How to memorise quotes for English Literature exams

Monday, November 14, 2016 by

How to memorise quotes for English Literature exams

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  1. Go through your exercise book and gather quotes
    It’s the best revision resource you have! Look back through your notes and essays. Make a list of the quotes you’ve used often – there’s a reason you keep coming back to them.
  2. Little and often
    Choose five or six at a time to work on. Trying to memorize too many will be difficult and you’re likely to get them mixed up. You won’t be able to learn 100 quotes in an afternoon – so start early, choose your list, and work through them gradually.
  3. Keep them short
    A sentence at most is plenty. More than that, and you’re likely to start getting tangled. Besides, you don’t need whole sections in the exam – a few choice words or phrases is plenty if you choose wisely.
  1. Choose quotes for the most important characters and themes
    You should have a list of characters and themes – when you’re quote gathering, make sure you’re choosing a variety and they’re not all about the same character.
  1. Pick quotes that work hard – twist them to fit as much as you can
  1. Visualize
    Think of an image associated with it -either put this on the back of an index card, or use to link a series of quotes together.
  2. Draw cartoons or sketches to help you remember
  3. Use index cards in a variety of different ways
    On one side, write the quotation. On the other, write key words from it – EXAMPLE NEEDED. First, read the quote several times aloud. Then flip the card over and use the key words to jog your memory. Finally, hide the card and see if you can remember. (It can be good to just put one key word on the back as a reminder!) You could use quizlet or memrise, but a set of index cards is quicker to pull out of your bag in a spare moment or test a friend!
  4. Put sticky notes where you’ll see them.
    On the back of the bedroom door, on the mirror where you do your hair or make-up, or on the fridge door. Change them around every so often so you don’t glaze past them!
  1. Play games
    Use your index cards, and put them in a bag.
    Round 1: like Taboo, you can describe the quote without using any of the words in the quote. Work your way through all your cards and put them back in the bag.
    Round 2: act out the quotation (easier because you already know what’s in the pile!)
    Round 3: You get to say just one word to prompt your team to guess the quote (not from the quote itself!)
  2. Read, cover, say and write
    Use your index cards again – read them, cover them over, and repeat the quote. Check if you got it. Then repeat, and write it down. You can develop this to repeating the analysis of the quotes too
  1. Analyse each quote
    Write a quick analysis – you don’t need to write a whole paragraph but for each quote could add the literary vocabulary, key words about plot/character implications, what themes it applies to, where else in the novel/poetry it might link.
  2. Remember the importance of form and structure
    So it’s not quite about memorising quotations – but it is just as important, and often easier to learn! Make a quick list of techniques that you might write about for these – for example in a Jane Eyre essay you might want to remember the narrative voice, the bildungsroman form of the novel, the unreliable narrator or her theatrical elements, or the importance of settings at different stages of her life. You could also think about including aspects of language without quotation e.g. the motif of the bird, the symbol of fire that runs through the novel.
    These don’t need to be as close referenced (although they still need to be explored in detail) but you won’t panic about not being able to get the quote in the right order
  1. Don’t underestimate the single words!
    A selection of individual words from a novel can give just as interesting an impression as a sentence-long quote. And often if you’re choosing them from across the text, it can show a good mastery of the whole work. For each character or theme, make a quick list of the key words associated with them. For Ralph in The Lord of the Flies, you might have something like


  1. Record them onto a phone and play them over and over
    Most phones and computers have a microphone or memo function. You can record the quotes and then play them over again whenever you have a few spare minutes. Hearing them, mouthing the words along with yourself or saying them out loud can all help.

Don’t panic about getting the quote in the right order!
Examiners understand exam pressure. If you get the quote pretty much right, and a word or two misplaced, it’s not the end of the world. It’s better to include a slightly-off quote than not include any of it and miss all those analytical marks.

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Appropriation of Language in dystopian fiction

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 by

Appropriation of Language in dystopian fiction

As an English teacher – and student, still, I think! – I love novels that engage with the idea of language itself. For me, literature’s how we enter and understand the world, and dystopian novels often bring that to the forefront. They explore communication, memory, story-telling, and the way that language works to soothe, manipulate, warn, and memorialise. In particular, I’ve been studying The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 with A-Level students, and both novels have some interesting discussions about language’s role in our society.


