Sunday, 11 December 2016

Let’s get a bit of perspective on things

I have just marked my first set of mock papers for the English Language GCSE and I have seen some marked improvements from my set. They are a set 4 out of 6. A lovely group. But, boy have we battled to get ready them for the mocks, but a few things clicked in the exam.

There were two things I felt worked really well. One was a simple case of numbers. The pattern two, two, one. For question 2, it really helped to focus them. Find two words. Explain effect. Find two techniques. Explain effect. Find one interesting thing to say about the sentences. I’d go on to say that the structure worked for the literature papers two. For less the confident students, it worked as a way to get them to have a stronger focus on word choice. I have students who find tonnes of techniques, but they miss out on simple exploration of word choice. The 2/2/1 pattern also helps students to avoid over searching in a text. Limiting things to two words, two techniques and one thing about the sentences, gives them more focus and thinking time to comment on the effect.

In fact, I regularly now get students to find me 2/2/1. I am that sad I get them to remember the 2/2/1 pattern with the fingers on their hand. Word of warning: make sure their hands are pointing the right way. Might change that next time we have a lesson observation.  

The other thing that worked was about narrative perspective. And, more importantly, how students comment on the effect of a narrative device.

We memorised the following effects of narrative perspective:

1st person – closer – understanding – building relationship – connection

3rd person – distant – mystery- revealing – helpless

Then, I got students to memorise the following effects of the tense of a narrative:

Past – fixed – inevitable - predictable – helpless

Present – changeable – unpredictable- involved

As a result of these things, the students wrote very well about the structure of the text when looking at the start, middle and end. Most of them commented on the helplessness of the extract and how the extract developed this sense of helplessness throughout the text. The extract started with a dream where the protagonist felt helpless was reinforced and developed by the boy’s helplessness in relation to his mother’s illness. This was supported by the writer’s use of a 3rd person perspective.

After marking the papers, I am coming to the idea that we need to focus more on narrative perspective and probably look at some simple choices by the writer. The gender of the protagonist is a structural device. The age of the protagonist is a structural device. The background of the protagonist is a structural device. Why that person? Why that voice? Our rush to get this question right in our heads has meant we simplify the question to referring to repeated motifs and opening and closing sentences. But, maybe, we are missing some important questions that need some time for thinking. We need students to think about some obvious questions.

Take ‘A Christmas Carol’. Yes, we have an omniscient narrator, but our protagonist is an old, rich, lonely, miserable man. There are five structural choices made just there.

Old – fixed attitude towards things which they have had for a long time – hard to convince

Rich – a position of power and could cause change or improvements

Lonely – might have a desire to change his life

Miserable – seeking some form of happiness

Man – a voice that will be listened to in Victorian society – quite stubborn

Now, I love Charles Dickens, so when I teach ‘A Christmas Carol’, I can’t help thinking back to ‘Oliver Twist’ and making connections between the two. You know ‘Oliver Twist’. The story about a poor, orphaned, outspoken, troublesome boy.

Poor – a position of weakness and without power

Orphaned – reliant on others for guidance / help

Outspoken – a refusal to accept the situation

Troublesome – a sense of being unsettled – not in the right position

Boy – his identity is not fixed yet and there is chance he can become something different

We all know that Dickens want to change society and its attitude towards the poor. It is interesting to compare ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Oliver Twist’. One it about a rich man learning to embrace the poor. The other one is about a poor boy becoming rich. There are some interesting points then to make about the structure in relation to their narrative choices. Take Oliver. At the start he is a poor, orphaned, outspoken, troublesome boy. By the end he is rich, part of a family, polite and a little bit older. The story is structured around his growth. Oliver is placed in a number different situations and each one highlights how he doesn’t belong to that world. Each setting is described to highlight how he contrasts to that specific world.

When looking at Shakespeare, we probably miss out some clear structural choices. Here’s a speech from Juliet. What is her attitude towards love? Back up a bit. How old is she? What is her experience of life? What has she loved? Has she experienced love? What are her views on love? All these questions need answering before you even start analysing the character and speech. What is her point of view? How does she see things? What is her perspective?

So, where next for me? Well, I think I am going to get students to narrow the narrative perspective down to five key words. Then, get students to see how this impacts on the overall structure. For me, I think the narrative perspective needs to be at the heart of any explanation. The starts the story with the character is a terrible situation so we empathise with his plight and see the events from his perspective.

Mind you: I think I probably need more perspective – it is only eight marks.

Thanks for reading,


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