Sunday, 6 September 2015

Let's talk about effect

This is a continuation of my blog on structure. I have an unhealthy obsession with the structure question on the AQA exam paper at the moment; I can’t think of anything else. Worryingly, I feel, at the moment, I could write several blogs on it.   

It was interesting to note that the recent GCSE exams highlighted another issue. It seems that our students’ ability to comment on the effect of a text is problematic. They struggle to do it with questions two and four of the current specification. Question four is particularly an issue for most students because it is pure unadulterated effect-fest. There is no time for meanings and multiple meanings. It is all effect, effect and effect. Students have to explain how the words are affecting the reader and, boy, do they struggle with it. Very few of our students, and other students nationally, struggle to get even close to high marks. I have yet to see a student even scrape full marks on this question.   Lots of bright students are stumped by it. And, it seems, reading the latest AQA examiner’s report, a lot of teacher could be too – I include myself in that category too.  

I think effect is an issue for us English teachers as it is strangely complex. We are talking about how the reader is affected by a technique or word. What is a typical reader’s reaction? What does it make them feel? What does it make them think?  How does the reader’s feelings or thoughts change as a result of this?

Effect and meaning are sometimes woven together in sophisticated textual analysis, but the average student struggles to do this blending of the two. They tend to instead favour meaning. In fact, a lot of what I have seen over the last few years has pushed for multiple meanings. It could mean the character is evil. Or, it could mean that he is insecure. The focus of meaning tends to focus on story and a student’s understanding of meaning. Students can spend ages on ‘Of Mice and Men’ and explore the subtle nuances of the colour red or Candy’s dog, but ask them to talk about the effect of these devices and they fudge it up. How many times have we see the following phrase ‘the writer uses X to make it stand out’? Too many, in my opinion.  The meaning is easy in comparison with commenting on the effect of a text. It is all about recalling the story and unpicking clues and following trails.

But, the problem with effect stems deeper. Ask students to write a film review and all too often it is dire. Ask them to describe the plot and comment on the meaning behind choices, they are great. Ask them to review the best and worst bits of a film it is dire. You’d think that the Facebook and Twitter generation wouldn’t have a problem with expressing their opinion on a film. They do. It could all stem from lovely Bloom’s taxonomy. Describing meaning is so much easier than evaluating things. They are on opposite ends of the taxonomy. However, an opinion or a feeling are natural parts of human experience, yet students struggle to articulate this in their writing.

Effect in non-fiction is probably easier for students to comment on. Why did the writer use a picture of a tiny kitten on this charity letter? Easy: to make us feel sorry for the animal and part with our hard-earned cash. Non-fiction often has its intent worn on its sleeve. It is trying to persuade me.

Effect in fiction is harder because its intent is usually hidden. Fiction writers trick, tease and lie to readers. Plus, with fiction we have longer texts with lots of connections across numerous pages. The effect of a device isn’t immediate, transparent and blindingly obvious. It is like chess. The steps the writer makes at the start payoff in the end, but you can’t see how they will impact at that initial moment.  Of course, the more students read, the more they will understand the effects of devices.

All these ideas made me think about how I teach effect in lessons. I usually pick out an aspect of a novel and ask students to comment on the effect of that particular device. What is the effect of a third person perspective in ‘The Lord of the Flies’? To be honest, my references to effect are limited and taught in isolation. It is usually when I feel it is necessary, or relevant. What if I changed the way I referred to the effect of a text? What if I did something dramatic?

The following shows an approach I am going to trial with my new Year 8 English class. They are working on horror writing and we will be studying some great extracts along the way. At the start of the unit, I usually get them to identify the differences between the horror and ghost genre. Then, they will list some of the generic features of a text. I will then introduce this document:

Talking about the effect: Horror Stories

Content Choices

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
A handful of characters
Get to know the characters well
Start to like the characters so you are shocked when bad things happen to them
So you can follow a lot of action
Young, naïve characters
We can identify more with young, naïve characters as we have all been young once
They are more likely to make mistakes
They often think they are stronger than they actually are
Set at night
The characters can’t see what is out there so they are more likely to not notice danger
We expect bad things to happen at night
The monster / creature is hidden 
An isolated location
There is no chance of escape
The problem cannot be easily fixed and people cannot be saved quickly
There is a greater chance of the monster and the other characters meeting 
A hidden monster
A hidden threat is more scary than a visible one because of the reader’s imagination
The characters cannot see what it is so they become more scared as a result
Raises the tension as the monster could attack at any moment and could surprise the reader and the characters
Violence limited to one or two events
This makes them more shocking, dramatic and unpredictable
More realistic for the reader are violence is rare, but shocking in life 
Often use a legend or piece of historical knowledge in the story
This makes the events believable and add a touch of credibility
Makes the story more epic and wider reaching
Adds a backstory and a sense of mystery 
Setting is described in more detail than the characters and the action
So the reader feels as if they are there and they can identify with what the characters are feeling and thinking
Helps to create the atmosphere and suggest something bad is going to happen

