Revise AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 3

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

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

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

Let’s start by looking at the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, your comment is much of everything.

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

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

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

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

So how do you go about preparing for this question?

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

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

First, put a box around the given lines.

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

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

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

I’ll show you how here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s put that all together:

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

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

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

If I have to summarise:

  1. Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

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

Tips for answering AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 3

Last week, I looked at what kind of things you might want to discuss when responding to AQA’s English Language GCSE question about structure on Paper 1. Question 3 is a new style of question and it has thrown many people into a state of confusion, most of which has now settled following the first exam series.

To recap, there are several things to remember:

  • You can look at a number of structural devices and techniques from zooming in to circular structures, but the main thing we are interested in is “Why THISHERENOW?” 
  • You don’t need to refer to complex terminology: there is no hierarchy that says ‘exposition’ is better than ‘development’ or that you need to know words like dénouement to get 7 or 8 marks. It’s what you do with the structural terminology that shows ‘sophisticated and accurate use’
  • There are lots of things to avoid. Narrative viewpoint and sentence structures are two of those. They are hard to write about in terms of the arrangement of ideas. Best avoided unless you are absolutely sure about how you can use these to writer about how the ideas are arranged.
  • It’s the quality of comment that is the important thing. We want to know what you think about the structure.

The following is a good list of things you MIGHT find, but it is not exhaustive and neither is it compulsory learning.

Some of the aspects you might want to explore are:

  • changes from a big focus to a small focus
  • narrowing in
  • zooming out
  • shifts of time
  • shifts of topic
  • shifts of person
  • shifts of place
  • sudden introductions or changes
  • gradual introductions or changes
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • foreshadowing
  • shifts in narrative position
  • external actions of characters
  • internal thoughts of characters
  • shifting point of view
  • developments
  • repetitions
  • circular structures

Now, because structure involves dealing with a whole passage, and because I don’t want to reprint whole passages here, I’m going to ask you to refer to this Youtube video to show how I manage a whole text and what I’m looking for. The text is taken from Cambridge IGCSE in that it worked to talk about structure. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good example that loosely fits, even if it’s not from AQA.

The reason why you need to watch the video is because it’s lengthy to discuss how to approach exploring structure and I need to navigate back and forward across the whole text.

You can find a copy of the text here

In the video, I talk you through the broad aspects of the text I could write about. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are the possibilities:

  1. The mixed feelings of the crowd at the beginning
  2. How those feelings change first from growing positivity to ‘disarray’ by the end
  3. Anuja’s growing anger
  4. How Anuja goes from being the outsider to being the leader of the community group
  5. How Anuja changes the group’s view
  6. How Rufus Carmichael goes from being the confident salesman to becoming angry
  7. Why the writer zooms in on his face when he is angry
  8. Why the writer switches perspective from Rufus to Anuja several times like watching a tennis match – we switch focus from one side to another
  9. The focus on the falcon at the end and the insect
  10. The way the writer finishes on a cliffhanger with the ‘portent’ and possible foreshadowing
  11. Tracking through the shifting emotions and feelings of the crowd
  12. Why the writer gives us the details about the ‘cold drinks’ and the ‘glossy plans’
  13. The turning point, where Anuja wins the crowd back to conserving the common land
  14. The way the writer reveals Anuja’s internal thoughts vs the external description of Rufus
  15. The turning point where he loses control of the meeting
  16. What happens to Rufus at the end
  17. The metaphorical ‘dark cloud’ on his face and then the mention of the actual storm
  18. How and why the writer leaves us with a sense that FoodFreight will get their way

So you can see, without referring once to 1st person narrative, tense, sentence structures, sentence length, Freytag or Todorov, I still have plenty to say. The passage you will get will be the same. It will be so rich in structural stuff that you shouldn’t need to rely on spotting features.

Also, if you just take, at its most simple, what ideas, characters and themes we have at the beginning, or what the situation is at the beginning, and how those develop or change, you will have more than enough to say. You seriously won’t be stuck for ideas.

