A Guide to GCSE English Literature

GCSE English Literature

What is English Literature? 

The other half of English studies is the GCSE English Literature course. This differs from English Language, in that it is focused on in-depth study of themes and characters, rather than English Language which considers all the different ways we use language to communicate. English Literature focuses predominantly on fiction (although there is a literary non-fiction genre as well) and is concerned with how writers develop ideas across a whole text. It is much more centred on forming interpretations of a text and generating debate. 

What is the examination? 

As with English Language, there are two papers to sit for English Literature. Students will study set texts, and these will be selected by the school/teacher from a number of set options. The format of the papers will differ depending upon the examination board, but as with language, they will tend to assess similar skills in each one. 

English Literature Paper One 

Shakespeare and the Nineteenth-Century Novel 

For the first section, your child will have studied a Shakespeare play in class with their teacher. The examination normally includes an extract question and a question about the whole play. 

Similarly, the second section on the Nineteenth-Century novel, and again there will be an extract question and one on the whole novel. 

English Literature Paper Two 

Modern texts and poetry 

The first section of the paper will focus on twentieth-century texts, such as An Inspector Calls or Lord of the Flies. It could be either prose or drama. 

For the second section, your child will have studied a collection of poems with their teacher, linked to a theme. They will write about some of these poems, and there will also be an unseen poetry section of the examination. 

What skills does my child need? 

One of the key skills needed to achieve high marks in English Literature, is the ability to form interpretations of a piece of writing. This means deciding for themselves what the key message of the text is and what effect the writer was trying to achieve. The top level students will understand that texts can be interpreted in a variety of ways and that it is possible to come up with different readings. 

Another crucial skill is being able to come up with the evidence in order to support these interpretations. Since the examinations are normally closed book, this means students will need to have spent some time learning quotations as part of their revision. 

Once they have identified the evidence, they must also show that they understand and analyse the methods that the writer has used. These can include the use of language (metaphor, simile, adverb and so on), the use of form (narrative voice/perspective, dialogue and so on) and structure (flashbacks, cliffhangers and so on). The vital thing the examiners are looking for here is not just that the student can analyse these devices, but also that they can fully evaluate how these techniques are used by the writer in order to develop his/her key message. 

Another element of GCSE English Literature that your child needs to explore is the historical context of the set text. This means thinking about the time period in which it was written, and how this may affect the way in which we see the text and understand it. For example, when studying A Christmas Carol, students need to have an understanding of the conditions that the poor were living in during the Victorian period, and institutions such as the workhouse. Without this knowledge, students cannot truly understand Dickens’ full message. 

How can my child develop these skills?

Read the text multiple times – I am always surprised at how many students have only read their set text once in class with their teacher. Rereading a set text is not a waste of time – it is a valuable process that is necessary in order to develop the required knowledge to be able to write about it effectively. Reading also needs to be an active process, whereby students are annotating in their copies or using sticky notes to mark key passages they may wish to come back to. Having their own copies of their set texts is also a must, as it is their most important revision resource. 

Devise effective strategies for learning quotations – this is something that students tend to find tricky. Learning quotations can be a highly overwhelming task, unless there is a clear process in place. Students should ensure that they are selecting the quotations to learn by theme or character, and that they are not attempting to learn quotations that are too long. Often students are not selective enough when it comes to which quotations to learn, and they are wasting their time learning long quotations that they are never going to use. 

Look at exemplar answers – exemplar answers will show your child how to develop and extend their own answers to achieve greater depth. They can also see that there is no one strategy for achieving top mark answers and it is about them finding the style and technique that works best. 

Get involved in discussions and debates about the texts – This can include class discussions, but if your child tends to withdraw in classroom discussions, then meeting up with a few friends to revise together can help with this. It is really beneficial to have to come up with a point of view and then practice defending it, with evidence from the text. 

Work on planning skills – structuring answers is another area that students struggle with. They have lots of excellent ideas on the texts, but they do not know how to actually express them effectively. Planning answers can help with this. In particular, mind maps can be a good way to follow the development of an argument in an essay, and to check that the ideas flow together. Every paragraph in a literature essay needs to have a clear point, that is then developed with evidence and analysis. Mind maps naturally lend themselves to this structuring, and help students to organise their thoughts more clearly. 

Looking for further English support for your child? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group tuition for KS2 upwards. To find out more, get in touch at hello@brightskytutoring.com

A Guide to GCSE English Language

GCSE English Language is a core GCSE, and along with Mathematics, a pass in this subject is normally essential to stay in education. However, many students often get confused about how it differs from the literature part of English, and what exactly they need to in order to achieve a high grade. 

