and is running at the enemy. The hedge is marking the enemy. The dazzling is rifle fire. The hedge is not protection, but the enemy. He is running to certain death. A bayonet is a knife that you fit to the end of your rifle in order to charge at the enemy – designed for close-quarter combat, man on man. It’s a last-resort weapon – it’s not ‘clean’ like rifle fire, because you’re up close and personal with the men you have to kill, and if you are in a situation where you have to use a bayonet, your chance of survival is pretty limited. This soldier is nothing but ‘cannon fodder’ – food for the enemy, served up on a plate. They have nothing to do but run at the enemy and hope to overwhelm them. It’s an utterly pointless and useless method of combat reserved only for speeding up death when picking off people by rifle fire is taking too long, and you are cornered without ammunition or supplies.

It worked in earlier wars, where a platoon could run across a battlefield or no-man’s-land knowing that the enemy might only get off a couple of rounds, because muskets took such a long time to load. But it didn’t work by the time of World War One, because rifles were so much more accurate and so much more quick to load. A bayonet charge was a battle tactic that was outdated and cost many, many lives. So we get a sense of how ridiculous it is for this man to run with his bayonet at a hedge-full of whatever enemy it is that he’s facing. We also get no sense that he is in company. There’s a real feeling that he’s alone and that he’s facing a larger number of this nameless enemy – his prospects of living are very slim.

What it is finally that sets fire to the ‘dynamite’ of his terror is a little thought of patriotism. It is his ‘dynamite’ terror if anything that is forcing him to run, to fight, not honour or duty or loyalty or patriotism.

Next week, an exploration of Remains by Simon Armitage

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.


An analysis of Before You Were Mine by Carol Ann Duffy

This is another poem, like Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage which has been analysed to death, hence another reason I left it so late to explore. I can’t count the number of years it’s appeared on the GCSE syllabus. Like Mother, it’s on there because there’s so much you can say about it and it’s generally quite accessible, which is why it’s a perennial exam board favourite. I like Carol Ann Duffy. I love The World’s Wife and she writes poetry that is just very, very good. It’s interesting and you never feel cheated by her poetry. They’re always very thought-provoking and I never feel I want to read more than one or two in a go, just so I can spend a little time chewing them over and thinking about them. Plus, I like the way some of her poetry is borderline psychotic. Okay. A lot of her poetry is borderline psychotic. More than you might expect.

This poem celebrates the poet’s mother in a more unusual way, reflecting on the life her mother had before she became a mother. I think we’ve all done this, haven’t we, looked back at a photo of our parents or grandparents, and wondered about their lives, the moment that led up to the photograph. The people our parents once were before they were parents. The central theme of the poem is made clear in the title and we pick up once again in the personal nature of the poem.

Like many others in the selection for the new AQA anthology, this poem is directly addressed to the poet’s mother, which we see even in the title. Again, we sense that same feeling of being an intruder in something that is intimate and personal, putting the reader in the position of Duffy’s mother. This use of a very personal tone makes us an insider in that relationship, reading things we might never have read as an outsider. We get to share in something that is private and reflective. Unlike Walking Away or Mother, this poem doesn’t just take one moment for reflection: it uses the first memory, perhaps a photograph, as a springboard to explore her mother’s life at that time, imagining the life her mother leads, the conversations she may have had. In terms of the way the ideas are structured in the poem, we get a sense of a passage through time, each stanza marking a shift in time or place.

Unusually, Duffy isn’t writing from a fixed point in her own existence, either. Her own reference point isn’t clear, moving from “I’m not here yet” to “I remember my hands in those high-heeled red shoes” and “You’d teach me the steps”. Just like our memories, there’s no sense of beginning or ending – we shift between them in the exact same way our memory does, and we move fluidly from one to another. There is a kind of sense of linear progression, from her mother’s teenage years to the first years of motherhood, but it isn’t clearly defined. What I particularly like about the poem is the notion of “relics”, the objects from the past that create a trace of that moment and evoke that time when you look at them. I think the poem does that. It feels like an archive of a sort, a collection of memories that serve to define her mother.