Okay, so you want to know what Level 1 – 4 look like. Remember, the question is marked in 4 levels, not in the 9 grades, which makes my head hurt. The question is worth 8 marks. Just to make it more confusing. There is nothing to say 7 or 8 marks is a grade 9, or that 1 or 2 is a grade 1…. confusing Maths headache!

But you want to know how do you get as many marks as possible.

Level 1 covers 1 or 2 marks.
Level 2 covers 3 or 4 marks.
Level 3 covers 5 or 6 marks.
Level 4 covers 7 or 8 marks.

Like Question 2, you will find the same key words. Simple understanding for Level 1, some understanding for Level 2, clear understanding for Level 3 and perceptive understanding for Level 4.

It’s practically the same markscheme you saw for Q2, except instead of saying textual detail, it say ‘examples’. That means you might refer to a part of the text or you might use a quote, but it doesn’t have to be a quote.

So you want to know what each level looks like and why it gets the mark it does?

Level 1

At the beginning of the source, the writer focuses our attention on the crowd, as they are introduced in the first sentence. Then there is a shift of focus to Anuja before it moves back to the crowd who are waiting to hear the plans about the town. This structure is interesting as it could make us interested in Anuja because she is in the first part of the text and we may want to see what happens to her in the rest of the passage. The way the writer structures the text makes me interested as a reader and want to read on to find out what happens. 

The writer then changes the focus to Rufus Carmichael. This interests the reader as we can link back to the beginning. 

The story is written in chronological order which adds a further perspective to the story. The reader is interested as the events continue and it adds a sense of drama. 

This is a very good example of what Level 1 answers look like. It has many simple comments (underlined) which could be about practically any text, but they show a simple understanding of structure. The comments are very general. It mentions the main characters and the crowd briefly, but that’s all we get. There are some references to structural features (in orange) which also shows some simple understanding of structure. There are some simple references to parts of the text (non-italicised). It does everything to get a mark of 2.

If you want to move up from Level 1 to Level 2, you have to cut right back on the simple comments like ‘makes you want to read on’, ‘grabs your attention’, ‘make it interesting for the reader’, ‘give a better image for the reader’. You have to cut these right back to zero.

Level 2

At the beginning of the source, the writer describes the crowd “many eager to hear plans that might bring prosperity to the town. Others wore grim expressions” which gives an overall feeling about how the crowd are feeling interested but also annoyed. This allows the reader to understand the feelings in the room As the source develops the writer changes our focus onto Rufus Carmichael who tells them that the site is an eyesore and that it is no use so they might as well build on it which makes the reader agree with him as it sounds disgusting. After that the writer shows us Anuja getting angry which we don’t understand. At the end of the source the writer introduces a falcon and uses foreshadowing which indicates there is conflict and to possibly show the next actions of Rufus Carmichael. 

This is a very good example of a level 2 response. It has some more specific comments on the aspects of structure that it has picked out, although mostly that involves putting it into their own words or explaining briefly how it sounds. It’s picked out some relevant details (in italics) and uses some subject terminology (in orange) that shows the candidate has some understanding of structural features, but they haven’t quite got it yet.

To move up to level 3, the response needs to really address why that specific structural feature is important or interesting to be positioned right there. Why is it important we understand the feelings of the crowd at the beginning? Why is it important that we agree with Rufus Carmichael when he is speaking at that point? Why is it interesting that it finishes with some foreshadowing and the image of the falcon and the insect?

Level 3

At the beginning of this extract, we are introduced to a scene in which there is a crowd. We are also told about a person named Anuja who has been specifically named, which makes us think that she might be important. We also find out that it is a meeting about a development which might bring money into the town. This is giving us the background information that we need to understand why the meeting is being held. We are told that the crowd have mixed feelings, with some being “eager” and some being “grim”, so we understand the atmosphere. The way that Anuja “scanned” the people makes her seem like a bit of an observer at the beginning, rather than telling us if she is also eager about the plans or if she is unhappy. 

