Saturday, 26 October 2013

Cohesion: AQA Unit 1 English Language Exam Question 2

As I have told my friends this week, I have achieved the leftie equivalent of achieving a Blue Peter badge. I was featured in an article on the Guardian website. For years I have read the paper and never once did I think I would be included in it in some form. But, as I read the article again for the fifteenth time I started to look at the webpage in more detail. It just so happens that I was thinking about blogging about the second question on the AQA Unit 1 English Language paper. The one about pictures and their use in an article or text. My blog about question one is here.

The thing I found funny was the fact that my name was under a picture of a stock photo of a random class. Anybody could easily assume it was me in the picture. I am sure some of my old school friends on Facebook will think I have changed. They will think I have ‘beefed-up’ or I have let myself go – after all, isn’t that one purpose of Facebook: to watch the rest of humanity age at a faster rate than you. Look at Tom; he has no hair. I even joked that I now have a teaching stunt double. Except: nobody is going to confuse the two of us together.  I have bigger muscles.

Anyway, I quite like the second question on the exam paper as it all about cohesion. Previous exam papers I have taught lead students to comment on the font or the type of paper used and this has caused me endless headaches as students search for a whiff of relevant meaning. For example: the writer has used a simple font because they wanted to make the text simple. It made writing about non-fiction so endlessly puerile. It was searching for something that wasn’t there. Often, writers present things in a way because the designer of the article presented it that way. Maybe, I should have taught students to write: ‘The writer didn’t have a choice about the style of font, but I am sure the designer of the article did’.  

The exam paper asks students the following question:

Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text.

The problem with this question is the way that students automatically break a task down. They automatically assume that first you should write about the headline. Then you should write about the picture and finally you should write about how they all link to the text. 
For me, the whole question is about glue. What sticks everything together? What are the connections between the different aspects? Miss the glue and you miss the whole point of the question. Some people might call it glue: others call it cohesion. It was only while teaching A-Level that I came across this term for something that we tend to neglect in other aspects of school.  It is the cohesion between headline, picture and text that is important with this question.  Also, the cohesion between the reader, writer (designer-if you want to be picky) and the text needs to be explored.

Therefore our students need to comment on the:
·         Reader
·         Writer
·         Headline
·         Text
·         Picture

Sadly, the mark scheme for this question is a helpful as an ice cube tray in the desert. It should really read:

7- 8 marks – Fancy handwriting
5-6 marks -  Joined up handwriting
3-4 marks – Handwriting that has a circle or a love heart over the i’s.  

1-2 marks – Handwriting that doesn’t sit on the line

Mark schemes are aimed at examiners, and not teachers, but they could be written in a style that at least conveys some meaning. I laugh at the use of the word ‘perceptive’ in the one for this question as it has so many meanings, depending on the context. Perceptive can meaning anything, but what we need to know is what is perceptive in an examiner’s eyes.

What might we teach?

While teaching these, I would constantly refer to the reader, writer and text in discussions.

The Headline

·         Annotate a headline in isolation and identify the techniques used.

·         Explore the different possible word choices. What other words could they have used? Why did they not use ‘inventive’ or ‘forward-thinking’ instead of ‘creative’ in the Guardian article?

·         Question the purpose of the headline. What is it designed to do? Does it suggest the tone, perspective of the text?

·         Predict what the rest of the article might say. What would they include in the article?

·         Give students isolated quotes from the text and they have to identify how the two are linked. Do they support each other or do they contradict each other? Or, do they do something else?

·         Give students a selection of pictures and they have to justify which picture is the best one to go with the headline.

·         Before looking at the text, tell them the story and get them to create a headline. I did this once with Plebgate and produced some fantastic responses. The students have left now, but I think it would be great for them to re-evaluate those headline in light of recent developments.

·         Rewrite the headline for a different perspective or audience.

The Picture

·         Give students the picture and another one that is slightly similar. They discuss why one was picked over the other.

·         Get students to find an alternative picture that does the same job, or a picture that changes the perspective or angle of the article.

·         Think about symbols. Take a selection of pictures and ask students what they each one symbolises. Look at the picture from the article and comment on what it symbolises. Then, explore the text and think how it might symbolise something else in the text.

·         Get students to label the picture with quotes from the text. Limit the quotes to three or four words long so they are precise with their selections.

·         Get students to use drama to explore the reasons behind the choices here. See this blog about how I used this successfully.

·         Zoom in on one aspect and explore that one choice. Why have the teacher wear the colour blue? Why have a male teacher?

·         Ask the simple questions: What does the picture show us? What doesn’t it show us?

·         What would make this picture better?

·         Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the picture.

The Text

·         Get students to storyboard the article. What picture would they use for each paragraph? Then, decide why this one picture was chosen above their choices.

·         Highlight the text according to bits that support or contradict the picture.

·         Pick a quote for a caption with the picture. Which quote is the best one?

·         Track the thread of the argument by highlighting the different points or reasons.


The Whole Thing

·         Summarise the whole text and work out what each section (text / picture /headline) contributes.

·         Draw arrows showing links between the different aspects. The picture shows the reality. The headline raises the question and the text reinforces the reality.  

·         Rejig the order of the headline, picture and text. What would the reader’s reaction be if the picture was at the end?

·         Work out the order the text will be read in and track a reader’s thoughts. At first I was…. Then I felt …. By the end, I was ….

Going back to the infamous picture in the Guardian article, there is a contradiction in the text. The article is about creative approaches to questioning, yet the picture provided doesn’t demonstrate a very ‘creative’ approach to questioning. The one boy sticking a sheet of paper up instead of a hand is only thing creative I can spot. But, it does contradict, in a way, the section that refers to picking students at random. That is the problem with pictures: they are only part of the story. The picture looks like the teacher is picking students according to who knows the answer.  Maybe the picture was chosen because there are three male teachers describing their ideas. Maybe the picture was chosen because it is a classroom. Maybe the picture was chosen because it shows the act of teaching and a very traditional mode of teaching which the article is offering alternatives.

What the exam seems to be looking for are developed explanations about cohesion with a dash of evaluation. For your really bright students, maybe they need to highlight the flaws, inconsistencies, track the structure and the reader’s reactions and explore alternative reasons behind the choices. What word do we get to describe all of this? Perceptive. If only examiners could be more perceptive when writing their mark schemes. Is there any wonder why we get a lot of papers remarked? Maybe if we had clearer mark schemes, then we would have less to quibble about. When you next mark something using a mark scheme, think about what picture should go with the scheme.

Thanks for reading  



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