English Language is the study of communication through words. It is concerned with the mechanics of how a written text is put together, and how the writer achieves their intended effect and purpose. Students are tested on their ability to both analyse extracts of writing, and also reproduce their own writing pieces in a given style. It is a skills-based GCSE, in contrast to English Literature, which tests students’ knowledge and understanding of the texts they have studied. This can mean students do not always know how to prepare for the English Language examination, and fall into the trap of thinking they do not need to revise. 

What does my child actually have to do? 

Each examination board will produce its own  paper for English Language, but there are strong similarities between all the boards in terms of which skills are being assessed. Each paper normally focuses on the same type of writing and asks students to demonstrate the same skills. 

Language Paper One 

The first part of this examination is reading-based, and normally focuses on fiction. There will be a series of questions that will test the student’s ability to read, understand and analyse an extract. The questions centre on language techniques used by the writer, as well as the way in which the writer has structured the piece. Furthermore, there will be a longer question that requires students to evaluate the overall effect of the piece of writing. 

The second part of this paper is writing-based. Students need to produce their own original piece of creative writing. They will either produce an extended description or they will be asked to write a narrative. They may be given images or story prompts. These are to help them generate ideas, and do not have to be used if they are not required. 

Language Paper Two – Non-Fiction 

In some ways, Paper Two follows a similar structure, but focuses on different skills/styles. The first part again is reading-based, but in this paper it is normally focused on analysing non-fiction and there are normally two extracts for students to analyse. The examiners again assess the student’s ability to analyse language and structure, as well as evaluating the intended effect/purpose. However, in this paper there is also normally a requirement for students to compare the two texts as well. 

In the second part, the task is again writing-based, but rather than creative writing, students need to produce a piece of transactional writing. This could include writing to argue, to inform, to persuade, to review and so on. 

What skills does my child need? 

Your child needs to be able to read a variety of extracts, and not just understand them, but also analyse them. This means breaking down the specific techniques that are used by the writer, and thinking about how the text has been constructed in order to create a particular effect. At this level, we are not so much concerned with what a writer is saying, but more focused on how and why something is said. Analysis can be word-level, focusing on individual words used or linguistic devices, and it can also be whole-text level, for example exploring the structure of a piece of writing. It is important that students learn to see every piece of writing as a construct that has been put together by a writer in order to achieve a specific purpose, and that they can evaluate how this purpose is achieved. 

For the writing tasks, the examiners place a lot of emphasis (and marks) on the structure and the organisation of the piece of writing. Technical accuracy is very important, and marks are awarded for spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and sentence structure. However, they are also looking for evidence of careful planning. The piece of writing needs to draw the reader in, with ideas that are clear and linked together in a complex way. The student also needs to demonstrate that they understand the appropriate style, tone and register to use for different types of writing. 

How does my child develop these skills? 

As it is a skills based qualification, practice is absolutely essential. Ideally, students should practice with extracts that are the same length as those that they will be writing about in the examination, and they need to work with both fiction and non-fiction texts. Practice answers are important, but there are other activities that students can do with these texts before they launch into writing. They need to get used to annotating pieces of writing, which means actively making notes and highlighting the techniques that the writer is using. They need to be able to quickly identify which parts are significant, and need further analysis. 

Furthermore, they will benefit not just from writing practice answers, but also planning them. This is often the stage that students will miss out, and it is not so much from laziness, but from a lack of understanding about how to plan. There are different strategies students can use in order to plan, such as mind maps or post-it notes. They need to make sure that they are thinking in terms of topic sentences, and thus identifying a clear focus for each paragraph in their answer. Once they have a focus, then they can start collecting the relevant evidence. Venn diagrams (overlapping circles) can also be a good technique to help students plan comparative answers. 

For writing tasks, exemplar answers will help your child to get a sense of the level required in their writing, and will hopefully inspire them to experiment more with their structure. Again, students need to practice planning in order to really help them understand how their ideas should be organised and presented. An initial brainstorm with post it notes, that can then be reordered if necessary to create a more striking effect for the reader, is a good strategy to try. Vocabulary activities, such as finding synonyms of overused words, will also help to develop your child’s writing. 

With some students, it may be helpful to have a set story that students practice and perfect before the examination. They may need to tweak it slightly to the demands of the question, but it can be useful with students who lack confidence and are frightened by the idea of coming up with a story in an examination situation. 

Are you looking for further English support for your child? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group tuition for KS2, 11+, KS3, KS4 and KS5. To find out more about how we can help your child flourish in English, email hello@brightskytutoring.com

The Power of Resilience

What is resilience? 