As we move to the middle, the mood in the crowd changes and they seem to be more eager and convinced that the development plan is a good ideaThe writer only focuses on Rufus and on Anuja whilst he is speaking, and then they say “people squirmed in their seats, turning to their neighbours to exchange excited comments” and we see that instead of feeling angry like Anuja does, they actually feel excited. This is so we understand that Anuja’s views are different from the crowd and we understand why she “could stand it no longer”. Everybody else is being won over and she feels that they are being bribed and taken advantage of, so she has to speak up.

At the end although the meeting breaks up “in disarray” and we feel like Rufus has lost his battle, we get the feeling that it is not over yet. Rufus Carmichael says “We will get our way!” and the writer uses foreshadowing with the image of the falcon, which makes us think that FoodFreight is the falcon who will come and snap up the common land for their depot. 

This is a good example of Level 3 for six marks. It clearly understands the sequence and position of ideas. It has a number of clear comments (underlined) about what the position of the ideas makes us think at each point. It also picks out some clear examples and references to the text (in italics) and has some clear understanding of why the writer has chosen to position the ideas where they have.

To move up into Level 4, a more careful selection of structural features will help the candidate be more perceptive. It’s all about the selection. An overview of the whole passage will also help. Writing in more detail about each detail selected (having picked out fewer details) will also help with the ‘detailed’ side of Level 4.

Level 4

This passage focuses on the changing emotions of a village as they hear a proposal about a new depot that could be built. At first, the crowd are divided between being “eager” and having “grim expressions”, but they are quickly won over by the sales pitch from the FoodFreight representative. After the turning point where Anuja stands up and reminds the villagers of the importance of the plot of land, it is clear that the villagers have won the first battle in what will probably be a war with the company, but there is a sense that the “titanic battle” is far from over.

At the beginning, the writer allows us to see the internal thoughts of the villagers, describing some as “eager”, but the writer also focuses on the external reactions of their faces, with “grim expressions”. For Anuja, who will play the pivotal role in shifting the villagers’ feelings, she is doing nothing other than observing the room and we are unaware of her own feelings about the proposed depot. There is a juxtaposition between the wealth of the representative, who looks “well-fed” and the crowd who are “roughly dressed” and “weather beaten”. We get a sense that they are definitely the underdogs and as we move through the passage, it is clear Anuja thinks they are being taken advantage of and ‘bribed’.

In the middle of the text, we see the mood swing as Carmichael convinces them that the land is a health hazard that is of no use. It’s important that we see this shift towards him. The writer also switches each paragraph from a focus on Carmichael to a focus on Anuja. We see Carmichael’s words (but not his internal thoughts) compared to Anuja’s internal thoughts which give us an idea of how angry she is and how amazed that Carmichael could suggest the place is infested with vermin, not recognising that it is a sanctuary for the falcons. The pivotal moment where she stands up and redirects the crowd shows how easily they were tricked by the sales talk, but also how valuable the land is to them really.

By the end, then, it is clear the villagers have ‘won’ the battle. Carmichael’s final words are menacing, when he says “we will have our way”, and the falcon takes on a different meaning. At first, we saw the falcon as a symbol of the beauty and value of the land, a natural image that reminds us of the beauty of nature, but by the end we remember that it is a predator, not unlike the company, and that it is the natural order of life that predators will pick off ‘insects’, which is perhaps a subtle reference to the fact that the battle will indeed be ‘titanic’ as the “weather-beaten” villagers will have to fight off the slick and ‘glossy’ power of the development company. However, we don’t know if the falcon caught the insect in the final image, as the writer says the falcon “swooped” then “veered away” and we don’t know if the insect lived to see another day. There is a sense of inevitability by the end that the development company will have their way, and the ‘dark clouds’ that pass across Carmichael’s face are picked up with the image of the rain and lightning giving us a sense that the battle is really only beginning.

