Sonnet 29 analysis – Elizabeth Barrett Browning AQA GCSE

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 by

Sonnet 29 analysis – Elizabeth Barrett Browning AQA GCSE

I’ve started (slowly!) creating a series of poetry flashcards for students: Sonnet 29 is here Sonnet 29 flashcard. Follow me on twitter to see when I finish!


Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Victorian poet, incredibly successful and celebrated in her time, both by the public and literary critics – she was the one other female poets were measured against. Perhaps her most famous and enduring collection is Sonnets from the Portugese, which was a collection of love poems written to Robert Browning – the one who wrote Porphyria’s Lover. They were in love at a distance for a long time, partly because her family disapproved of the relationship (she was disinherited following her marriage) and partly because she was quite an invalid, suffering from severe illness that left her bed-bound and in extreme pain. The collection was originally a privately written series of love letters that she didn’t intend to publish, but Browning persuaded her. “The Portugese” was his nickname for her, in part because she had a slightly darker skin-tone and short dark, tightly curled hair. Although she wrote a lot of political poetry – criticising conditions of working life, religious hypocrisy and so on – it is her love poetry which endures, perhaps because of its more universal themes.


The poem appears to be a response to a letter from a lover as the exclamation “I think of thee!” at the beginning seems to be a shocked, maybe even upset, response to something, maybe an accusation or question that she isn’t thinking of him enough. The rest of the poem is her describing the way that she thinks about him all the time. By the final lines, she’s come to the conclusion that when he’s near her she can’t think at all for longing. It’s a very physical poem, perhaps surprisingly so if your impression of Victorian women is all corsets and fainting at the hint of a table leg, but remember this was a private sonnet – and Barrett Browning was a relatively outspoken woman for her time. Yet still, expressing such passionate love was considered risqué, a little shocking, maybe even scandalous.

Barrett Browning writes in the sonnet form – 14 lines or iambic pentameter, and uses a specific rhyme scheme. While writing about form is essential for the top level marks, it must be applied to meaning. The sonnet is traditionally a love poem, which suits the purpose of the poem’s origins. It was also, at the time, slightly outdated and a little out of fashion, but again this was not originally intended for publication, so the private and personal nature of it perhaps suggests that the sonnet is used because it is more traditional, a suggestion that Barrett Browning’s love for Robert is more timeless and enduring. The sonnet also is quite tricky to write in some respects, and provides an intellectual challenge for a poet – many poets use traditional forms because they challenge the writer to work harder on their artistry and technique. Finally, the sonnet series also has a strong legacy of romantic communication – Shakespeare’s sonnets are the major example, written to communicate love to specific individuals rather than a generally published poem for public consumption. So, the sonnet has a long romantic tradition that heightens Barrett Browning’s declarations of love.

After the initial breathless exclamation with its caesura of disbelief or surprise, the dash pulls us into the series of short clauses, keeping up a pace that suggests her passion. The natural imagery Barrett Browning uses is interesting; the vine around the tree could suggest a symbiotic relationship, two people reliant on one another and so intertwined (the leaves) it’s hard to tell one from the other. But there’s also a sense of underlying threat, that she fears the relationship is suffocating as the vine “hides the wood” of the tree completely – is this suffocation or protection? It’s easy to believe that someone as ill as Browning would also feel herself a burden to those around her, especially when she’s unable to fulfil a conventional relationship perhaps. Alternatively, the vines-thoughts can be interpreted as her thoughts obscuring the reality of him (the wood, the tree), making it difficult to see him as he really is; this is further referenced in the “insphere thee” towards the end, where the suggestion is that the vines are clinging too hard and must be shaken off. The thoughts “do twine and bud” though, bringing new life – new hope and love. In simple English, she can’t stop thinking about him.

From line 5, she’s insistent that she would rather have him than only thoughts of him. This functions as the volta of this poem, earlier than traditional in a sonnet, maybe indicating the strength of her passion, that she’s too intense to wait until the proper time – things beginning to heat up a little! It’s also quite forceful, “be it understood” leaves no room for discussion – she will have him physically rather than in thought. The “palm tree” might sound like a strange choice – why not an oak, strong and protective, for example? There’s maybe some religious connotations here, an allusion to palm trees in Bible stories where they’re often associated with worship and is a symbol of faith. It’s also slightly exotic and strange, creating a frisson of excitement in her romance. It could be that she is positioning him as an oasis, a thought of relief in a desert of illness and loneliness.