Structural Choices 

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
Characters are happy at the start of the story
Makes the reader predict how this will change and when it will change
Sudden scares
Shows the reader that the story is unpredictable
Events are often repeated three times
To prepare the reader for what is going to happen
To build tension and awareness of what is inevitably going to happen
Things get worse and worse
Makes the reader start to predict how things will get worse
Monster revealed at the end of the story
Keeps the mystery ongoing and the reader reading until the mystery is revealed
Makes the danger hard to predict and define
Red herrings used
Makes the reader think they know what is really going on
To hide the real mystery in the story
To frustrate the reader so that they want to find the answer
Characters are separated from each other
Allows for more drama as more chances for the characters to meet the monster
Means that the characters are more vulnerable and so reader fears something is more likely to happen
Increases the level of unpredictability
Poses lots of questions at the start
Keeps the mystery ongoing and the reader reading until the mystery is revealed
Hooks the reader from the start
Slowly answers once question at a time
Makes the reader identify with the characters
The reader learns things as the characters do

Writing Choices

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
Short sentences
Speeds up the rate a reader reads the story
On its own it can have a shock value
Highlights an important piece of information
Long sentences
Slows the rate at which the reader reads the story
Allows the writer to build up a description
Allows the writer to create a sudden shock
Stops the reader’s flow of though
Shows when the writer / narrator can’t describe events for some reason
Uses pronoun ‘it’ to describe creature
Hides the identity of the monster so the reader isn’t clear as to what it is
Creates tension as the reader imagines what it could be
Senses used in description
Helps the reader to identify with events in the story
Only describes parts of the monster
Hides the identity of the monster so the reader isn’t clear as to what it is
Helps to focus the reader’s attention on the monster’s actions
Creates tension as the reader imagines what it could be
Dialogue limited to a few lines every so often
Allows for the pace of the action to be quicker
Makes the relationships between characters secondary to the action
One sentence paragraphs
Highlights an important piece of information
Verbs are listed in a sentence
Increases the pace of the action
Shows the reader the importance of the action
Third person perspective
Makes the reader feel that no character is safe
Allows the reader to see all aspects of the story
Allows the reader to see things that other characters can’t see – increases chances of dramatic irony
Present tense
Helps create a sense of immediacy
Allows the reader to position themselves in the story as it is happening now
Action is not described in great detail
Makes the action seem fast and quick – increases the pace
The reader shares the confusion that the characters experience in the story
Violence is implied
Allows the reader to imagine what actually happened
Often far more shocking for a reader than a description

It isn’t perfect by any means, but it does show you how I am working on effect. I may get them to match up some of the effects to the techniques, but mainly I want students to have a framework for discussion. This allows them to see what the effect of an aspect is. Plus, it provides them with a bank of phrases for analysis. And, it could even be something to test students on. Obviously, I would have a disclaimer that these only apply for horror stories.

Students struggle to make the comments about effect, but if I am explicit with the effects of one genre it should, in theory, be easier for them to understand the effects of another text / genre.

If students are talking about effect and structure at KS3, then they will be confident readers by the time they get to GCSE. However, I think at the moment students do not have the language or the background reading to be able to make the leap from meaning to effect. That’s why we will always have reductive statements when talking about effect.

We need to get students to think about effect and write about the effect of a device effectively. The structure question on the new AQA English Language paper has got an element of this effect aspect and I think we need more work at KS3 to address the structure and the effect issue.

Thanks for reading,



  1. That's so helpful. I've also started using the phrase 'What does the writer achieve by doing that?' or 'What was the writer's intention behind that choice?' which makes them think a) about the fact that there's a real person behind the pen and b) that there's an intended outcome.

    1. Thank you, Fran. I hope you are well. ; )