This is my own response – it took me 12 minutes, so it’s on the long side. You know me well enough by now to know that I have a problem reining in the word count. To be honest, it’s the over-the-top 8 of an English teacher, but I wanted to show you how important it is to have an overview and to pick up on the most interesting details. By tracking through the text and tracing the establishment and development of ideas, you can see how easy it is to comment on structure without relying on sentence forms, sentence lengths, narrative voice or Freytag’s pyramid. Better answers will have embedded quotations, a very carefully selected range of quotations or references, a clear understanding of structural features in general as well as the ability to apply that understanding to the text before them. They will pick up on subtle, less obvious details which show a careful reading. Subject terminology will also be embedded and you will not find a “feature first” approach.

For teachers reading this, I would be working with my students on careful reading of the text. Broad brushstrokes first, then narrowing down to precise details. I would be teaching students how to look at the beginning and the ending, looking at what changes from the start to the end, and why we need to know what we do at the beginning. I’d be teaching how to use those narrow details in embedded sentences. I’d run through four or five extracts in modelled and shared reading sessions in which we’d look at all the toolkit of common structural features and think about why they are used in general before asking how that specifically relates to the text in front of them. For instance, why would a writer generally use a flashback or foreshadowing, why would they use juxtaposition or explain the internal thoughts of a character? Then apply that understanding to the text.

For students, I’d be practising with a range of different texts. Since the exam from AQA is new and it has been a while since there have been fiction passages on the paper, you could always look at Edexcel, OCR or Eduqas fiction papers from other years as a source. You want to practise in a range of ways. Practise giving yourself lots of time, then under timed conditions. The more you do, the better you’ll get at those careful readings.

To summarise:

If I have to summarise:

  1. Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

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 very limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour and I am also taking bookings for September 2018 for Year 9 and 10 students.

AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 Question 3

In the last few posts, I’ve been looking at the paper itself, Question 1, lots on Question 2 and this time we’ll be moving on to Question 3. Question 3 is commonly known as ‘the structure question’. I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about what structure is and what structure isn’t, since it’s still a bit of a minefield to some, despite the copious guidance sent out from AQA.

This question was hugely, massively overcomplicated and it needn’t be. It builds on Question 1, which looks at the first information, and Question 2 which looks at an early paragraph. It’s helpful that it builds up in this way. Question 3 then looks at the whole text.

The question itself is new, which is part of the problem as to what it involved. That said, the question is not going to vary. Most of the language of the question is going to be the same. It is worth 8 marks and should take you around 10 minutes to complete. The space given is two sides, and that should be more than enough for most candidates, excepting those with larger handwriting.

Remember that one of the problems of getting your timing wrong on this question, as for Question 2, is that it will penalise you, time-wise, later in the paper, which is worth 75% of the final mark. It’s just not worthwhile labouring over this question and trying to squeeze out three sections under the misguided notion that there are three bullet points and you must address them all. Yet I’m still seeing things on the internet saying this is a trick and you should cross that ‘could’ out and you MUST or SHOULD refer to all the bullets. The bullet points are there as a structure for anyone who wants to use them. They are not a straitjacket or a trick.

So, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the question itself.

It asks you to ‘think about the whole of the source’.

Then it tells you where in the text the passage comes from. That might be interesting if you are thinking in terms of how the writer involves the reader in the narrative, or how they tie up loose ends if it comes from the ending. This information is helpful as it aids you in understanding the position of the extract as part of a whole. Mostly, it’s going to come from the beginning or from an interesting bit.

The question then asks you:

“How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?”

It once again, like Question 2, gives you three bullet points to help you. As a reminder, these are could not should, but students aiming to hit 4 or 5 marks of the 8 available may find the bullet points about the beginning of the source and as the source develops will give them a simple focus that helps them access the low-to-mid range marks of the markscheme, as indeed it does for candidates aiming for 7 or 8 out of 8. Unlike Question 2, where the bullet points give you ideas of things you may want to look at, Question 3 benefits from a closer following of these bullet points.

That said, those bullet points are suggestions. You will not be penalised if you don’t use them or you find other structural features interesting to write about.