Setting a novel in the future, as many speculative fictions do, language is a good way to ground a reader in the world. Names, places, common phrases and greetings all create a sense of otherness, the here-but-not-here.  Atwood’s entire social hierarchy is created through language. The Commanders carry connotations of the military and Handmaids draw on the religious basis of the society they now live in. The collective Wives and Daughters identify the women in relation to their social relationship to the men, immediately highlighting the extreme patriarchy of Gilead. This, of course, is taken to its extreme conclusion in Offred, the prefix ‘Of’ being affixed to the Commander’s name to name his Handmaid – and the names transferring to the new Handmaid when they are replaced, thoroughly robbing the Handmaid of any individual identity. Atwood’s also more playful with names elsewhere; “Serena Joy”, we learn in the Historical Notes, didn’t exist but is a pseudonym created by Offred with its satirical use of the qualities the Wife should have – serenity and joy at her place in the new order.


What better time to be looking at the way that ideology is promoted through language? There’s been several blog posts lately on the front-page headlines used to report the high court decision that Parliament need to vote on Article 50 – even the language of a headline deserves interrogation, and in propaganda and media, language is used to devastating effect. It would, by the way, make a fantastic English Language investigation -the language of dystopian fiction compared with current tabloids perhaps. Ever noticed how politicians “vow” and describing a problem is often called an “attack”? those words are loaded with meaning, and a novelist of dystopian fiction can use these connotations to their advantage.

Contextually, there’s huge precedent, of course. Consider Nazi Germany’s slogans – One “people, one country, one leader!”, “Work makes you free” or the Soviet union’s “Workers of the world, unite”. Think about some of the newspaper articles or political statements made recently, in the USA and in the UK. There’s a frightening amount of “make our country great”, “take back our country”, and so on. Historical dystopias promise unity and cohesion, but often at the expense of one social group – to begin with. In fictional dystopia, much the same happens. In 1984, Orwell doesn’t spare the Soviet rhetoric – “the party” behaves in unison, as do “the proles”, while party members greet each other as “comrade” rather than by name. Winston’s job revolves around rewriting history, literally destroying previous written records and replacing them with “updated” versions. This is not only propaganda – the updates always portray the Party as victorious and reflect the current war – but is a reminder that history is told by the victorious, and every nation interprets history in their own way: there is no objective version once it has passed. In Gilead, Atwood uses language to present the religious ideologies that permeate the society. The Handmaids routinely greet one another with a pseudo-religious phrase – “Blessed be the fruit”; “May the Lord open”. The shops are named for biblical references, Loaves and Fishes, Soul Scrolls. All Flesh, Milk and Honey. Religious allusion is in everyday language, even Offred’s as she tries to recall the Lord’s Prayer, adheres to the Handmaids’ rituals, and explains herself with biblical references. Once an ideology has so permeated society that its expression is in everyday life, how can it ever be filtered out? A depressing thought, perhaps, when British newspapers are calling its judges “enemies of the people” and using racist rhetoric to describe refugees.

Rewriting history

Ensuring the past is prevalent in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as other dystopian fiction. While Winston rewrites History in his state-sanctioned job, Offred is telling her story in order to bear witness to what happens, to make sense of her experience – and her life. With everyone she loves gone, Offred comments at one stage that we’re alive as long as we’re remembered, but there’s nobody left to remember her unless she tells her story. But not simply recounting it. Atwood shows her rewriting, editing, changing story – changing the same story, as when she describes having sex with Nick three different ways, leaving the reader in doubt as to what happened at all.

‘It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances’.” (Ch 25, The Handmaid’s Tale)

Offred often interrupts herself to refocus her storytelling – to tell “a different story, a better story”, and we’re led to believe that this unreliable narrator isn’t telling is everything and is painting herself in a more positive light. In other dystopian fiction, writers use diaries – like P.D. James’ Children of Men which intersperses third person narrative with the protagonist’s diary. Winston in 1984 writes a diary to explore his response to the world he finds himself in. In Atwood’s book In Other Worlds, she describes the narrative techniques as a way for a character to make a journey to the dystopia and back again, their story often the only thing making it back. The dystopian fictions not only bear witness to the societies of the novels but to social anxieties of the writers – the ecological breakdown of Atwood’s Year of the Flood, religious extremism in The Handmaid’s Tale, loss of individual freedom in 1984, atomic destruction in The Road.

