Sunday, 13 March 2016

Say it once more with feeling: what is the problem with effect?

Last year’s AQA examiner’s report highlighted that a lot of students are struggling to write about the effect of a text. The most able seem to do it with aplomb, but those students wanting to aim for the dizzy heights of success struggle with it. The key question for this, on the AQA paper, is question 4: compare how two texts are written for effect. For a start students have to define and describe the effect of a text. Then they have to identify what the writer has done to create the highlighted effect. Finally, they have to compare the effect and technique in one text to another text. It is all so easy. Oh, and yeah, they have about fifteen minutes to do this.

Historically, our students have always struggled with this question and it seems a national thing, when you look at the exam data. Why do students, in general, struggle with this particular aspect?  Spotting techniques is a doddle for most students. Saying what happened in a text is pretty straight forward, but saying how a reader feels or what the writer is trying to say is far more difficult. I feel there are two clear problems:

Issue 1: students have a limited vocabulary for describing effects.

Issue 2: students lack confidence in their own emotional response to a text.

Hopefully, the following will address some of those issues and offer some possible solutions.
Issue 1: students have a limited vocabulary for describing effects.

When you ask a student to comment on the effect of a device or aspect of a book or poem you tend to get the following stock phrases:

It makes the reader read on.

It makes it tense.

It makes it interesting.

There are various versions of these phrases, but these are the typical generic ones. They are simplistic and reductive. My favourite happens to be the ‘interesting’ one, as I have yet to find a text that hasn’t in some way been written to be uninteresting. All texts are designed to be interesting otherwise we wouldn’t give them to students.

Anyway, the stock phrases are used because they are easy and they relate to absolutely any text. They are generic. A bit like my stock phrases for describing a football match - that last goal in the match was a blinder.  I partly blame the evil and reductive writing triplets of the olden days. You know the ones I mean: ‘argue, persuade, advise’; and ‘explain, describe, comment’. Evil little things. They are emotionless and heartless things that fail to understand the connection a text has with a reader. I read a book last week. According to the triplets, it entertained me. But, it didn’t entertain me; it did something far more important. It took me on a journey of emotions. Yes, but what triplet is it?

Giving students some phrases was a key thing I did this year. The first thing I did was introduce the following phrases ‘a sense of’ and ‘a feeling of’. From examining, lots of past questions, I noticed that successful students uses these phrases when writing about texts. Therefore, when presenting students with a new text, I would shy away from the usual sort of questioning and give students three, usually, examples of these phrases.

Read the poem and select an example of the following:

1: Sense of confusion

2: Sense of isolation

3: Sense of entrapment

The above example was used with a class looking at ‘Belfast Confetti’, but I have used a variation of it with speeches and extracts from novels. The great thing that I noticed was that students carried these phrases and effects on to other texts. They made connections and retained the feelings from the previous one and applied it to the next one. Now, if they repeated that process a couple of times a year, students could have up to sixty plus little effect phrases to use in their writing that crosses different questions.

I found that this approach works much better than the previous one that most, I think, use. Before, I always based the analysis around the technique and then they student has to justify / explore the feeling a technique creates. Why did the writer use that rhetorical question at the end? Ummm. Ummm. It takes a really sophisticated reader to do that quickly. As a result I changed a lot of how I got some of the weaker students to write about texts. The following was a little planning structure I used:

The writer creates a sense of awe by using TECHNIQUE


The writer shows us  - WRITER’S MESSAGE.

As an approach it wasn’t mind-blowing, but it helped students form and articulate ideas. Students readily offered techniques and ideas about the writer’s message. Moving the emotional response to the front of the thinking was helpful for students. In fact, they are quicker at offering feelings about a text now. And, as they are quicker at getting to the feeling of a text, they are happier to zoom in on techniques. For more able students, I get them to find two or three techniques that create the specific feelings. Or, a challenge them with an unusual feeling – a sense of the sublime.

Issue 2: students lack confidence in their own emotional response to a text.

In addition to all this, I produced one PowerPoint slide. It was another slide to be used with every class and at every given moment. It was simply a page of abstract nouns. When looking at a text, I’d have the slide on the in the background. Students would have the slide as a visual cue so that it would help them see or connect the text with particular ideas or concepts.

Now this is why I think we have a problem with some weaker students in classes when it comes to talking about a text. We spend most of our time making things concrete. We give students concrete explanations. We give students concrete examples. We even ask students to detach emotions from thinking in lessons. The recent focus on progress has enforced this idea. We must search for things that are tangible and visible. We must find evidence of it.  All of this has got to affect students at some stage, and I think this is part of the effect problem. Why do some students struggle with commenting on effect? Well, it is a result of a concrete, visible curriculum focused on concrete, visible learning.  I know I sound like I should be wearing a scarf and staring ‘Byronicly’ out of the window at the playground.  

I think in some ways I am lucky because I work in a faith school. For me, there isn’t a day that goes by without a conversation relating to abstract nouns. It is part of the collective conversation. But, do we bring this abstract thinking into lessons? If I am honest, we use it where is relevant. But relevancy doesn’t mean it is consistent. It just means when I think it is appropriate. Therefore, this slide of abstract nouns was a starting point. Let’s read this poem. Which of the words can we attach to the poem? A detailed discussion is usually followed by this.

The problem I think is that we expect students to naturally do this high-end thinking automatically. We forget the big stages that get to it being an automated process. Why don’t students comment openly about the feelings they have for a text? We think it is natural, gut-instinct process. It isn’t. That’s why every book and film review a student writes in school is always dull. It’s because we don’t give them explicitly the tools for comments on the feelings a text creates in us.

We have to be more open with how students respond to a text also. We have to make it clear to students they can like and dislike aspects of texts. Plus, the must say, importantly, what is confusing. As soon as students are open and honest with their reactions to texts, we will start having better discussions and analysis of texts.

Which bit of the text did you like?

Which bit of the text didn’t you like?

Which bit of the text did you find confusing?

Behind each answer to one of those questions is a comment on the effect of a text. We just need to build on it and investigate it. Why did you like it? What did the writer do to make you like it? Why did he/she want you to like that bit and not the other bit?

Changing how we analyse a text and explore a text could help us develop this idea of what is the impact of a text on a reader. I don’t want every student to approach a text in English as if they had fallen in love with poem and they are blindingly obsessed by it. I don’t love every text I teach, study or read, but I do love bits of them. Students seem to think that a response to a text is based on two extreme emotions. You either love it or hate it. Maybe, we need to deal with that aspect in lessons. There are several levels of enjoyment (engagement) with a text and we need to make that clear to students. You can find a poem boring. You can find a poem exciting. It is the ‘what makes it that’ is more important. And the phrases that you use: You can find the poem has a sense of monotony. You can find the poem has a feeling of joy.

Put emotions at the head of the learning.

Thanks for reading,



  1. This is pure genius! I love your ideas and will be implementing them from tomorrow! Thank you!

  2. Love this, helped endless amounts! Thankyou so much!