We get this feeling as well with the tense of the poem: we start off with a mention of the past in the title, “Before…” and then the poem is present tense in parts, such as describing the mother with Maggie and Jean. We get some complex turns-of-phrase, verbally speaking, with “I knew you would dance like that”, which suggests Duffy has always known, with some certainty, but there is also the possibility and hypothetical feeling of “would” which is unusual. We move back to the present tense and its sense of immediacy in “You reckon it’s worth it” which gives us the feeling that Duffy can see her mother at that exact moment in time. It also gives her an aura of omniscience, that she knows everything her mother is thinking and feeling, which gives us the impression of this strong bond between the pair.

She moves into the past tense when she says “the decade ahead… was the best one, eh?” which is once more reflective, but then moves to the present, “I remember” and how her mother’s ghost “clatters”. Back to the past “You’d teach”, which is again unusual with the “would” – suggesting imaginary rather than real past: it’s not “you taught” but “you would teach” and we move to the past as Duffy remembers “I wanted… before I was born”

All these time shifts add to the feeling that she is dipping into her memories, constructing her mother’s past, imagining how it was. It’s funny because she as the poet is in control of her mother’s story, the way in which she presents her mother to us, adding another layer of possession to the poem. In writing about her mother, she is creating a past for her. Her mother has become a character in her daughter’s poem, controlled by her daughter. She defines how we see her mother, as well as how she sees her. The way she writes about her mother’s youth as if she can see it gives us the sense that she is looking in on her mother’s life, a being yet to take form, waiting for her moment.

Duffy writes in free verse, much more than any other poet we have yet seen in the selection other than Owen Sheers. She is not playing with sonnets and half-rhyme as Armitage does. Her stanzas work like paragraphs, each stanza with a new focus. The last line brings the poem back to the title and back to the beginning. We have various time references, but the poem is not chronological. Or, it is loosely chronological. The final stanza refers to a time when Duffy was born, harking back to a past even then. The first three stanzas seem to cover the ten years before Duffy was born, but we have no sense of the sequence of events, if indeed they are real events. Duffy certainly presents them as if they are, though. There’s a sense that these memories are actual events, due to the biographical details she gives us… the people who were there, the laughter, the setting. She sets up a tableau, almost creating a photograph or video clip in our minds of precisely what her mother was doing. The way she includes little movements, “you laugh”, “the three of you bend from the waist, holding each other… shriek at the pavement… your polka-dot skirt blows round your legs” – this sense of motion and movement is what brings the poem to life for me.

In terms of form and organisation, we have free-verse, with lots of enjambment and caesura which I’ll consider when we get to language, since it has more of an impact on the words and their meaning. The poem is organised with four even stanzas of five lines. The syllabic length of the lines varies but is generally fairly even too. The title threads through the poem, picking up in verse two and again in verse five, connecting the beginning to the ending. It remains the strong focus of the poem, but it also adds to this sense of time-travelling, the moving backwards and forwards between the past and the present, like loops rather than a strict chronology. The poem is also framed by the two pavements, the pavements with Maggie McGeeney and Jean Duff, and “the wrong pavement” on the way home from Mass. Each verse seems to cover a tableau, making it seem like a selection of photographs and artefacts of her mother’s life. I’ve got a box of relics from my life and it’s like she has the same, picking out one thing after another and using it as a key to evoke an (imagined?) memory from that time. Maybe the writer knows these moments for sure if her mother has told her the story behind the photograph or the object, or maybe she’s just imagining them.

The language is at once ordinary, colloquial, with “pals” and “a hiding” from “your Ma”, “You reckon” and “eh”. It’s also familiar, “sweetheart,”. I find it sweetly selfish, like a child would be, littered with “I” and “me”, thinking of everything in connection to herself as a child might. But there is also a glamour to the language, with “the ballroom with the thousand eyes, the fizzy, movie tomorrows”, the “red shoes”, the “tree with its lights”, “the glamorous love” with her mother who “sparkles” and “waltzes” and “laughs”.

Verse one immediately creates this self-centred tone: “I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on” – and gives us also the sense of dipping through time, whilst setting the scene. We don’t know that this is her mother yet on a first reading. There’s a simplicity and mundane quality to the words: they’re not poetic high diction. In that, they recreate that every-day mood, the fact that there is nothing fancy, elegant or elaborate. As mentioned before, the present tense also brings it to life and inserts the poet into her mother’s life as a teenager with her friends. It’s a very descriptive verse, telling us about her mother’s “polka dot dress” and it’s also a verse with lots of movement in it, as they “shriek” and the dress “blows round” her mother’s legs. She calls her mother Marilyn, evoking the famous image of Marilyn Monroe standing above a subway air vent, so that we get an image of how her mother’s skirt is blowing around her legs. It does more than that though. It creates an image of her mother as a glamorous, fun woman who has a sex appeal not unlike Marilyn. She sees an image of her mother as careless and free, something that she would no longer be after the birth of her daughter.