The slippery nature of language

Language, then, is explored as both mechanism for control and freedom. If it can control through rewriting history and propaganda and manipulating people’s thoughts, it can also be used to break free – the revolutionaries broadcasting their message, the witnesses telling their tales. Orwell and Atwood make this explicit in their writing. Offred frequently explores the difficulties of language as well as its joys – she plays with language, finds comfort in story-0telling, but also in the paths that different words take her down, for example in chapter 35 when she considers falling in love: “We fell, we were falling women.” Repeatedly, she notes that words have different meanings to different people, and that there’s no way to truly express precisely what you want and have another person understand it in exactly the same way.

More explicitly, both Atwood and Orwell include ‘additions’ to their novels in the form of the Appendix exploring Newspeak and the Historical Notes, from the Gileadean Studies conference. It’s essential to read both of these – several students don’t at first because they feel authentically written by the author and therefore not part of the story. Atwood’s notes from the conference are a further satire on the patriarchal system, this time the ‘gentler’ control that sees the male professor patronising the chair of the conference, making inappropriate jokes about her sexuality and taking credit for reshaping Offred’s narrative into something more ‘suitable – more linear, more ‘sensible. More male. Orwell’s newspeak appendix explores the concept further, the way that the Party have tried to reduce language itself to make thought itself controllable, to ensure that people aren’t able to think non-sanctioned thoughts because they don’t have the language to do so – the ultimate propaganda thought-control. Both these final chapters also fulfil the dystopian trope of the ‘return’ to an apparently better society. The academic nature of both suggests a distance sufficient that the dystopian period can be studied and explained without emotion. Both might suggest a more balanced society – neither dystopia, nor utopia. Just somewhere in between. As Atwood writes in In Other Worlds, “we should probably not try to make things perfect, especially not ourselves, for that path leads to mass graves. We’re stuck with us, imperfect as we are; but we should make the most of us.”


check out my study guide for The Handmaid’s Tale here

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GCSE Revision: comparing texts

Friday, October 21, 2016 by

GCSE Revision: comparing texts

We did this lesson this morning. Fuelled by last-day tiredness, meaning I was searching for something more creative, and also because that class is feeling a little burned about the amount of revision ahead (particularly as they have just complete d revision essay based on last year’s text, and feel like they don’t remember much!)

It was so simple, fun, and awesome.

They wrote the name of every character they’ve studied on a piece of paper.

From Jane Eyre, Lord of the Flies, Much Ado About Nothing, and the Love and Relationships poetry cluster – a recall exercise which had them reaching for every character, and as they started listing, they started talking. We got plot, theme, imagery and symbolism all coming in as they tried to remember. Comments I heard around the room included the religious significance of Mr Brocklehurst and Helen Burns, “that poem about the vine wrapped around the tree” and, of course, checking tricky spellings like Benedick!

Once they had everyone they could recall, down to Mr Singh and Mrs Singh (Singh Song!), their next task was to draw comparisons between different characters across different texts.

It was a joy to hear them. We had conversations about the femme fatales of Celine Varens and Porphyria, of villains, anti-heroes and innocent victims. We had the “sad men” of the Winter Swans and Farmer’s Bride, the Christ-like Simon and Helen Burns, and the boy in Walking Away linked with Perceval Wemyss Madison from the Lord of the Flies.

Following that, several groups also started putting images beside the characters, building the language and visual memory that we’re aiming for: the bird of Jane Eyre, the vampire of Bertha Mason, the masks of Jack and Don John.

It was a great lesson. They were so enthusiastic – itself a feat on the last day of a long half-term! – and went out having had a great time realising ho2016-10-21-12-02-13 w much they actually know.

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Revision guides for GCSE English: 

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Study Guide

Thursday, October 20, 2016 by

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Ten tips for A-Level Literature students

Saturday, October 1, 2016 by

Ten tips for A-Level Literature students

  1. Read the set texts

Ok, so this is THE most obvious statement. But it’s also the absolutely most important thing.

First time through, read it quickly. If it’s a novel, try to get it read in a week or so. Read it as a reader. Then, when you’ve finished, write a quick response to it. Don’t worry about being academic here, but think about what you remember about it, your first impressions on finishing, the characters and ideas of it.