Barrett Browning insists the reality of him is “dearer, better!” with the exclamative highlighting her passion, as well as the archaic “who art”, fitting the tone of the sonnet form. Archaic language is often also used to express deeper, enduring love, creating it into something as old and valued as the language describing it. There’s a further development at line 7 where she asks him to “instantly/renew thy presence”, the “renew” harking back to the “budding” thoughts she’s had, the sense of growth. And it’s another forceful instruction – “renew thy presence”, come and see me as soon as possible, as a “strong tree” or passionate lover should. Then there’s the additional eroticism of the “trunk all bare”, with the weight of the greenery as it “drop[s] heavily down”, unusual perhaps in the description of leaves (heavy doesn’t usually spring to mind) but creates a more physical image again.

There’s a remarkable physicality to the passionate second half; the language is all of the strong emotions and actions experienced: “trunk all bare,” “burst, shattered, everywhere!”, “breathe within thy shadow”, “deep joy”. From “rather” to “everywhere!” is a progressively faster, more passionate series of clauses. The triadic structure “burst, shattered, everywhere!” builds to this final destruction of the vine-thoughts, but does so almost violently with the plosive sounds and caesura adding to a fragmented sound which might sound like it would contrast with a love poem, but this is a love poem about passion.

The “deep joy” is experienced physically, in her breath, her sight, her hearing. By the end, she can’t think of him at all – her thoughts all vanish because he is, finally, a “new air”, physically with her.  The final “I am too near thee” is a neat place to compare structure with the opening line; then, all she could do is think of him – now his physical presence overwhelms her thoughts entirely.


In its use of natural imagery, Winter Swans is a great comparison, and has the added bonus of being a contrast in time, and in the stages of the relationship. Love’s Philosophy works beautifully here too, with its persuasive use of natural imagery and the emphasis on the physicality of love.

For something more challenging, perhaps turn to Follower, which emphasises the physicality of the loved one, in that case the speaker’s father. Perhaps most challenging (though in some ways interesting!) would be Porphyria;s Lover, of course written by Browning, the other partner in this relationship, comparing their use of lovers’ arrivals, maybe, and the impact of separation on love


Key terms: Can you answer?


Volta Caesura

Natural imagery




·       How does Browning use natural imagery to portray the relationship between the two?

·       What impression of masculinity does she create through her use of metaphor?

·       How does Browning express the intensity of her love?

·       Why does Browning use tI’mhe sonnet form for her poem?

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GCSE Language paper 1- student revision booklet

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 by

GCSE Language paper 1- student revision booklet

With loads of reading from @fkritson and Mr Hanson, I put together a student revision book for GCSE Language 1, It’s got some top tips, space for notes, peer assessment (inspired by C.Spalding!). The sharing of #teamenglish on Twitter is amazing.

I think the best way through this paper now is individual practice. I’m giving this booklet to students as a quick-reference guide in lessons. It’s also got a list of terminology suitable for each question. We’ll be doing regular questions at the beginning of lessons with a combination of self, peer and teacher assessment, and there’s a tracker at the back for them to chart their progress. The students have several copied papers with it to form the booklet, and there’s several more on the VLE with the expectation that they do some independently as well.

GCSE Language Paper 1 – student booklet

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Climbing My Grandfather: analysis AQA Love and Relationships

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 by

Climbing My Grandfather: analysis AQA Love and Relationships


Waterhouse is a contemporary poet; this was written in 2000, just before he died aged 41. Andrew Waterhouse was a concerned environmentalist, studying an MSc in Environmental Science and this follows through into his poetry. A review written after his death said that “His imagination is both vivid and uncluttered.” He uses his love of nature to inform his imagery.

“The world their writer imagines is full of solid objects and hard edges – stones, wood, frozen ground – which offer little purchase to its inhabitants. These may be familiar problems of modernity, but both the strength and the affliction of the work arise from an inability to domesticate solitude and self-doubt through the daily grind. His world, as it were, has nothing ordinary in it.”