Resilience is the ability to keep going, even when things feel difficult or impossible. People with high levels of resilience are able to change and adapt as needed. They accept when things go wrong, and focus on how to resolve the issue and move forward. We often discuss resilience as if it is an innate quality that we are born with, but in fact it is a skill that can be learnt and developed like any other. 

Why do we need it? 

The past year has tested everyone’s levels of resilience like no other! So many of us have had to regroup and rethink our strategies, and adapt to big changes such as online learning. Being resilient is such an important life skill, and it is through resilience that we really learn and develop. Students need to make sure that they have this skill, as there will inevitably be times when their studies are hard and they will feel like giving up. Often, it is when we feel like giving up that we are actually closer than we think to a breakthrough, and students need to know that they are strong enough to succeed. 

My own resilience story 

Resilience is a skill that has served me well throughout my adult life, and one I have definitely needed to cultivate. After I graduated from university, my plan was to complete a PhD and become an academic. I was successful in securing a PhD place but unsuccessful in securing the funding that I needed in order to take up the space. It was my first real experience of needing to adapt and discover another way forward. Following a period of uncertainty, I discovered my passion for educating others, and  then decided to train as a teacher. After completing my teacher training and qualifying, I was able to take up a good post in a school. 

However, after the birth of my two children, I found my resilience being tested once again. I fell seriously ill with postnatal depression and was unable to return to my post in the classroom. I decided to purchase a phonics franchise, but this venture was unsuccessful. Rather than giving up, I decided to set up my own English tuition business. Bright Sky Tutoring was born, and has gone from strength to strength. Resilience has definitely served me well over the years. 

How do you cultivate resilience in your child?

In order to help your child develop their resilience, share your own stories with him/her. Or look up stories of their role models, who may have had to overcome adversity on their way to success. Help him/her to see setbacks as exactly that, temporary stumbling blocks on their way to eventual success. Working on a growth mindset can also support your child with this, as they will learn to see that perceived failures and mistakes are a key part of the learning process. Setting clear goals can also help us to develop resilience, as if we know where we want to go, we will feel inspired to keep trying, no matter what the cost. Extra-curricular activities can be another way to develop resilience, as they will encourage your child to adapt to different social situations and learn how to cope in new places. 

Being resilient does mean always having to be happy and never feeling down. When my students are feeling disappointed by a test result, I normally encourage them to go home, eat chocolate, watch trashy television and go to bed early. The only caveat is that the next day they have to get up early, ready to refocus and discuss a new plan of action. It is absolutely fine to sometimes give into a low mood, but important not to let it win. 

What to watch out for? 

It is important not to confuse a lack of resilience with conditions such as depression. If your child is showing long term signs of low mood, then it is really important to seek medical help. 

Another thing to bear in mind is that there are times where it is necessary to let go. If I had not made the decision to give up my phonics franchise, then I would not have been free to start Bright Sky Tutoring, and I would still be struggling to make a failing franchise work. Sometimes we do need to think about what is in our best interests, and accept that the path we thought would make us happy is no longer to be. 

Looking for English support for your child? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one-to-one and small group English tuition for KS2, KS3, KS4 and KS5. To find out more, get in touch at hello@brightskytutoring.com

Shakespeare SOS

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday (and his death day). I adore Shakespeare but I know not everyone feels the same, and some parents may still be carrying scars from their school days when it comes to  supporting their children with Shakespeare. So here are a few tips on how you can help your child get to grips with any Shakespeare play he/she is studying, from learning about the story to getting deeper into the nuances of the play. 

Get the story first 

Shakespeare can feel overwhelming at first, but underneath the tricky language there are great stories that appeal to audiences time and time again. Understanding the story can really help students to engage with the play, and get a sense of characters and plot before they try and tackle language. Here are a few suggestions about resources you can use to help your child grasp the story first:  

Animated tales  – These are quite old now, and some of them have aged better than others, but these are a concise way to introduce your child to the story of the play, as they are only half an hour each. I would particularly recommend these for Yr7 and 8, older ones may find them a bit too babyish. 

Graphic novels – These are definitely an under-used resource with students. They are comic books but some can contain quite advanced vocabulary, and there are many versions of key school texts available. The use of images will help students who feel lost when it comes to the language, and help them to piece together the story. 