Read all the set texts. Get the list in advance and read all of them – a large part of the A-Level will be about comparison so don’t wait until you’re required to read them but read them in advance so that you can start comparing straight away.

  1. Buy your own copies.

If you can’t afford it, and are on the bursary scheme, then have a chat with your teacher and the school might well be able to buy you a copy. But there’s also loads of second-hand, good quality copies through Amazon marketplace, so you can pick up most of the set texts for a couple of pounds It makes a massive difference.

  1. Read beyond the essential

Some exam boards give you a wider reading list. Read it all. Make quick notes at the end on what you think, the storyline, major characters and themes.

But even if they don’t give you a reading list, read more. Studying Literature means setting the books and plays you read in their wider contexts – both historical and literary. Make sure it’s a mixture of classic and modern, genre, style – but read good quality stuff. There’s so much of it! Marketplace, charity shops and the library are great sources. We give this list to our GCSE students, and ask A-Level students how much they’ve read.

  1. Know your study sources

Shmoop, Wikipedia, Sparknotes, Litcharts and so on aren’t going away any time soon. But you need to know how to use them well. They’re fine for broad overview. They can be a good confidence boost, giving them a quick skim read when you’ve read the text, to check you haven’t missed anything major. But they’re not going to give you A-Level quality analysis. They’re not realty going to give you GCSE quality analysis. So use sparingly.

Instead, up your game. Look for academic, rigorous sources that have a pedigree behind them – sites by teachers, academics, and academic institutions. Some good ones in particular include and the British Library Romantics and Victorian section. Reading these sources will challenge you a little bit more, and you’ll have to apply what you’re reading to your specific text, which is also great for the contextual elements of the exam as well as being good prep for university if that’s what you’re planning.

  1. Learn key quotes

This is a place where some of those online study sources can be helpful in looking up some quotes – but remember that everyone else has that too! Try to go for some ideas and quotes that not everyone will write about. Many of your exams will be closed book, so you’ll need to know the quotes. Even if they’re not closed book, then having the quotes at your fingertips is better anyway because it means you don’t have to hunt around for the quote in the book and waste precious writing time.

Write them down as you come across them – use a notebook specifically to make a quotes log, or a space in your folder. That way you won’t have to go hunting for them all again.

  1. Use your essays well

As a teacher, there’s nothing more heart-breaking than a student who doesn’t really look at anything other than the grade on their essay. Sure, that’s useful, but more useful is the feedback – and your own writing. When you get that essay back, look at the following:

What did you do well? Great, fantastic! Keep doing it.
What do you need to improve? Do you understand what the teacher means and where you’d do it? It’s a good idea to redo a paragraph or two, and ask if that’s what they’re looking for.
Which aspects of analysis have really worked well? Add those key quotes into your quotes log.

  1. Buy stationery

I love it. I spent an hour in Paperchase at the end of August choosing the right marking pens. You don’t need loads of stuff. But a few things can really help:

  • Highlighters and a decent biro – get over the not writing in books. Write in your books. Make notes on lines, language, connections to different pages. Add in extra notes if you need to – my A-Level copy of Great Expectations still has a printed and glued in plot summary by chapter in the back cover! This is what one of my poetry anthologies for GCSE teaching looks like.poetryanalysis
  • Flag post its – use them colour-coded by theme or character, or scribble a quick word on them to help find things quickly in class
  1. Practice your writing, not just your content

It’s a true fact that if you write confidently you sound more academic, more like you really understand the text. I’ve written about that elsewhere so check out some of those blogs, particularly on introductions, but do think about your style of writing when you’re writing essays. You can also read online, and in your library about the best ways to structure essays. Your teacher should have some good examples from previous years as well – don’t be afraid to look at the ways they start sentences or paragraphs, the way they write conclusions, the language they’re using beyond the subject vocabulary. Writing at a high level is great for the future too.

  1. Contribute in class

It’s such a struggle when students are off because at A-Level, I’d estimate that around 65% or more of the lesson is discussion-based. Try to contribute as much as you can, to share ideas and comment on other people’s thoughts too. If you find that kind of thing hard, you can scribble a quick note and then read it, or make a comment that links to something similar somewhere else in the novel. If you are pretty confident, then think about improving your level of discussion, your academic language, and what you can learn from your teacher who is, after all, an expert in this! Confidence and an eloquent speaking style is a great bonus when you’re going to uni or for a job.

