Sunday, 22 January 2017

The purpose of facing one long sentence

I have spent years and years getting students to analyse a text and this year with one set, I thought I’d try a different approach. I have a particularly weak class. They are a Set 6 of 6. They are great, but analysis of texts is difficult with them. They revert to the common plot retelling or jumping in with technique spotting.

When you look at less able students analysing texts, they tend to struggle with whole texts. They feel a need to mention several parts of the text at once and because they are doing this they tend to mention lots of things in very superficial detail. I have marked hundreds of tests and seen this happen again and again. In truth, they are looking at too much in the text. It is as if the quantity of information dwarfs their thinking.

The new GCSE English exams have a connected strand. They all rely on students being able to comment on the language choices, comment on the effect and discuss the writer’s intent. There is no getting away from this common thread. We need students to be experts on this ongoing thread in the GCSEs. Therefore, I developed a starter to use every lesson. Students come in. Write down a sentence from last lesson’s reading and start analysing it.

words / purpose / feeling / techniques  

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

They do this every lesson and their confidence has grown and the analysis has developed considerably.

[1] First students spot  and circle the key words. What words are the most important here?
Gravely, silently
Gloom and mystery

This helps start students off with something simple and personal. There’s no right or wrong at this stage. During this, I highlight the word class. They say word. I use grammatical terms.

Tom: I spotted gravely and silently.
Me: Yes, you have spotted two adverbs.

The hope is that they will make the leap themselves to offer word class when spotting words.

[2] Then, we look at the purpose of the sentence. To frame this for students, I generally put the following phrases:
To show us
To teach is  

Now, in the past, I have always focused on feelings or techniques when getting students to analyse texts, but recently I have felt that purpose should be at the forefront of analysis. Get the purpose and the rest of the understanding follows and analysis follows. All too often, I have, like others, left the discussion about purpose until the end. We have spotted word, techniques and feelings and then last of all we talk about why the writer used those things. This way, I am starting with the purpose. Look, what is the writer trying to do here?
To show us the power and influence of the ghost.
To show us how Scrooge is affected by the ghost.
To teach us that the future is scary.

[3] The next step is to start on the feelings. What are the different feelings we experience in this sentence?
Feel sorry for Scrooge
Feel sacred of the ghost
Feel impressed with the ghost’s power

At each of these stages, we are referring back to the words. What words make you feel sorry? What words show us the future is scary? We are develop meaning without using the short-cut methods of technique spotting and regurgitating a cliché about writing. The writer uses a list to stand out. We explore meaning.

[4] The final step is referring to techniques. To get to this point, we have talked about words, purpose and effect, which inverts the analysis students usually use: I spot a technique; I explain the effect of the technique; and, I explain why the writer chose that technique.  
A list
A pair
A short sentence

At this point, students have a wealth of understanding to connect these elements together.
The writer uses a list to show us the power of the ghost.
The writer uses a short sentence to make us scared of the ghost.
The writer uses a pair of nouns to teach us how scary the future is.   

I am incredibly interested at looking at structures and internal structures in English lessons that help aid meaning. This has been quite successful for me and students have embraced it. But, most importantly, it is the consistency of the approach for me that has been very important. We have used this approach again and again with a class. And, I will use it again and again with poems, non-fiction and other texts. I want to change the internal thought-processes in their brains so they think about the purpose and effect sooner rather than as an afterthought in a mindless rambling.

In the exams, students will be able to spot a sentence and then analyse that in detail and link to other parts of the text. They will, hopefully, start with one sentence and then make connections to other sections of the text and, therefore, show knowledge of the whole text. Without this approach, they will try writing about the whole text and all techniques and all ideas at the same down. We need to channel their thinking, their thoughts.

It is a simple way of approaching things and it makes a crap acronym WPFT, but it does help my students develop their thinking: words / purpose / feeling / techniques. It is how I want my students to think in the exam.  

Thanks for reading,


  1. A great blog Chris - will use & share. If you change feelings to emotions might help with the acronym as Word PETs easier to remember. They could draw their own PET avatar - or you could have one for these starters? Thanks for sharing & a brilliant blog.

  2. This is brilliant, thank you. I am going to borrow (read: steal!) and share with my department. We're studying Macbeth and J&H at the moment (year 10/11) and this will work so well in boosting confidence and making analysis an embedded skill.

  3. This really is tremendous, Chris. It's always welcome hearing how you go about these things, breaking them down into bits - my classes often struggle getting down a range of points, and your approach to this is really helpful in terms of giving them specific things to look for. Cheers.

  4. I really appreciate this, Chris - it's a no nonsense approach which I can immediately implement. I'm still using your 'one Shakespeare slide to rule them all', and this is also gold! Thank you.

  5. Magnificent article. I see that author is skilled expert in it.


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