Film adaptations – These are a great way to help your child get the feel for the story, and arguably if Shakespeare were around today he would be more likely to write for the cinema than the stage. Teenagers respond well to the energy and the visual nature of film, and it tends to hold their focus for longer. The only thing to be wary of is that film adaptations can vary in terms of how faithful they are to the source material. Some versions may omit large chunks, make changes or even add in speeches that were not there in the stage play. So ensure your child is aware that when they come to look at the play more closely, they may well encounter differences. However, a faster pace may help to create that initial engagement. 

Play versions – Once your child is feeling more confident with the story, the next step could be to get them to see it as it was intended, on the stage. Pre-Covid, this could have meant taking them to a production, but there are also ways to see a play from the comfort of your own home. The Globe Theatre has its own Globe Player where you can rent and buy productions, and there are also sometimes productions streamed for free via YouTube. The RSC also has production recordings that are available for purchase. 

Moving on to the text 

Once your child knows the story of the play, then it is time to introduce him/her to the language. Here are some tips on how to do that! 

Shakespearean insults – This is a simple and fun activity to help your child engage with the language. There are different insult generators available online, and students can use these to come up with their own insults and have some fun playing around with Shakespearean language. 

For a free template for this activity, click here: https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/e06mo6njre1kcqbg3kv8l/Surviving-Shakespeare.docx?dl=0&rlkey=eu3v92yluy096ucr6o8hzry17

No Fear Shakespeare – Another great resource for coping with Shakespeare is this series, available online and in print. The copy gives both the original Shakespeare version and a modern day translation side by side, and is a brilliant way to build up students’ confidence. 

For the more advanced

When you are more confident with the story, characters and some of the language, there are other techniques your child can use to help them go deeper. One of the issues with Shakespeare is that grammar rules were not as fixed in his day, so some of his sentence structures look very odd in comparison with modern writing. However, identifying the subject, verb and object can help students to uncover the meaning. Take this example:

“So foul and fair a day (object) I (subject)  have not seen (verb)” 

In modern English, we would order the sentence like this:

 I have never seen a day that was so foul and fair. 

Become a metaphor spotter 

Shakespeare’s writing is full of metaphor, and spotting these in his writing can help students get closer to what he is trying to say. 

Another good tip could be to draw out the metaphor, as visualising what he is saying can help get closer to meaning. For example, “O beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the greeneyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” 

Get your child to actually draw out a green-eyed monster, and perhaps think about what “mock the meat it feeds on” would actually look like. Even if he/she says they do not understand, drawing out key words in the phrase, such as “mock” and “meat” may help them get closer to uncovering the meaning. 

Look up allusions 

If your child is at GCSE level or above, make sure you have a good quality edition of the play. This will enable him/her to look up allusions that are tricky for a modern audience to uncover. Some references in Shakespeare are simply too old for us to understand without a little help, and even the most experienced academics have to make use of footnotes from time to time. 

Still looking for further support with English? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group sessions for KS2, KS3, KS4 and KS5. To find out more, get in touch at hello@brightskytutoring.com

Leaving the Middle Ground Behind

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. 

Evaluative approach 

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. 

Looking for further support with GCSE English? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group sessions from qualified English teachers, designed to help your child flourish. To find out more, get in touch today at hello@brightskytutoring.com

Revision Tips

It may be the oddest “exam” year ever, but with assessments planned for all Year Eleven students after Easter, there is still the need for revision. With that comes the need for guidance on how to handle this period – hence this blog post! Here are some tips on how you can help your child use this time effectively, in order to ensure they perform at their best. These tips are also handy for students at any stage of their secondary schooling. 

  1. The timetable 

Students need to decide how many hours a day they will dedicate to revision. This will of course vary depending on whether or not they are at school or on holiday, and will also need to take into account their extracurricular activities. Whilst it may be necessarily to make a few adjustments to their hobbies during the exam season, exercise and socialising will support their academic performance, so avoid withdrawing them from all extra-curricular activities.

The number of hours will also depend on the student, and needs to be realistic. As an incredibly rough ballpark figure, during the holidays, I would recommend about four hours a day of revision for students who have exam periods coming up in the summer. This may be too much for some students, and that is fine, so do not panic if this sounds huge. A student with ADHD may simply not be able to commit to more than a couple of hours, or even an hour, and there is no point setting expectations that they cannot reach. It may be better to start revision earlier, so that these students have more time and can therefore do a smaller number of hours each day. 

The next thing to consider is when to do revision. I always preferred to revise in the morning and early afternoon, so that I would then have  the remainder of the day free to do what I wanted to do. Your child may perform better in the afternoon and evening, although at their age, late night cramming sessions and the dreaded all-nighter are not to be encouraged. 