The speaker this poem describes his grandfather with a sense of awe – he is an immense, mountainous man and the speaker decides to ‘climb’ him. It both brings to mind the childish activity of clambering across a relative as well as being an extended metaphor of developing understanding, as the poet gradually moves from foot to head to reach the “summit” of their grandfather. Written in free verse, in lines of more or less equal length, Waterhouse creates an impression of progression. It also contributes to the enormity of the grandfather and his mountainous presence – there is no opportunity for pause and little for reflection. The contrast between his size, evident in the continuous verse and continuous climbing, and the child suggested by the scrambling efforts, is heightened.

Although the poem begins “I decide to do it free”, we’re already aware of what will happen from the title. The speaker is in the present tense in this narrative, storytelling, poem, which gives us the impression that the poet is writing about his past but trying hard to recall the event in a vivid and immediate way, telling us every detail. And although the majority of the poem is focused on the character of the grandfather the opening line presents the speaker as intrepid and adventurous. There is some risk involved in mountain climbing but his lack of safety rope suggests his ambition of discovery.

The extended metaphor of mountain climbing is present from the start, “without a rope” suggesting that although this will be challenging it will also be possible to accomplish. As the poem continues, there’s references to the methods of climbing as well as the ground that is being covered.

We get a sense of the grandfather through the speaker’s description. He wears “old brogues”, similarly to Seamus Heaney’s grandfather and Carol Ann Duffy’s mother, the shoes seem to tell us about the man. These are an old-fashioned style and old themselves, “dusty and cracked”, perhaps uncared for but perhaps simply well-worn in and comfortable. The “dusty and cracked” base of the mountain is an “easy scramble” to get started. The verb “scramble” refers to a specific type of mountaineering, on gentle terrain, but it also suggests a childish movement, quite frantic and unplanned. As the speaker is “trying to get a grip”, we see that he’s not only trying to move up the grandfather’s mountainous body (again implying the age difference – and of course this is a childlike activity, climbing a seated relative!) but it’s part of the extended metaphor of developing an understanding.

The metaphor “climbing a mountain” has come to mean something that presents challenges, that it very difficult for us to achieve but which does give a sense of accomplishment when complete, Here Waterhouse uses it to explore the difficulties of knowing and understanding his grandfather, beginning with “trying to get a grip”. Sometimes this requires a “change of direction”; he describes the shirt, at the waistline, as “overhanging” which is both a description of a rock segment, a shelf or ledge in a mountain, and an affectionate reference to the grandfather’s dress. Climbing is difficult and needs footholds or handholds to keep safe – here they are provided by the “earth-stained hand”. Like Heaney and Dooley, Waterhouse seems to find some comfort in associating his grandfather with the earth. It’s suggestive of gardening, a care for the nature and world around him, perhaps also influential on Waterhouse’s own love of the environment. The grandfather works hard, with “splintered” nails which could sound painful but are used in this poem as part of the way to understand him, or climb higher.

The simile of finger’s skin as “smooth and thick like warm ice” is a striking one the grandfather’s hand is perhaps worn in a particular way (it reminds me of the mark from a pen for example, after many years), and the oxymoron of “warm ice” feels strange and unexpected. The full stop creates a rare caesura and forces us to pause for a moment on it, mimicking the climber’s rest at this point. In these lines about the hand, the rhythm picks up slightly, and an creates an impression of the climbing picking up speed, becoming a little more energetic and breathless.

With the movement onto his arm comes a slight moment of hesitation and reflection: “I discover the glassy ridge of a scar, place my feet gently in the old stitches”. It’s the first hint that there is something more underneath that might be disturbed with this climb. Again, the language is of mountains and nature – “glassy ridge”, “scar” – but the image brings vividly to mind the puckered and worn lines of a healed injury, confirmed by the “old stitches”. Here, the poet is gentle, stepping on the stitches rather than the scar to avoid further injury. It’s interesting that he doesn’t explore the scar in any detail. It isn’t his primary goal, which is to travel up to the summit, but he is also careful to avoid opening up wounds by probing into them.

