Sunday, 16 October 2016

Structure is all about three words

Again, I am spending time again on thinking about teaching and preparing students for Question 3 on the new AQA English exam paper. In fact, I think I have spent so much time on it that I have forgotten to pay bills, respond to emails and feed my own children. They are looking a bit feral at the moment. All this for one question. And, it is only worth eight marks.

This week, with a group of Year 9s I looked at Stevie Smith’s ‘Come on, come back’. We have been looking at dystopian fiction and I thought I’d look at the poem through the GCSE exam question prism. Did I mention poem are great examples for Paper 1 practice? Anyway, we worked through the questions. Find five things that show this a dystopian world. How does the writer use language for effect in this section? How is the text structured?

I have worked with students across KS3 and KS4 to get used to sketching three key images from a text, when looking at structure. I am, very simplistically, getting students to see the text in terms of start, middle and end. Draw the beginning, the middle and the end. In fact, my mantra is always, when looking at the structure, start, middle and end. What is at the start? What is in the middle? What is at the end?

Yes, it is simplistic, but it helps students to see three separate entities. It also helps students to structure their responses. Point one: beginning. Point two: middle. Point three: end. When students have that clear view of the text, then we can add additional questions?

When is the setting introduced? When is the character introduced? Where is the atmosphere created?  

These are all important questions when looking at the structure of the text. Why reveal the character at the start, middle or end?

A character introduced in the start might suggest the story is focused on this one character.

A character introduced in the opening might show that the story is focused on feelings / emotions and the journey this character experiences.  

A character introduced at the end of an extract might be because the writer wants to build up to the character.

They are choices. Why did the writer put that character there? I recently used an extract from ‘Great Gatsby’ and it was interesting for the choices about character. The start and the middle were all focused on Gatsby. The end of the extract referred to the narrator and what was happening to them. This structural choice reflected the narrator’s obsession with Gatsby. Three quarters of the text was dedicated to this one character. Then, when you explore the structure further, you see that the character of Gatsby is introduced, but only through his house and the activity in the house. Seeing the extract from a character perspective, helps us see the way the text is structured. A reliance on feature spotting undermines the overall structure of a text.  

If we look at ‘Come on, come back’, the structure is interesting. The start – a girl is introduced. The middle – the girl drowns. The end – a sentinel calls out to her. We see that the focus is on the character from the start. She introduced to us at the start. Yet, the character is killed off in the middle. It is like ‘Game of Thrones’. Storytelling tends to have death at the end or start of writing, because it tends to be strong way to start and end things. Nothing is more finite. Yet, the writer (poet) has the character introduced at the start and killed in the middle. That means her death has some significance. The aftermath of her death has some meaning so the writer has continued the story after her death. It could be to be poignant. Here is a lonely girl and at the end she isn’t alone, but it is too late. Or, it could be about desire escape the events of the conflict and that her only way to escape is death. The sentinel at the end is a reminder she cannot escape.

Looking at the poem you see that the setting is continually referred to throughout, but, in my personal opinion, it is more noticeable at the point of drowning, which could show us how the landscaping is consuming her. We could even say there is a sense of repetition with the start. The water consumes her as did the world she escaped from.

Of course, you can start throwing in terminology and refer to the third person perspective, which add to the sense of distance and emotional detachment of the character. We are emotionless as too is the ‘girl’. This detachment is a repeated motif in the poem.  All this started with the three words ‘start, middle and end’. However, we took this a bit further. We tried to summarise the poem’s structure with three words. One for the start. One for the middle. One for the ending.

This is what we came up with:

Lost – escape – fail

Scenery – feelings – death

Death – feelings – death

Before – death – after

Inside – outside – inside

Story – feeling – death

Past – present – past

Darkness – light – darkness

Loneliness – escape – company

Information – emotive     

The great thing is that with each suggestion students had to justify their idea with reference to the text. We also looked at the connections between the words used for the opening – lost, scenery, death, inside, past, darkness, loneliness. Students were able to confidently talk about structure and meaning at the same time.  

Regular readers of the blog will note similarities with my ideas about ‘inference words’ and that is on purpose. If a student can sum up a section of a text, they will be able to effectively comment on the structure of the text. You can’t teach structure without focusing solely on specific texts. No two texts are ever going to be alike. Teaching students to spot common things and techniques is dangerous. That’s why I like this approach of empowering students to comment on the structural choices themselves. See the text as three separate components. Then, summarise the different components and then look at how they are connected together.  You can then refer to other technique, but always have the disclaimer attached to a method or technique: not every writer uses this approach. In fact, only a few do.

I have found these three words so helpful when exploring structure. A starting point to engage with the thinking.

All this for eight marks on the exam paper.

 Thanks for reading,



  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. With my students it does seem to be the link between structure and meaning that is missing. I shall try this and see how we go! Liv

  2. A year ago, I found a lesson on your site dealing with loneliness. We did the lesson and my students found it valuable and helpful. Now, I cannot find it at all. Sorry to ask this in a comment, but I can't find any way to contact you. I'd really appreciate your help.

  3. Is it this one?