Planning comparison essays for GCSE and A Level

One of the most difficult skills to do well is, I think, comparison, and it’s often what distinguishes really good writers – the ability to hold both texts together and weigh them against one another.

This post explores some ways to plan a comparative answer – before you’re in the exam hall!

I actually think the A-Level style of questions works better to prompt good, focused comparison – so let’s compare the two:

GCSE: Explore the way Browning presents painful relationships in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and one other poem from the Relationships cluster.

A-Level: Dystopian writing often portrays a bleak future for women.
By comparing at least two of the prescribed texts, explore how far you agree with this view.  In your answer you must include discussion of either Nineteen Eighty-Four and/or The Handmaid’s Tale.

What do they have in common?

Both expect you to use the texts studied GCSE offers you an on-the-spot choice
Both expect you to explore a theme – painful relationships, or representation of women A-Level suggests a narrower starting point for your argument.
In terms of comparison, both essays will do similar things to be successful:
  • Keep both texts present in the essay throughout. Don’t write one paragraph on text A, a second on text B and so on.
  • Lots of individual sentences will refer to both texts, whether explicitly (“both texts suggest…”) or implicitly (Less sympathetically, the narrator of…”)
  • Introductions and conclusions will directly compare the texts, probably making reference to differences not only of theme and idea but of context – what influences have made this work different to this other one?

There’s been a lot written elsewhere about the ability to prepare before an exam – an exam is a showcase, a snapshot of what you can learn. You can go into it knowing what you want to write about, and this blog from Mark Roberts explores that further.

https://markrobertsteach.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/the-exam-essay-question-and-how-to-avoid-answering-them/

Preparing for comparison to get top grades

At GCSE, inventing your own statements is a good idea – essentially, creating your own A-Level style question. This has several benefits;

  • You can plan the content of the essay before you turn up for the exam
  • You have a strong argument, which makes your essay overall more interesting and dynamic
  • You know which poems you’ll compare, and what you’ll say about them
  • The comparison will be easier, because you’ll have an element of argument built into the statement.

Example statements for the GCSE question might be:

GCSE: Explore the way Browning presents painful relationships in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and one other poem from the Relationships cluster.

Statement:

  1. Jealousy, and a lack of willingness to see women as equals, leads to painful relationships in Porphyria’s Lover and The Farmer’s Bride.
  2. By using the dramatic monologue form, the poet doesn’t allow us to see the extent of the women’s painful experiences in Porphyria’s Lover and The Farmer’s Bride.
  3. Despite only ever expressing their own voices, the speakers can’t help but expose the pain of both people in the relationship. How far is this true of Porphyria’s Lover and Winter Swans?

Using statements like these focuses revision, and makes the workload more manageable; you’re not preparing for a complete unknown anymore.

A-Level: Dystopian writing often portrays a bleak future for women.
By comparing at least two of the prescribed texts, explore how far you agree with this view.  In your answer you must include discussion of either Nineteen Eighty-Four and/or The Handmaid’s Tale.

As the statements at A-Level are given to you, the preparation becomes thinking about theme and idea, and forming your own statements based on those themes which, with a bit of tweaking in the exam, can suit a range of questions. Click here for my dropbox question bank for OCR, so you can practice

Planning a comparative answer

Example:

GCSE: Explore the way Browning presents painful relationships in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and one other poem from the Relationships cluster.

Statement: Jealousy, and a lack of willingness to see women as equals, leads to painful relationships in Porphyria’s Lover and The Farmer’s Bride.

Introduction:

 

Jealousy and lack of equality are at the root of the pain in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘The Farmer’s Bride’. The poets’ use of dramatic monologue privileges the male speaker, but also reveals the pain that the women in these relationships experience although, in Browning’s poem, this is less willingly. The Farmer is trying to understand his bride’s reluctance and discomfort, while the Lover is glorying in his success at keeping her “mine, mine, perfectly pure and good.”
Theme link to both poems Natural associations of the women make them impossible to understand
PL à Pathetic fallacy opening, P’s effect on the fire.

Use of bee in a flower image

Bride – vulnerable creatures, prey (mouse, leveret etc.)

Wild creatures not the domestic farming animals he’s used to

Theme link to both poems Madness of the men makes the relationship painful – jealousy is a form of madness
Violence of the speaker – strangulation (hair fixation – link to FB directly)

Dramatic monologue – broken rhyme scheme etc. Context: gothic imagery

Ending – broken exclamatives, repetition, focus on hair – is this prelude to a more violent action?
Theme link to both poems Both the women are silenced – dramatic monologue form gives male perspective

Context – Mew’s a female writer; how sympathetic is she to farmer?

Change of power mid-way through.  Active at first is Porphyria, then Lover. Lover’s power in the opening is through silence. Emphasis on bride’s silence. Verb “chose” at start – lack of equality. She separates herself to attic.
Conclusion Porphyria’s Lover – jealousy leads to madness and ultimate possession through death; Farmer’s Bride is left miserable- while there’s potential violence at the end, Mew leaves a more ambiguous desperation

The great thing about this is that you can plan these statements during your revision so that when you go into an exam, you already have an idea what you want to write. A little tweaking to use the wording of the question (love/marriage/relationships all have the basic same statement, for example, or a question on Jane Eyre is worded using the language of “independence” from the question) – and you’re ready to write with confidence.

Download a planning sheet with some example statements: Comparative GCSE statements – summary prep

For more at A-Level, have a look at my revision guides

For GCSE, check out my podcasts at Audiopi on Jane Eyre, and the AQA Relationships anthology

 

One Comment

  1. Emily

    Comparison is something I really struggle with at the depth required at A-Level. I find it hard to include every AO (context, interpretations and my actual argument) whilst comparing the two texts together. I was wondering if you could maybe write a few exemplar essay plans/responses to some of the Rossetti/A Doll’s House questions that you have supplied (which by the way have been so much help, thank you so much for them).

What do you think?