Beginning the line “At his still firm shoulder” creates a renewed sense of purpose and movement, and here the lines develop into slightly shorter clauses as the climbing becomes more dangerous. The “shade” is a reference to above, perhaps the head – which is described so beautifully towards the end. The poet doesn’t look down;

The speaker notes that “climbing has its dangers”, and so does getting to know your family, particularly older members. As a child we see parents and grandparents as infallible, untouchable beings of immense wisdom that are distant from us in some unknowable way. Closing that gap and learning about them, their pasts, their secrets, can make them more human – both wonderful, in developing a different relationship, and terrible, if losing that sense of awesome inspiration.  But Waterhouse decides to press o in hopes of a better understanding. When we get to the “smiling mouth” there’s a sense of welcome; the speaker pauses and perhaps the adjective “refreshed” is a suggestion that he is always interested, even inspired, by the conversation he has with his grandfather. “To drink among the teeth” has connotations of something being taken in, even thirstily or greedily, to fortify and satisfy-  the speaker’s satisfaction with their relationship increasing as they get so much from it.

In this second half of the poem we have a further semantic field of aging, as Waterhouse is coming to terms with his grandfather’s age, an uneasy juxtaposition with the immortality of mountains as the “loose skin of the neck”, “soft and white” hair and “wrinkles” all show how closely Waterhouse views the aging man. Even as a child, there is a disbelieving realisation that although he might seem immortal – like mountains – it can’t really be true.

The “screed” cheek is another example of mountainous language and then we’re into the last long final sentence. Eight lines long, the clauses move at a quick pace – the climb here is “easy” – as he aims for the top of the head, the summit of the climb. The pace suggests his continued enthusiasm for the climb, and getting to know his grandfather. When he reaches the summit he is exhausted but finds immense peace and calm. The “clouds and birds circle”, it is warm and beautiful, reflecting the calm nature of the grandfather’s mind. The “soft and white” hair gives an impression of snow, as well as being a very personal identification; like the shoes, writers can often use hair to create a sense of character. The final lines – “knowing/the slow pulse of his good heart” slows the pace again to match the heartbeat, and suggests the two are in sync as Waterhouse has come to know and understand his grandfather. By using “heart” as the final line, Waterhouse also puts the emphasis back on the spiritual and emotional, rather than the physical description that dominated the middle section; this has been a relationship journey, with a successful ending.


Like several poems in the AQA Love and Relationships cluster this poem is one about family relationships. Before You Were Mine and Follower both explore similar ones, with children looking at an adult – in their case mother and father – to consider the relationship. Duffy’s poem is a little more bitter in some respects, and wants different information (her mother then, whereas Waterhouse wants his grandfather now). Heaney’s speaker Is, like Waterhouse, often in awe of his father and the two speakers both undergo a process of discovery. Yet Waterhouse’s is more optimistic whereas Heaney’s shows nostalgic regret, I feel, as the clouds, birds and heart of the end contrast with the sad understanding that Heaney’s father is walking behind the speaker as their roles have reversed with age. In the simple details, these poems also compare interestingly – the focus on shoes as symbolic of personality, for example, and the brief physical details, here the “smooth and thick” fingers with nails ripped and stained with dirt, Heaney’s father’s “eye that narrowed and roved”, Duffy’s Monroe dress.

I also think Dooley’s Letter’s from Yorkshire is an interesting comparison; both relationships are being processed and further understood. The men seem similar, their physical, natural descriptions both suggesting their connection with their environment which for Dooley creates some emotional distance, contrasting with her own technologically driven urban life whereas Waterhouse’s love of nature enables him to consider his grandfather a different way.

Can you answer?

  • How does the extended metaphor of climbingrepresent the relationship between speaker and grandfather?
  • What can you infer about the grandfather from the way he is being described?
  • Why does Waterhouse use one long free-verse stanza?
  • How does Waterhouse create a sense of motion and why?
  • Does this poem have universal appeal? Are there elements in it most can empathise with?

[1] Sean O’Brien, “Andrew Waterhouse”, The Guardian (2001)


Thinking about Section B in the poetry exam too, I like Phoebe Boswall’s Baking as a comparison question – it’s so gorgeous, and a little bit heart-breaking. She won the Foyle Young Poet’s Award in 2012 with it, aged 17 (PDF of Baking)


by Phoebe Boswall

Smells of baking remind me of you.
Your red apron, my small striped one with the torn pocket.
Your soft stretched skin, fingers kneading dough
into a ball. My fat floury hands
grasped for your amber necklace,
Quick, Phoebe, the oven!