Deciding how much time to dedicate to each subject is another area where I sometimes see students fall down. It is very tempting to prioritise the subject that is coming up first in the exam schedule, but students need to be careful they do not subsequently neglect subjects coming up afterwards and leave insufficient time to prepare for these. 

On the revision timetable, students should also make a note of which topics they are going to cover in each revision session, to ensure they are getting a good balance. A final warning on revision timetables – do not let your child waste time decorating it! It should be clear, but it does not need to be pretty! 

  1. The Strategy 

When revising, students need to use a mixture of different revision styles. If reading notes genuinely works for your child then that is fine, but most people need to make their revision more active, for example by taking notes or highlighting key sections. Other possible strategies to use could be index cards, posters, flash cards and mind maps. 

However, perhaps the most important revision technique that many students neglect, is actually practising questions. This can involve a mixture of planning answers, and also writing them out in timed conditions. If possible, students can seek out feedback from their teachers. I know when I was a classroom teacher, I was happy to mark extra essays for students, but so few of them took me up on this! If teacher feedback is not possible, then some form of self-assessment is needed, using mark schemes available. Alternatively, if your child has a revision buddy, then he/she could ask them to give them some feedback on their work.

  1. The Environment 

When students are doing their revision, the area needs to be clean and tidy, with good daylight. Whilst it is not necessary to wait on them hand and foot, bringing them drinks and snacks may help them to avoid classic distraction opportunities. We all know that a trip to get a cup of tea can easily turn into an hour watching something on the television if we are not careful. Ideally, they need to revise somewhere where there is a television. If music genuinely helps them to work, and there is evidence that for some students it does, then this can be used, but they should choose their accompanying soundtrack wisely. 

  1. The night before 

As I have said, all-nighters and cramming sessions are a no-no. They will not work, and will result in your child going into the examination exhausted and stressed. Ideally, the night before the examination  they should watch a television programme they like and then get an early night. In the morning, they need to have breakfast and ensure they stay hydrated (although not so hydrated they are in danger of needing the toilet constantly!)

  1. Other opportunities

If your child struggles to stay motivated when revising independently, or perhaps needs more teacher input, then have a look at the options of live revision classes and courses online  These can help your child focus, and it is also beneficial to revise with other students. I would avoid necessarily booking your child into a course everyday, as this could be counter productive, but they are definitely something to consider. 

If your child is struggling with English, then Bright Sky Tutoring can help. We offer one to one and small group tutoring for KS2, KS3, KS4 and KS5, as well as adult learners. Founded by myself in 2020, Bright Sky Tutoring is all about helping students find their spark and fulfil their potential. To find out more, email jo@brightskytutoring.com

Comparing Poems Effectively

The poetry examinations for GCSE English Literature rely on the student being able to compare poems effectively, but this is a skill that is not always easy to achieve. It can feel very overwhelming, especially to students who are struggling to understand and analyse one poem, let alone two. So where do you begin? 

Differences, not just similarities

The first thing to note is that comparison does not just mean things that are the same, it can also refer to differences between texts. I often see students stress that they cannot find any similarities to discuss, but this is not a problem. Differences tend to be more interesting than similarities, and create more insightful analysis points! 

Start big 

The next issue that tends to be encountered when it comes to comparison work is students starting off too small. Comparing the word level features of a text is going to be harder, and will not create really interesting and relevant points about the writer’s meanings. First of all, students need to think about the message and the story that is being told. What themes and ideas are they engaging with? Are there similarities here, or have they focused on different ideas? Do their messages overlap? For example, John Agard’s Half Caste and Benjamin Zephaniah’s No Problem both explore the theme of race and prejudice, although the focus is slightly different, with one addressing the issue of prejudice against mixed race people, and one looking at the stereotypes faced by black people, particularly teenage boys. Although they have different subjects, their messages are primarily the same. 

Or for another example, look at “Porphyria’s Lover” and “The Farmer’s Bride”. Both poems explore the idea of men controlling women. However, in “Porphyria’s Lover” this instinct to control is taken to a murderous extreme, as the speaker literally silences Porphyria. In “The Farmer’s Bride”, the speaker’s actions show his own desire to control, but also his confusion at his inability to earn his wife’s love and respect. It ends with the idea of him locking her in a room to prevent her running away; an image that in some ways is equally as disturbing as the murder of Porphyria. 

Another area to explore is perspective. Who is telling the story in each poem and how does this affect the message and the meaning? For example, “Poppies” by Jane Weir and “Exposure” by Wilfred Owen both show the trauma inflicted by war, but they use different voices in order to do so. “Exposure” tells the story of those who fight in the War, whereas “Poppies” gives a voice to those who get left behind by war. Thus, although they share a theme, they also tell different stories. 