  1. Learn how to make great notes

Great note-taking isn’t about writing down everything. It’s a mixture of getting down the discussion, interpreting it, interrogating it, and responding to it.

I like the Cornell system, which encourages you to think about it as you write, and uses a wide left-hand margin where you essentially add sub-headings as you write, forming a kind of cue-system. I also tend to either underline key vocabulary or write it in capitals so it’s clear.

Write notes by hand. It’ll help keep in practice for exams, which have to be handwritten, and there’s also a great connection between hand and memory – you’re more likely to remember something hand-written than typed.


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The symbolism of clothing and colour in The Handmaid’s Tale

Thursday, September 1, 2016 by

The symbolism of clothing and colour in The Handmaid’s Tale

One of the texts I’m teaching this coming year is Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as part of the dystopian topic for OCR A-Level literature. Re-reading it (again!) it’s striking how much the colours play a part in the makeup of this novel.

Clothing in dystopian fiction is an important signifier. The totalitarian dystopias – The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and so on – use clothing as a method of control, ensuring that divisions (often power hierarchies) are respected, and that people are in their appropriate places. In 1984, the Party members wear black or blue overalls (a working man’s clothing, removing distinctions of gender but maintaining the distinction of Inner or Outer party), Atwood’s characters are strictly defined by their coloured uniforms. The hierarchies in The Handmaid’s Tale are made clear through the clothing the women in particular are forced to wear.


Red is loaded with symbolic meaning in the novel. The most obvious is the colour of the Handmaids’ dresses, long, draping, covering every inch of their bodies. Frequently she complains how hot and uncomfortable the clothing is, a physical constant oppression, and remembers ‘freedom’ as the ability to wear less, for women to wear what they chose. When the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels nightclub, the clothing is vibrant, bright and multi-coloured but a perverted inversion of what Offred remembers as freedom. As a Handmaid, Offred also wears red gloves and shoes. Atwood specifically explains the symbolism: “the colour of blood, which defines us”, yet there is also more to it than that. Red is certainly associated with menstrual blood and the womb; it’s also oppressive and over-powering, almost too vibrant (see Jane Eyre’s terrifying experience, for example of its oppressive horrors). Red in the novel comes to symbolise all blood, for example the men hanging in the square and other acts of violence in the novels are described with red prominent; blood is not only life but death – just as birth is in Gilead. Red is associated with lust and overpowering passion – not the pretty romantic pink of sweet innocent love. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850), tells the story of Hester Prynne, condemned to wear a scarlet A on her dress, symbolising her adultery. The Handmaids are designed for adultery, and their clothing reflects that.


Frequently used as a stark contrast to white, symbolising innocence and purity. The Daughters wear white until marriage, for example, and Offred’s underwear is white. It’s also used as a frequent visual image to marry red and white together – the bodies hanging on the wall have white bags on their heads, splashed with red – a shocking and brutal contrast.

The wings of the Handmaids’ uniform are white, blocking their view of the world and hiding them from sight in turn – wrapping them in the colour of innocence.


The Wives wear blue, a colour associated with Mary, the Madonna, and symbolising their ultimate role as mothers – but pure mothers, ones who have not conceived themselves but rear the children anyway. Offred often seems envious of the coolness of Serena Joy’s clothes – “Her dress is crisp cool cotton. For her it’s blue, watercolour, not this red of mine that sucks in heat and blazes with it at the same time.” She’s also jealous, although she rarely admits it, of some of Serena Joy’s additional freedoms and higher place in the hierarchy of women, noting that Serena Joy could, at any moment, have her reassigned or worse. Occasionally Offred refers to the blue of the sky as protective – warm, enveloping her – perhaps a reference to the protection offered the Wives by the outward signs of their status. Serena Joy’s flowers – a motif in themselves! – also reflect the contrast of blue and red;

 “Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve,”

Here, the irises are blue, cool and frozen, symbolic of Serena Joy’s wifely status with her lack of fertility, in contrast with the red tulips that are overflowing with seedpods, being destroyed by Serena Joy’s shears, a vicious representation of Serena’s feelings towards Offred.


