The overwhelming majority of students who come to me for help with English are those who stuck in the middle ground. The middle ground is not a bad place to be. Many of these students are achieving grade fives, sixes and sevens. All respectable grades, that they have every right to be proud of. But I also know that there are students who feel they are capable of more, and a lot of my work focuses on helping them to push through these barriers and get there. So here are a few tips to help students move away from this middle ground.
Stop looking for formulas
What makes English really appealing to some students is the range of ideas and interpretations that a text can offer, but for other students (especially those who excel in Maths and Science) this can feel frustrating. However, students then try to compensate for this by coming up with formulas that they believe are necessary to get that Grade Nine.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there really is no one magic way to get a Grade Nine. Early in my teaching career, I was told you cannot teach someone to get an A*. I do not believe this, but I do feel that a lot of students feel there is a secret they are not being told by their teachers. If you look at exemplar Grade Nine essays, there are so many different approaches to reach this grade. Trying to obsessively follow a formula or a writing frame often means students’ work does not actually develop effectively, as they are not engaging fully with the specific question and the textual support. Students need to have the confidence to begin to let go of the PEE/PETAL/PEEL/PETER sequences that they have been taught lower down the school, and begin to write more fluently.
Develop answers in as much depth as possible – squeeze quotations
Once students begin to move away from the notion that there is a formula they need to stay wedded to, they will naturally begin to develop their answers further. One of the key limitations with the PEE model is that students believe that they only need one quotation in each paragraph, but most of the time, this does not provide enough support, and crucially does not give them enough content to actually be able to analyse. It is not unusual for a top grade answer to use three or four different pieces of evidence that are connected to the same point. This strengthens the point and shows the student has found a range of support for their ideas.
When using evidence from the text, it is also vital to ensure that students are actually analysing this in as much detail as possible. This means breaking it down and looking at the key words and techniques and really considering how this piece of evidence supports the point. What does it actually show? What does it tell us about the characters? How does it relate to the themes of the text? Even very able students sometimes see the textual evidence as an optional part of the paragraph, or something they can go back and add in afterwards. This is the wrong way of approaching essay writing, since textual support needs to be at the heart of any essay, not an afterthought.
Ditch the revision guides and make best friends with the text
Revision guides can be a really important resource for students, as they present key information clearly, and help them to understand the texts. However, for the most able students, they can be limiting. Grade Nine students need to show evidence that they have developed their own interpretations of the texts, and are not just recounting someone else’s ideas. They can be a starting point when students are feeling overwhelmed, but then they need to develop these ideas and make them their own.
For a lot of students, the best revision resource they own is the text itself. How many times have they actually read it? If they are going into the exam only having done one reading in class with the teacher, they are unlikely to have sufficient depth of knowledge to be able to produce a really insightful piece of work. Students should be rereading the texts as part of their revision, actively making notes and annotating. This is why it is vital for students to have their own copies of the text for their revision.
Move away from language and focus on form/structure
Grade Nine students have an in-depth understanding of form and structure. Many students are more confident when it comes to word level analysis of language, talking about what a particular word means or its connotations. However, when a writer produces a text, they are unlikely to have spent a really significant amount of time on individual words. What is more important for telling an effective story are the decisions he/she makes about form and structure. Who is going to narrate this story? Is it in the past or present tense? Where is the story going to open? What do I need to actually show the reader/audience happening and what can be recounted to them? Do I need to use flashbacks? These are the big questions, and arguably analysing these areas is going to lead to more interesting analysis than just looking at individual words.
One of the key dangers with this focus as well, is that students are not specific enough when they talk about the effect that structure and form create. There are certain phrases that will turn an examiner off immediately, such as “it makes it flow more” or “it makes the reader want to read on”. What writer ever sat down to write a text that did not flow, or made the reader want to stop? A more insightful approach is to think about how it links to areas such as genre, audience and purpose. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Dickens spends most of Stave One making us understand just how vile and selfish Scrooge is, through seeing him interact with different characters. Yes, this is entertaining for the reader, but more importantly it is setting Scrooge up as a character that is urgently in need of redemption, and showing us that this will be a morality tale that will force us to confront our own attitudes towards the poor.
Looking at the bigger areas of form and structure will also help students to move into an evaluative mindset. This is a key difference between those students who get good grades, and those who reach the very top. Evaluation means being able to step back and look at what the key message of the text is and the effect the writer is intending to create. Some people also define it as making a judgement on the text. The only danger with this is that it can lead students to make statements that are not really appropriate or they are not qualified to make. Yes, there are some parts of Dickens that are really hard work to understand, and some of his writing can seriously lack subtlety at times. However, your GCSE English Literature examination is not really the place to have this discussion, and unless you can work in these judgements in a clever way, the examiner does not want to see them, so be careful.
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