Developing from the next point, context is also key when it comes to comparing two poems. The period in which the poem is written, as well as the experiences of the poet, is going to have an impact on the story that is told. For example, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” was inspired by a story he read in the newspaper, and he had no firsthand experience of war at all. His poem, whilst powerful, is built upon a skewed version of events, which makes the soldiers sound like noble heroes, rather than just the victims of a serious communication blunder. In contrast, a poem such as “Exposure” recalls the experiences of Owen, and presents a far more graphic representation of the reality of war. 

Once you have got some of the bigger ideas pinned down, you can then look at elements such as form and structure. Do the poems use set forms, for example a sonnet or a ballad? Do both poems rhyme, or does one use free verse? It will be highly unlikely you will be given two poems that use exactly the same form, so look at the different effects that are created by both. Another area that can create useful comparison is to look at features such as enjambment (no punctuation at the end of the line of poetry) or caesura (a break in the middle of the line of poetry). Does the enjambment help to create a sense of fluidity, as the speaker recalls memories, or does it help to build up pace and action? 

Language devices are a smaller feature, and it can help to look at whole-text features such as form and structure first, before going into word level analysis. For example, compare the type of imagery that is used in the poems. Does one use more metaphors and similes than the other? Does one use monosyllabic words? Look for patterns in the imagery and see how these are different/similar. How do these link to the themes of the two poems and the stories that they are trying to tell? 

Comparison is a challenging skill to master, but it does get easier with practice. As you work through your anthology poems, keep thinking about which poems naturally go well together. Remember this does not mean they are completely similar. In fact, it may be that they approach similar themes or events but from a completely different perspective. Group poems together in your notes, and keep the comparison element at the front of your mind from the beginning of your poetry studies. 

Looking for more support with secondary English? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group tutoring to help your child flourish. To find out more, get in touch on jo@brightskytutoring.com

Using Context Effectively

What is context? 

Context is information that is outside of the text that can be used in order to help us understand and evaluate the piece of writing more effectively. Whilst there is a school of thought that argues texts should be explored in total isolation in order to fully appreciate them on their own terms (called New Criticism), most teachers and academics recognise that it is not possible to truly understand the text if you do not understand its context. The examiners for GCSE and A Level English Literature want to see that students have evaluated the contextual factors and how they influence a reading of the text. However, students are often uncertain about how to include this context in their essays. It can feel like there are so many different elements to include in a literature essay, and just another box to tick to get marks. Yet when used properly, context can really illuminate an interpretation and help the student truly evaluate the effect the writer is creating. Here are a few tips on how to include context skilfully in your work. 

  1. Sweeping Statements 

This is a very common error when discussing contextual ideas. Statements that make huge and inaccurate generalizations about a whole period of history, for example, “all women in Victorian times were treated badly by men” can actually be counterproductive. A much better way to express the above idea would be to say “Victorian society was patriarchal, meaning the rights of women were often limited.” This shows a more nuanced approach, and will impress the examiners more. Making big sweeping statements suggests that you do not really understand the context properly, and you may therefore make generalised assumptions about what the writer was trying to do. 

  1. Context is not just historical 

When most people think of context, they tend to assume we mean either historical events or episode’s in the writer’s own life. However, there are other types of context that tend to be less commonly explored in essays, such as literary context. A writer may well be working on a particular genre, and be inspired and influenced by the features of the genre. For example, if a writer is writing in the Gothic genre, then he/she may use key features, or more interestingly, they may choose to subvert them. For instance, in Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson moves from the traditional Gothic setting of a foreign country to the streets of London. By doing so, he is implying that the dark and disturbing elements that make up the Gothic novel are closer to use than we may think. 

In drama, another important form of context to consider is performance. When we read a play script, we are only ever reading the blueprint of the text. It is not until it is put upon the stage that a text comes fully alive. The choices that directors and actors make can have a big impact on the way in which we view characters and actions. For example in Macbeth, the director’s choice of whether or not to actually have the ghost of Banquo physically appear on the stage can become very significant. If the ghost appears, we see that Macbeth is actually being haunted, but if the ghost does not, it leads us to question whether it is just a projection from Macbeth’s own mind and a sign of his growing insanity. 

  1. Keep Biographical Context Relevant 

Examiners tend to be less keen on biographical context, as it does not always really tell us that much about the meanings the writer is expressing. Writers do write about things they have experienced, but equally they research and write about topics that have no relevance to their everyday lives. Therefore, pointing out that Dickens’ father was sent to a debtor’s prison does not on its own constitute a meaningful contextual point. It may have given him empathy with those who spent their lives in the workhouse, but it does not mean this is the only way a writer could find out about this. Placing too much emphasis on biography can imply that a writer can only write about something if they have experienced it first hand.  It can lead to points that feel very forced and can also lead us to make assumptions about their work, and to see connections where they do not exist.