The Marthas, domestic servants running the home, dress in green, a colour associated with nature but also cleanliness and health – medical organisations frequently use green as a colour of healing. The Guardians (remember – full title “Guardians of the Faith”) also wear a green uniform, reminiscent of military garb, and indicating their role to protect and defend Gilead.


Traditionally used to symbolise death and threat, used by Atwood as the primary colour for the Eyes and their vans. It’s also a sign of power and often in description in the novel, accompanied with the vans, surveillance, the authority, brings to mind connotations of the SS officers’ uniforms in Nazi Germany, particularly with the other insignia worn.


Men and women in the Colonies wear grey, symbolising their lack of importance and their “unwoman”/”unman” status – an interesting comparison perhaps with Fitzgerald’s “ash grey men” in the Valley of Ashes, in The Great Gatsby.


Occupying a strange space on the very fringes of the novel, the Econowives are very like the Proles in 1984; they are working class, therefore beyond the novel’s scope and beyond the notice in many ways of the ruling powers, the Commanders, Wives and so on. They wear “striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy,” a mix of colours (although still the prescribed colours – the women are clearly still subject to many restrictions) indicating their need to fulfil the roles separated by Wife, Handmaid and Martha.

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Lessons from examining AS Literature

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 by


This year I examined the Modern Drama and Prose paper for OCR. Obviously as an examiner, I have to respect certain confidentiality etc so the following is not specific to actual candidates, but will reflect the way I approach my own class in September.  As this was the first time my department went with OCR, there’s also some reflection to do on the process as a teacher/curriculum leader.

As it ended up quite a length post, here’s a summary:

  • Understand the way the mark-scheme is applied, shading the answer with assessment objectives.
  • Answer the whole
  • Balance seen/unseen texts, and genuinely compare them within a coherent argument
  • Have good handwriting

Using the mark-scheme

I really like the OCR approach to the mark-scheme. At standardising (which was face to face) it was very clear that we were expected to be using the top band which, often in my teaching experience, AQA doesn’t as much, and their grade boundaries don’t require it to the same extent. I haven’t extensively explored the new spec so someone may correct me and I’ll happily change but the mark bands seem broadly in line percentage wise (the top being 21/25 for AQA and 26/30 for OCR) and work similarly down. The descriptors aren’t quite as easy to map across but don’t seem particularly different. OCR’s mark bands include, in order, the key words Excellent / Good / Competent / Some / Limited. AQA’s key words are Perceptive/Assured – Coherent/thorough – straightforward/relevant – simple/generalised – Irrelevant/inaccurate.

OCR’s method appealed to me more personally. Allocate the band (excellent/good etc) and then use the addressing of the AOs to shade the mark within that band. So someone who’s written a superb essay on a play, clearly gets the whole writer’s methods, the critical interpretation, but who’s missed a fair bit of context, can still achieve “Excellent.”

When teaching, I’d still say you need to make students aware of the AOs – what they need to cover to write a great essay. You still need to make sure there are some essays when they need critical interpretations and others where they don’t. But for me it was less mechanistic than I’ve previously found, and I wasn’t trying to find ten marks for context even though the analysis of form, structure and language was outstandingly good. It felt more balanced.

Answer the whole question

I’d say on reflection this was the major difference between top and second band candidates for me. The question is usually something like:

“When Blanche says she can’t stand a naked light-bulb, she means she can’t face the truth”. In the light of this comment, discuss the role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.

A competent student will write an essay on Blanche’s character. It’ll be decently structured, explore her changes. Linguistic analysis is decent, closely quoted/reference and there’s a sense the candidate knows the play and understands it. Some contextual knowledge, though it’s not always that relevant. They’ll mostly refer to the question sentence – discuss the role of Blanche. This does them a disservice in two ways: one, they’ll not fully address the whole argument about her importance, and two, they’ll find it harder, actually, to pin this down and their argument becomes fuzzy and unfocused. It’s too big to address in forty-five minutes – the statement helps to pin it down.

A good candidate will write an essay on Blanche’s character, and be more focused on the facing of the truth – the argument will include comments at the end of many paragraphs linking back to this theme, they won’t stray into too many other themes. Context will be a bit more selective, too – the use of plastic theatre to create the sense of unreality, maybe, or the fact that Williams struggled with reality in his own life, both his sexuality and his sister’s illness. Although these might be mentioned by a less qualified candidate, the application will be better here. Their argument will be about truth and illusion in some way, rather than Blanche in general.