In the second verse, the poet reaffirms her position, how she is looking back at her mother’s life, “I’m not here yet.” Not only that, her mother is far from thinking of motherhood, “The thought of me doesn’t occur”, and we get a different image of her mother, this time in a ballroom. When Duffy describes it as “the ballroom with the thousand eyes”, it’s very evocative, making me think perhaps most simply of a ballroom filled with hundreds of people, but also it has a sense that they are all perhaps looking at her mother. Again, it’s a flirtatious image of her mother and she sees her as glamorous, the centre of attention, where her mother is free to go home with any one of those people looking at her. She imagines the “fizzy, movie tomorrows”. I love that word “fizzy” here – it captures her mother, the bubbly effervescence of her – and also perhaps the butterfly feelings of the “movie tomorrows” – you wouldn’t naturally put “fizzy” with the “movie tomorrows”, but we have a real sense of the time period too, as we did with “Marilyn”, of the 1950s and the happy glamour of her mother’s life, when she is free to walk home with whomever she wants. The way “fizzy, movie tomorrows” sits at the end of the line also adds a little emphasis to it, encouraging us to consider the loveliness of these words and what image they paint of her mother’s life.

The scene once again becomes more than a photo, more than a tableau, when it says “I knew you would dance like that” and it brings the scene to life, more of a movie than a photograph. I think this phrase also makes me know how well Duffy knows her mother, that she knows how she would dance. Duffy then moves on to describe a very typical scene for so many: getting told off for coming home late and missing curfew. I’m sure we can all imagine a mother waiting furiously for her daughter’s late return and the certain punishment that would follow. She doesn’t just recreate her mother’s the with her friends, with the boys she walks home with, but also with her mother, showing it to be as typical as any. She presents her mother as rebellious and daring, carefree, accepting a punishment in return for all the fun she has had.

In stanza three, Duffy continues this idea, a rather bitter tone to her question, “the decade ahead of my loud, possessive yell was the best one, eh?” and we sense her envy that she did not get to share this side of her mother, and we begin to see that they carve out a new story, she remembers “my hands” in her mother’s shoes and calls them “relics”. Things change. Red heels may be fine for the life she had before Duffy was born, but after her daughter arrives, they are “relics” and playthings for her daughter. The memory is layered: as a daughter, Duffy remembers putting her hands in the shoes, and she imagines her mother wearing them as she “clatters” towards her. This has a couple of senses we can take from it: is her mother now dead, hence the “ghost”? Or is it that hazy kind of memory (even though this is one that Duffy is constructing) and her mother seems like a ghost as the memory materialises? If her mother is dead at the time of the poem, it takes on a new level of sentimental pathos: it’s not just the woman her mother was that Duffy is “possessive” over, but everything to do with her mother. The simile “clear as scent” is interesting, since scent is not clear to see at all, a vapour, and we realise her mother is not there at all. Still, Duffy sees the details as she has done before, the tree lit up that forms the background, the fact her mother has lovebites. The way she calls her mother “sweetheart” is curious too – something of a role reversal. We remember that this is the adult Duffy writing, and she is much older when writing than her mother was in the memory, which adds to the sense of role-reversal. These questions show a curiosity about her mother’s life, a bitterness that she doesn’t share the intimate details of her mother’s teenage years.

In stanza five, we find Duffy’s mother and Duffy together, getting a sense of the mother she was. To me, it seems like she retained much that was fun and lively, doing the cha cha on the way home from church. The stars are the sparks from the metal on the soles of their shoes, but this is the “wrong” pavement. Even though she has a fun relationship with her mother, what she wants is to know her mother as she was in Scotland. She tells us that even as a young girl, she wanted to know her mother as she was. She’s envious of the fun person her mother was, wanting to know that person, not the mother she has.

Through these imagined scenes, Duffy presents a vision of her mother. We have to understand that these are constructed memories, perhaps based on photographs or artefacts, but we have no way of knowing if they are real representations of her mother or not. Ironically, she is in complete control of her mother’s past in how she paints it.

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