You played with flavours,
made little blobs of buttery dough on the tray
Your warm kitchen, my safe haven.

You taught me your language:
bicarbonate of soda, self-raising flour, vanilla extract,
millilitres of milk, grams of sugar:
caster, muscovado, granulated.

Now your apron hangs empty on the peg.
I wear it from time to time; mine with the torn pocket
doesn’t fit anymore.

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Whole-class feedback and triadic structures in English lessons

Sunday, January 15, 2017 by

Whole-class feedback  and triadic structures in English lessons

My GCSE groups are studying The Lord of the Flies – I like doing the same texts with them as it eases up my planning a little bit. One is slightly ahead of the other and wrote an essay on the significance of Simon in the novel. I wanted a feedback lesson that would give them the opportunity to improve their own work but which would also get them to read each other’s, as I think they often have so much to gain from this sharing.
I read all their essays, and wrote a grade on the bottom – a single number – and then produced a whole-class feedback sheet. Lots of these have been going around Twitter recently and I’ve done a few but wanted to write about the way I used this in the following lesson. I also highlighted a green and orange box on each essay
I explained the strengths and areas for development, which they had in front of them on a sheet in two boxes side by side. Next to them was a quick SPG check with bullet points for them to do – a few spellings and common grammatical errors.
Then, they had a series of red and purple pen tasks.
The red was SPG corrections, reading their own and using the bullet points at the top. Then, they were asked to underline quotations and double-underline specialist subject vocabulary – I like this step as it often demonstrates to students where they’re not remembering to do these things frequently! They were allowed a star in the margin if their use of vocabulary was beyond the basic (which we’ve classed as the ‘first thought’ techniques of imagery, metaphor, repetition etc. -aiming for the more complex. Usually words connected with form and structure are the next step up).
Using that information, and a fresh re-read, they had to use their copy of the mark-scheme to work out where their marks had come from, looking at each assessment objective. On the back they also had a photocopy of three paragraphs I’d photographed across the essays as excellent examples of each AO.
Then, we moved into groups of three. I’d allocated these while reading their essays with a combination of target grades and skills that I thought they could benefit from – so three students might have a target of an 8; one writes great evaluative introductions, one is stronger on context and one is stronger on language analysis. In their triads (I was thinking triadic structures rather than criminal gangs!) they read one another’s, looking for where the writer was doing something well in the assessment objective the reader was weaker in. On the bottom of their own essay they wrote a quick reflection or note to themselves how to improve their weakest AO. Discussing their reading with them was great, exploring what they found of value in others’ work and they all enjoyed the opportunity to read one another’s. It also got around a problem I sometimes find tricky in that I want to showcase good examples that push everybody but particularly when a less confident student is achieving say a 5, giving them a grade 9 essay tends towards the intimidating. I do show them some top grade examples across the course, but because this was specifically about improving a section of their work I wanted them in groups roughly related to their target grades.
Finally, they used a purple pen to rewrite the paragraph that had been highlighted in orange.
I’d estimate the reading of those 23 essays took around about an hour and a half, including making notes on my sheet of paper, and then maybe another fifteen minutes to put together the support sheet for the lesson itself.

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Represents / Characterises / Symbolises literary analysis

Saturday, January 7, 2017 by

Represents / Characterises / Symbolises literary analysis

Recently, I’ve been working on ways to improve students’ analysis of language.  For me, it’s always the weakest assessment objective and is difficult to achieve a balance. You risk moving into the plodding “write three things about this word” approach, or tortured variations of PEA. On the other hand, neglect language analysis and you end up with a fluffy high-level essay that floats somewhere above the text without ever really pinning it down.

My students often have a real flair for the interpretation of ideas, themes and characters, but the issue is that close analysis of how writers create meaning.

We have used Caroline Spalding’s literally / metaphorically / symbolically. I tend to suggest students use that within paragraphs to build their analysis from word to whole text, and it works great as a repeated structure.