An excellent student will use the whole quotation to create a very structured debate. They might explore the idea that Blanche’s retreat into madness is a failure to face reality, or that she chooses to hide from truth where she can. Often they used the motif of light to do this as well, fully using the whole quotation. Especially in this question, it was a superv way in given the deterioration of the light, its changes from subtle to glaring, the symbolism of the lantern being torn away and so on. Some of the most impressive suggested that Blanche fully understands the truth but chooses to manipulate it, and pointed out the irony that when she finally does tell the truth about Stanley’s rape, nobody believes her.

Precision, in short, is the benefit. I think a big problem for A-Level students in 45 minutes is deciding what to include and it can feel like a waste to know so much and go into an exam only o write about “one thing”, as a student once told me. But by really focusing on the whole quotation you’re not overwhelmed by the whole text, and can write a very focused, detailed essay.

Write a great introduction

Be clear, specific and precise. Address the whole question. Be authoritative and confident. Address each assessment objective in the introduction however briefly.

Do not say “I am going to write” or anything of that nature. Or “it can be argued.”

More on introductions here.

Dealing with the extract question

For the post-1900 novel question, the balance of the extract and the novel was best it seemed when it was around about 1/3 extract, 2/3 novel. Some of the most interesting answers had a very coherent structure, identifying similarities in a topic sentence and working out from there, e.g. in the 1984 question focusing paragraphs on ideas like: the clothing of the characters; the names including Ministry of Love contrasted with the Palace of Corrections; the use of language – removing Newspeak, and the character’s use of “we” as being reductive; both characters writing a diary; the physical setting of the cracked walls in the extract and the state of Victory mansions; the use of names – Equality 72521 and comrade; the idea of resistance being impossible. These connections could either be very closely language focused or more thematic, but they worked to tether the two together. Excellent answers also wove the seen and unseen together in each paragraph, moving back and forth between them. They also referred to the whole (seen) text in different ways. Some references to the appendix were particularly good on noting that Orwell’s 1984 seems to come to an end at some future point, suggesting that removal of individuality is fundamentality impossible.

These kind of comments are also good because they have a connected, coherent argument rather than a discussion almost without a thread of purpose. It’s easy to pick three things off that list, write a paragraph or two on each (which could go in any order) and then it’s done. But I don’t think that leads to excellence. An argument is still needed, and the ways each novelist approaches the theme are just as important. That’ll be my focus with the unseen for A Level, and the Dystopian comparison.

Being able to use the whole of the information was important here too. Those who look at the dates, for example, and discern something about the changes in society that affected the writer. Again, engagement with the question rather than a pre-prepared answer. I think the Carter suffered from people trying to shoehorn in ideas about the Gothic when that wasn’t in the question – this is not a comparative study paper, and students need to be prepared for the text not the genre. You could address the Gothic very effectively, but only if it serves discussion about the relationship with the supernatural in fairytale.

Handwriting is important.

We don’t pay enough attention to this, I think. I read so many that I found really difficult. Good, clear handwriting is essential – it’s easier to read in the first place, and it scans better at the resolution used by exam boards. And quite simply when you’re struggling to read the words, the sense of the argument gets lost. It’s almost inevitable, as this article in the Guardian also suggests.

Write in black, write clearly and at a decent size. Obviously nobody’s going to count words to a line in an exam but as a decent size check I’d say around ten would be about right. I read some scripts where there were four words to a line, and that was just as difficult as reading some where there were twenty. All our practice essays are handwritten and I do comment on handwriting.


Given that length I’d better finish there! I’d love to share ideas about this and prep for the coming year – you can find me on twitter @miss_tiggr for more!

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Creating readers – or literary critics?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 by

Creating readers – or literary critics?

While writing this post on the importance of colour symbolism, I was writing about the ways we often expect students to implicitly understand the symbolism in literature, and I wrote the sentence: “it’s part of our job as literary critics to figure out whether that choice is important.” I almost edited it to write “as readers”, but then decided it crystallised a few things for me that I’d been thinking about. One was the ongoing debate about how to create great readers, and the other was something that had stuck in my head from reading the research of model texts which commented that of all the genres taught in an English classroom, the literary analysis was a genre rarely found outside academia.

