Sunday, 20 January 2019

Painting the writer's presentation of a character clearly

At the moment, I am thinking, like most of us, on how we can use KS3 to empower students at KS4. On this area, I thought I’d share something I did in a lesson this week and its interesting results.

This term, I am exploring the presentation of characters in ‘Treasure Island’ with Year 7s and we were looking at how Robert Louis Stevenson presents Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins. Usually, I provide students with a range of quotations and we analyse those in detail. Or, I get students to select appropriate quotes. This time, I added an extra stage.

There is often a large leap between an idea and a precise language point. Some students can infer an idea from one simple word and others need so much guidance that I may as well write the answer myself, as I have given the point to them and I am praising them for repeating my idea. This gulf between ideas and language points is huge. It is often a struggle for a student to make a decent idea and find the appropriate language point. The melding of idea and language is a problem.   

During one lesson, we looked at the idea of how writers present characters in stories. I simply spelled out that writers use the following to present characters:





Of course, there’s clothes too but there is only really the opening, where clothes are used to show us a character’s personality.

So, with this, I changed my questioning. Instead of asking students to find a quote where Stevenson shows us how brave and mature he’s become, I asked question about how does Stevenson present Jim’s maturity and bravery. At this point students, were able to pinpoint, his actions and one specific decision.

As a group, we continued this with looking at different strands of how Jim and Long John Silver are presented in the book. The emphasis, however, was on these four elements: actions, relationships, decisions and dialogue. It gave students quite a concrete starting point for their analysis and helped them with the next phase: drilling down into the language.

If it is an action, I need to look at the verbs or the way the action is described.

If it is a decision, I need to explore the choice and the consequences of the choice.

If it is the dialogue, I need to explore the tone, level of politeness/formality or words used in the speech.

If it is relationships, I need to find moments in the story what symbolise the relationship.  

What this did for me was helped to develop the logical thinking of analysis? The knowledge of the specific approaches to presentation helped students to see things rather than rely on the old see what jumps out at you.

From a lesson perspective, I wrote on the board the following headings.

Jim is …                                 Stevenson uses…..                                          Because….

And, students filled out the table easily and quickly. Then, when I was able to get students to write paragraphs about the characters, they were able to structure their analysis around the key idea. A student focusing on a decision would then introduce the decision at the start of their point and then explore the decision instead of use benign sentence starters forcing students to look at word regardless of the fact that the way the writer is presenting a character is something embedded in the writing and not easily amounted to one word.

I think the GCSEs now are really helping to make us see that students need a background in understanding the complexities and simplicities of storytelling. We, as English teachers, need to spell out the basics of storytelling and not just graphs to show where a climax or a resolution is. We need to teach students that writers have these tools in their arsenals.

Let’s take ‘A Christmas Carol’. Do we really focus on the decisions made by Scrooge throughout the story? We probably emphasise the way he is presented at the start and end, but do we look at the decisions he makes. In fact, do we list the decisions he makes or has to make? Do we even explore the decisions?

Here’s a few decisions:

The decision to give the Bob Christmas Day off without pay.

The decision to not attend Fred’s house at Christmas.

The decision to not give money to charity.

The decision not to paint Marley’s name out.      

Each and every decision helps us understand the character more.  I’ll be honest: I have tended to focus dialogue and relationships when talking about presentation of a character. Oh and clothes is a given. But, do we look closer enough at the decision making of characters. Do we place emphasis on them and I don’t mean an impromptu drama lesson with a decision alley. In fact, I am sure decision alley was a torture device employed by several dictators in the past. A love drama, but my love does not spill out to lining students in a line and getting them to spout brain dibblings. It’s your decision to make. Feel free to judge me on my decision not to use it in my teaching.

The decision not to paint Marley’s name out.      

A decision that on face value could look like laziness or penny pinching. Or a decision that could indicate an inability to change. A sign that points to the notion that Scrooge doesn’t like change and doesn’t want to change. This is ‘signposted’ at the start of the story to indicate the battle we are going to have convincing Scrooge of changing his ways. If he can’t be bothered to change a sign, then how will he change his mind, when that is free?  

What was the decision? To paint or not to paint - that is the question? What if he does paint out the sign? It would mean he has visual reminder of his loneliness. It is just Scrooge. No, and Marley. The sign would be a reminder that he is on his own. It could also be the chink in his armour. For all the negativity surrounding him, this could be the one glimpse of hope.  Maybe he doesn’t want to be lonely. Maybe that sign is the symbol he wants to be part of something. He wants connection. He isn’t totally on his own. Like most of us, he just doesn’t know how to change himself for the better.

Then, we can look at when that decision took place. Seven years ago, presumably. A decision that hasn’t changed in seven years. That then highlights the rigid nature of his decision. He’s made a decision and he doesn’t go back on it. Let’s assume that in those seven years he has been asked by numerous people or has been reminded about it, yet still he hasn’t changed.

Decisions are everywhere in the texts we study and they are a choice made by the writer. To give a character a decision, helps us to understand a character. What decisions did Eric make prior to ‘An Inspector Calls’? What decisions does Juliet make in ‘Romeo and Juliet’?

If students can understand, learn and recall that characters are presented in a number of ways in Year 7 and remind them of this annually, then we will have students that understand better the way writers present characters in a range of texts. The group I was teaching had a detailed discussion about the decision making of Jim Hawkins towards the end of the novel and it was fruitful, meaningful and detailed. Giving students these four words helped the student to explore the text more than they would have done without them.

Thanks for reading,



  1. This is a great idea! I shall try it out with a group of KS3 ASD students. Thank you.

  2. Brilliant- going to try with my year 9s on Friday and see how it goes! Thanks.


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