We’ve also started using the triplet “represents / characterises / symbolises” throughout their writing, and discussion, to embed consistent analysis and think more about the writer as a constructor of the text. Using these words regularly throughout essays puts the focus on technique – if you’re including the word characterise you really have to be talking about effect and meaning. So far, the students adopting it are writing in a more literary way. The balance is improving, there’s more focus on technique, and a real sense of understanding literary creation.

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GCSE – a more chaotic approach to medium term planning

Friday, December 16, 2016 by

GCSE – a more chaotic approach to medium term planning

This term, I’ve approached my Y10 English class slightly differently. Traditionally, we’ve done what the majority of English departments (I think) do: half-termly unit blocks on Shakespeare / modern novel / poetry etc. An assessment at the end of each half-term. Teaching the old spec, we interspersed the language paper simply because we found it so dull we couldn’t face a full half-term of it.

Reading a lot in the last year about memory, interleaving learning and so on, I decided to take a slightly different experimental approach.

I’d teach it all at once.

Essentially, returning to learning regularly is helpful for long-term, deeper memory. In addition, removing the unitised approach  would hopefully remove students’ tendency to learn it for their assessment then forget it – fairly deliberately! – until April of Year 11.

The other reason was to keep it fresh. After five weeks of any text, both students and me tend to get a little fed up. Lessons risk falling into a rut of saying the same thing: “It’s another example of the fire motif, isn’t it.” And when the enthusiasm’s waning, they’re waning.

So my medium term plan for Y10 this autumn looked like this:


I’d centre the term around the modern novel – The Lord of the Flies, in this case – and then I’d drop in the poetry and language papers around it. That, on the long term plan of the year, would take us up to about February half term when the core text would switch to Romeo and Juliet.

I also used the other texts as language practice. Either a section of The Lord of the Flies or a poem, both of which have consolidated the style of questions for the language paper and the students’ analytical approach.

Has it worked? 

I’m really happy with how it’s gone.

Drawbacks: It wasn’t quite as interspersed as the plan. A combination of illness (mine) and needing to teach them a little more about timing, speed and GCSE level work meant I reduced the language to focus on paper 1 (the fiction and creative writing) rather than trying to introduce both language papers.

Outcomes: I’ve loved it, actually. We’re about where we should be in terms of the novel and the poetry content, having also covered a fair few Language paper examples. Lessons have felt fresher, partly because doing different texts has meant I’ve been changing it up more, and also students have different responses to different activities.

Several don’t like the novel – which always happens, I think, although some are coming around – but then they can come to lessons knowing they’re doing at least one lesson that week on something else that they enjoy more.

Skills are more embedded. Not only because of the intertwining of literature and Language, which I think just makes good sense anyway, but because they’re starting to connect texts together in a way I was hoping for but wasn’t sure would work. Studying Porphyria’s Lover last week, for example, a discussion of the themes of power and silence developed into a comparison of the way that Jack withdraws from Ralph and discussing it as a kind of silence that punishes Ralph in a similar way. That they could draw on very specific examples of the early actions in the novel from September, and link with poetry they were doing now, and a poem they did at the beginning of the year (The Farmer’s Bride) made me very happy indeed! It feels like a richer understanding is developing, and that’s also coming through in the confidence of their writing, I think.

To keep it all organised, both for now and revision, we have an index system. The title is always along the model: “Lit 2: Lord of the Flies Chapter 2” or “Lit 2: How to write poetry comparison”, Then, during the lesson, they write a page number on their page, and at the front of their books add the page reference and index title. It’s brilliant. Part of their finishing process is tidying up if needed and finishing any empty indexing, so their books can be put into a folder that they keep all their books in. They do mostly work hard, most finishing a book this week, so their indexes are full!  But again, with the recent poetry essay, they were able to easily refer back to pages and find what they were looking for.

What next?

I’ll definitely keep it up – there’s a lot to recommend it. In the coming term we’re finishing The Lord of the Flies, doing some more poetry and paper 1, and I think I’ll start to bring in more regular creative writing. After half-term, Romeo and Juliet will be the core text but in discussion, and occasional essays, we’ll keep coming back: nothing will be left behind!

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How to memorise quotes for English Literature exams

Monday, November 14, 2016 by

How to memorise quotes for English Literature exams

Download this post as a pdf

  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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