Clearly, the need to be a fluent, confident and interested reader comes first – and I am fortunate to work in a school where the vast majority of Year 7s come in as keen confident readers, and it’s up to us to maintain that rather than create it (although that still presents challenges!) But by KS4, the requirements have changed somewhat, especially with more emphasis on literature in the Language exams.

So maybe the discussion about ‘readers’ is misleading? After all, consider the differences between the two:

Readers Literary critics
Read for pleasure
Often read in the same genres
Read based on recommendations from others
Skip, skim or don’t finish if they don’t enjoy it
Put books down and come back to them
Compare to what they’ve read
Focus on emotional response and connection
Finish books.
Read what they wouldn’t ‘read for pleasure’
Read in context of literary history and criticism
Compare to what they’ve read, and what they’ve read about literature
Read based on academic interest
Focus on writers’ techniques, methods and representation

The important ones for me here in the context of literary study is that readers read what they want, when they want, and in their own context. Literary critics read based on their current research interests and bring a wealth of literary history and criticism to their reading.

That’s the section that we need to focus on with our students to enable them to truly engage with the literature that they’re studying at a very analytical level. The emotional response can be important – but it can be made richer if they understand other things. Although “context” as an assessment objective is often lightly weighted, in my view it’s essential to truly understand the book.

An example – a common GCSE text, Frankenstein, which has come up in a recent Twitter discussion.

A reader might read this often dense, complex text and enjoy it, find it interesting and have an emotional connection to the story through the monster’s portrayal, and the deaths that occur in the book.

A literary critic will also consider the following:

  • Mary Shelley’s personal life, including her controversial personal life, the early miscarriages and deaths of her children.
  • The emergence of scientific enquiry, its rapid developments in the era, and public concern over the potential outcomes of these experiments
  • Religious understandings of the time
  • Shelley’s family upbringings with Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s also sometimes controversial, progressive views
  • The genre of science-fiction and its inception at this time, and its path since
  • A knowledge of new historicist and feminist approaches to literature

With an understanding of those elements, the text becomes richer, and we can explore the novel as not just a good read, but something more that speaks to our humanity and helps us to understand more about ourselves – the hallmarks of a classic, in my view.

Achieving this in the class-room

Clearly, reading has to come first. A reader who isn’t fluent and confident is going to struggle with Frankenstein because of its density. I usually get students to read the chapter in advance, and spend some time discussing their initial response as a reader. And then, a bit at a time, unfold the context behind it. Giving students a piece of information at a time – how does that change your view? Does that explain something you had trouble with before? How else can we read that chapter now you know this? Give them a school of thought and ask them to decide whether they agree.

Writing like a critic

I think this also has implications for writing style, as I alluded to at the start. In many academic journals you’ll not see the forensic pulling to pieces of individual words that students have been guided towards in recent GCSE specifications. Instead you see a much more consolidated overview, one that takes in the whole text but can see patterns, linguistic and structural, using an occasional pertinent example, Take this example from an undergrad thesis on The Handmaid’s Tale:

The red dress also masks individual identity by making the women virtually indistinguishable from each other. Offred describes the first sighting of another handmaid in the story, Ofglen, her shopping companion, in these terms, “a shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket”. Offred shows the lack of identity among handmaids through the descriptions of her companion. Ofglen is described as “nondescript” and “a shape like mine,” indicating that this dehumanization of handmaids occurs even among the ranks of the handmaids. The handmaids first lose their identity when their name is replaced with the derivative of their commander’s name, such as Ofwarren, Ofglen, and Offred, but their identity is lost a second time through their mandated uniform. Instead of individual expression, the handmaids are draped with fabric so that they become one recognizable caste separate from society.


Nobody could argue with the style of this writing – and it is more the style I’ve been teaching this year with the closed book exams next year, and the OCR A-Level that we’ve been teaching too.  I think this benefits closed book exams – few quotations needed but a deep understanding of the ideas behind the text, not just plot and character arc. Using small extracts from this kind of academic writing is often just as valuable as pre-written model answers.

In my own learning, I’ve come to love even more the books that improve on study – the ones which were entertaining reads but, once you get down to it, they’re so well-crafted, layered and complex that you could study them for years and find something new each time. Students love that too.

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