 This does not mean there are no links to be made, but we need to be careful about how we make them. For example. Christina Rossetti worked with prostitutes at the Highgate Penitentiary, helping these women to rebuild their lives. This attitude could be significant when analysing a poem such as “Goblin Market”, and looking at the presentation of the fallen woman. Rather than condemning the actions of Laura, Rossetti could be encouraging her to see her as capable and deserving of redemption. Making a biographical context point is effective, and helps to add more depth to the interpretation. 

  1. Use the context to support the argument, not the other way around 

Context needs to be used to support the points in your argument about the text. You should always start with the text, and the evidence that is there first. Your point should not just be a piece of information about the context; it needs to be a thematic point about the novel/poem/play. For example: 

The audience can see that Eva Smith is seen as expendable by the Birling family. 

Rather than:

In 1912, poor people were treated badly by the upper classes. 

The first point will lead you far more naturally into analysing the text. Remember, first and foremost you are writing an English essay, not History. Once you have analysed your textual evidence, then it is normally the right time to bring in contextual points well. The contextual information helps to enrich your analysis, adding depth and showing evidence of a wider interpretation. The textual analysis is key, and not something that can ever be sacrificed in the interest of shoehorning in context. 

If you would like further support with secondary English, I offer one to one and small group sessions. Get in touch at jo@brightskytutoring.com to find out more. 

Five Key Elements of The Detective Story

This half term, The Writer’s Club will be exploring the Detective Story. This genre is so much fun, both to read and to write, but there are rules to follow in order to make the story work. Here are the five key elements that detective story writers follow.  

The Detective The detective is obviously central to the detective story. He/she needs to be a character that will engage the reader. Detective stories often become series, so this should also be a character that readers will keep coming back to and has enough depth that you will be able to show different aspects of their personality and develop the character further over time.Detectives often have special skills that they have harnessed are used in order to solve crime effectively.They normally have a different way in which they see the world, and this allows them to spot patterns that others do not notice. 

A good crime The obvious crime to centre a detective story on is the murder. However, this does not always have to be the case. It could be a robbery or entrapment. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Scandal in Bohemia, the case centres on a compromising photograph and the subsequent power play between the King of Bohemia and Irene Adler. Whatever the crime is, it does need to be interesting and not have an obvious solution. 

A worthy opponent A good detective story will have someone who acts as an opponent. For example, Sherlock Holmes’ famous nemesis is Moriarty. Moriarty shares Sherlock’s incredible powers of observation and detection, but he represents what would happen if these powers were used for evil rather than good. The opponent could be the person who is culpable for the crime, but this does not have to be the case. The opponent could be a character who is constantly trying to get in the way of the detective, and thwart their progress in the case. 

The motive When you reveal the motivation of the characters to the reader, it must be believable. The reader is normally more interested in the why, than the who. The character needs to have a clear motive for committing the crime. Just saying that they are evil is not really convincing enough for the reader. We want more detail about what motivated them, and an implausible killer will leave the reader feeling disappointed. 

The resolution It is important that the resolution to the story is not too obvious. When a reader has invested in your detective story, they do not want to feel let down by the ending. So this means avoiding any easy resolutions, such as it all being a dream. Furthermore, it should never be down to the supernatural. It needs to be a solution that has been there in the story the whole time, and it was never completely impossible for the reader to solve it, since the clues were there to see. 

The Writer’s Club meets on Sundays at 11 am. It is aimed at Key Stage Three students and it is a fantastic way to build your child’s confidence in English, in a fun and creative space. Spaces in the group are extremely limited. To find out more, get in touch at jo@brightskytutoring.com

Jekyll and Hyde – What lies beneath

Jekyll and Hyde is a very common choice for GCSE English Literature, but it is not an easy text to study. It explores some complex ideas about the human psyche, and also requires students to get to grips with psychoanalysis as well. Having said that, students often engage well with the mystery of the text, and are normally hooked by the last chapter when everything is finally revealed to the reader. In this blog post, I share five key ideas that can help students get to grips with the complex and often dark subject matter of this novel. 