Before I move on to how this question is marked, I want to focus a little on what structure is, and what it isn’t, what it could include and what it’s best to steer clear of.

Structure simply means “the arrangement of and relations between the parts of something more complex”

That definition is worth bearing in mind here. It is about how the ideas are organised, the sequence of those ideas, and the way the ideas follow or precede one another.

Organisation. Sequence. Links & connections. 

Those three things cover most of the structural aspects you will ever need to write about.

That’s Question 3 at its most simple.

Organisation. Sequence. Links & connections. 

There are some questions I would be looking for to prompt me:

  • What changes?
  • What develops?
  • What is introduced?
  • Why this, here, now? 

And I would be looking at how we get from the beginning to the ending, asking these specific questions.

Some of the aspects you might want to explore are:

  • changes from a big focus to a small focus
  • narrowing in
  • zooming out
  • shifts of time
  • shifts of topic
  • shifts of person
  • shifts of place
  • sudden introductions or changes
  • gradual introductions or changes
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • foreshadowing
  • shifts in narrative position
  • external actions of characters
  • internal thoughts of characters
  • shifting point of view
  • developments
  • repetitions
  • circular structures

This is not a list for you to learn or to go spotting those features in the text.

Above all, I care about “Why THIS, HERE, NOW?” 

Mostly, you are going to be looking at beginnings, endings and shifts in between. You are going to be looking at the whole text, or shifts between paragraphs, but very little on sentences or at word level. You could look at sentences or words, but there will be so much in the text to look at for whole text, or paragraph to paragraph, that you will not need to. Not only that, but you will tie yourself up in knots trying to write about structure when you’re writing about sentences or language features.

In AQA’s ridiculously helpful booklet Paper 1 Question 3 Further Insights, you are given 12 questions that may help you to explore structural features:

Possible key questions move from the what, to how and on to why. They could include:
1. When I first start to read the text, what is the writer focusing my attention on?
2. How is this being developed?
3. What feature of structure is evident at this point?
4. Why might the writer have deliberately chosen to begin the text with this focus and therefore make use of this particular feature of structure?
5. What main points of focus does the writer develop in sequence after the starting point?
6. How is each being developed?
7. Why is the writer taking me through this particular sequence?
8. How is this specific to helping me relate to the intended meaning(s) at these points?
9. What does the writer focus my attention on at the end of the text?
10. How is this developed as a structural feature?
11. How am I left thinking or feeling at the end?
12. Why might the writer have sought to bring me to this point of interest/understanding?

Those questions will help you find interesting things about organisation and the way the ideas are put together.

Now for the markscheme…

Like Question 2, the things we are marking you on are not equally weighted. Your comment on the effect of this arrangement of ideas is the most important thing. Then I’m looking for your use of evidence and your subject terminology. I’ll look more on comments in a future post.

That subject terminology throws yet another curveball for teachers. It means things like ‘the writer focuses us on… the writer zooms in… the writer changes perspective when… we have a change of focus when… the writer uses a flashback when… the writer shifts from the character’s actions to the character’s thoughts when… ‘

Yet again, ‘sophisticated’ for 7 or 8 marks seems to have been misconstrued by some teachers. You can see this dotted around the internet and Youtube with references to Freytag’s pyramid and Todorov’s Narrative Sequence… terms that are practically useless for candidates and hard for most candidates to get their head around. Whilst (many?) teachers will understand that you apply theories retrospectively, writers don’t write to a kind of recipe. You can analyse Shakespeare in many ways: his cultural New Historicism, via Marxism, via Feminism, via Homer Simpson’s Theory of Life, if you like…. but Shakespeare didn’t set out with Feminism, for example, in mind. Unless he was a time traveller or particularly insightful about the cultural ideologies that would follow. The truth of the matter is that when young minds are introduced badly to narrative features, they then write about them as if the writer were making deliberate choices in line with political or theatrical thought. Very unhelpful. Not least when all I want to know is why the writer put this idea before the one that follows, or why he repeats one idea from the beginning to the end.

No Freytag’s Pyramid, if you please. I don’t even want you to go and look that up if you’ve never heard of it. Likewise with Todorov’s Narrative Sequence. If you’ve stumbled across these on Youtube, please just put them aside and don’t over-complicate it.

Being able to identify the exposition or the rising narrative, the dénouement or the falling action is no more useful for Question 3 than identifying Horseshoe Monkeynuts is on Question 2. Just in case you’re off on Wikipedia looking for Horseshoe Monkeynuts, it’s not an actual linguistic term, but it’s no less ridiculous than someone seeking the cataphoric references in a text. Feature spotting is not your friend.

There is no hierarchy in which ‘beginning, middle and end’ are less ‘sophisticated’ in terminology than ‘exposition, rising action and dénouement’.

What I’d like, please, is some subject terminology about structure.

Yes, about structure.

Now…. this is where it gets tricky.

Is Narrative Voice a structural feature? Is an omniscient narrator a structural feature? Is tense a structural feature?

Well… they CAN be. Sure, they CAN be.

But telling candidates that it IS structure and focusing on them is not really about ‘organisation and arrangement of ideas’, is it?

Writing about narrative viewpoint or tense can often be a real dead-end, so I’d tend to avoid them completely in favour of the whopping great big list of actual organisational features I gave you above.

Likewise sentences. In the “Further Insights” booklet, there is a very good example of how you can write about sentences for Question 3. What it is essentially getting at is the need for you to write about the content of that sentence, not its construction. This is not the place to write about simple sentences, compound sentences or complex sentences. They are not structural devices about the arrangement of ideas. No, it is the ideas they contain that are the bit worth writing about.

I can happily show you how to write about sentences in ways that will satisfy a marker for Question 2 or Question 3, and the different ways you need to explore them.

But…

In my opinion, and this is very much my own opinion, it is better to completely ignore sentences altogether on Question 2 and 3. They are such a minefield that you can easily end up writing about them in ways that aren’t about language or structure and that lovely fat paragraph you have about compound-complex sentences (??!!!) is not only hard to mark, it is worth nothing. Writing about sentences in the wrong way on either question is as if you have suddenly started writing in Spanish. It’s very nice, dear, and it may well be perfectly interesting and accurate in its own way, but it’s not within the small little box of my markscheme and I don’t know what to do with it.

Best avoided completely.

Not only that, but there is SO MUCH you can write about that if you get to the point where you feel you’ve got to feature-spot some random made-up sentence type then you need to revisit what you know about structure, and what structure means. Like on Question 2, the chief examiner will have picked out a text so rich in language and structure that you could write about it for five hours without ever once having to refer to sentence types or sentence lengths.

When I get a response that is two paragraphs, and it focuses on the narrative viewpoint in one and the sentence lengths in the other, it is really, really hard to mark. Not only that, it shows very limited understanding of what structure ACTUALLY is. It’d have to be done in such a way that it’d take me 5000 words to explain it. I’d rather the answer was focused around Freytag’s Flipping Pyramid.

Finally, where it comes to the comment, we need specifics, not generalisations. Please avoid the following: “makes the reader want to read on, hooks the reader, makes the reader interested” without developing. Anything like those, or even posh versions, is just ‘simple response’ that is applicable to most, if not all text.

So, in summary:

  • You need some structural language, but you don’t need to ever know the word dénouement. There is no hierarchy that says ‘the focus at the beginning’ is worse than ‘the exposition’.
  • There are lots of things to avoid. Narrative viewpoint and sentence structures are two of those. They are hard to write about in terms of the arrangement of ideas. Best avoided unless you are absolutely sure about how you can use these to writer about how the ideas are arranged.
  • There are hundreds of things you can write about, and AQA’s booklet will help you if you don’t believe me
  • The comment is worth more than your quotation or your use of structural features. Your comment is what I’m after, not your fancy language.

In the next post, I’ll look at these ideas in practice, so you can see how I would approach a text in terms of structure, and the kind of comments you might want to make that will move you to 5, 6, 7 or 8 marks.