  • Duality and Freud 

This is one of the central ideas of the text: the notion that man is “not one, but two”. Jekyll has grown up with a strong sense of morality, but also a conviction that there is a much darker side to his character that has never been given expression. This relates to the notion of the id in Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud believed that we are all born with the id, the desires that reside deep in our unconscious mind. The id is driven by the pleasure principle, the part of us that wants immediate gratification of our needs and desires. As we begin to grow, we learn to control the id, through the development of the ego. The ego is aware of how we need to operate in society, and seeks to regulate the desires of the id. Later on, the superego also forms. The superego embodies idealistic standards, and is the part of us that strives for perfection. The ego’s job is to keep the balance between the id and superego. 

Hyde is the physical representation of Jekyll’s id. We can see that he has grown up under the influence of the superego, forcing him to strive for excellence. His ego has kept the demands of the id in check, but Jekyll still feels incomplete. Initially, Jekyll believes that being Hyde allows him to gratify his desires without fear of consequence. Of course, he comes to realise that he cannot control his id in this way. Once he relieves the ego of its duty, the id takes over. Whilst he wants to believe that he is two, the reality is more complex than this. He cannot keep the id and the superego separate in this manner, and live in both states simultaneously. 

  • Victorian hypocrisy 

Students sometimes oversimplify the Victorian period, and this means overlooking some of the key contradictions of the era, that are reflected in the literature of this time. The Victorians adhered to strict moral principles, which did not condone sex before marriage and required women to conform to a notion of innocence and virginity. There were clear codes that dictated how men and women were to behave in society, and any deviations from these standards would result in scandal and ruin.

 Yet at the same time, drinking, gambling and prostitution were rife in Victorian London. Men often lead double lives. During the day they were respectable, upstanding gentlemen, and at night they frequently brothels and public houses. Jekyll’s sense of being two different people could therefore be seen as a metaphor for the paradox these men were living. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the novel is a metaphor for homosexuality. Jekyll is always vague about the exact nature of the activities he is participating in when he is Hyde, and there is a sense that he is harbouring a secret that he feels is potentially even more shocking than the deeds to which he has confessed. 

  • Gothic genre

The novel is a mystery, but it is also a key example of Gothic literature. Students often query what makes a text Gothic, rather than horror. The differences are subtle, but Gothic tends to have more of a preoccupation with the darkness within our own minds, rather than horror which focuses on the darkness in the world around us. In that sense, Jekyll and Hyde is the perfect expression of the main concerns of Gothic writing. The most disturbing aspect of Gothic is often the acknowledgement of deeds we did not even know we were capable of. Ultimately, the horror of the novel has not come from any external forces, but from the turmoil within Jekyll’s own mind. 

Setting and atmosphere are also key components of Gothic literature. Whilst the Gothic literature of the Eighteenth Century is often set in isolated settings in foreign countries, Jekyll and Hyde is a great example of urban Gothic. London is represented as a dark and sinister place, where horror lurks around every street corner. Most scenes take place at night, and even when we see London in the daytime, Stevenson often evokes a dark atmosphere, for example in the Incident at the Window chapter. 

  • Narrative perspective

The novel is told predominantly in the third person, and mainly through the perspective of Utterson. This means that although Jekyll is our protagonist, we often see him through the eyes of a relative outsider. It helps to build up the suspense and tension throughout the story, as we piece together the clues alongside Utterson. We also get the perspective of other characters at key moments, for example the murder of Sir Danvers Carew is narrated through the eyes of the maid. This decision seems to emphasise the idea of brutal murder as spectacle, treated by society as a form of grotesque entertainment. 

  • Victorian pull between rational and the supernatural 

The Industrial Revolution meant that the Victorians went through a huge amount of change in a relatively short period of time. This changed many key aspects of society. From being a predominantly rural farming economy, there was a shift towards factories and urbanisation. Society was shaken further by the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, presenting a threat to core values held by the Victorians. Key elements of religion and faith seemed to be questioned by scientists, and this led to a surge of interest in the supernatural, most notably in the form of Spiritualism. 

This movement began in America, and emerged in Britain in the 1950s. Spirit mediums, normally young women, conducted seances, and Victorians flocked to see them apparently communicating with the dead. There was a real fascination with the idea of being able to experience something that could not be explained by science, and the popularity of Spiritualism can be seen as part of a Victorian crisis of faith. Whilst the initial transformation of Jekyll into Hyde can be explained by science, there is still a strong supernatural element in the novel. The transformation process quickly runs out of control, and it emerges that the initial discovery was in fact down to an impure sample, not the perfection of a scientific process. The novel definitely seems to explore elements of Victorian society that have eluded the grasp of the rational mind. 

Looking for further support for secondary English? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group sessions. To find out more, get in touch at jo@brightskytutoring.com