Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion of vocabulary on Twitter and blogs and helping students to develop with the GCSEs. Some of it has been heated. Some of it has been needed. Some of it superfluous. The problem with all new trends is that they drown out a lot of good practices. There always needs to be a balance. My fear is that there has been an imbalance in terms of vocabulary and we have swung too far one way. I have seen supposedly Grade 9 examples with the language that is impenetrable to the human brain. It sounds clever, but it doesn’t really amount to much. We’ve, in some cases, swung too far with analysis. We have the next generation of purple prose. I like to call it mauve analysis.
When you look at published critical essays (the style of writing that is at the top of the pile in sophistication in literary analysis), they read nothing like this mauve analysis. F.R.Leavis, for example. The problems we have had with creative writing for years has now infected literary analysis in the classroom. There’s become a checklist for analysing a text. We’ve reduced interesting discussion of a text in to a list of features. Have you mentioned context? Have you included an alternative viewpoint? Have you mentioned structure? Have you mentioned that the writer had a mole on his nose and this affected how he viewed society? Look at any critical essay and you’d be pushed to find any of these in one paragraph. Yes, you will find them somewhere across a twenty page essay, but I can guarantee you will not find them all in one paragraph, which is what some teachers are expecting students to do. We are creating these bizarre paragraphs which list things rather than develop and discuss ideas.
When you look at the best literature students, they don’t follow a formula. They tend to be very precise and spot subtle things and make interesting connections across a text. The ‘what’ isn’t the big thing for literature. However, ‘the what’ has become an obsession for some. It is the explanation and that’s what we have as a department worked on: developing the meaningful discussion of a text. We’ve used the ‘what / how / why’ structure as a starting point.
Dickens presents - the ideas
Dickens uses – the techniques (words / techniques / characters / patterns / structure)
Dickens teaches us – the reason for doing this – feeling / context / message
We stress to students that these can be placed in order, but presents and teaches tend to be best at the start. We give students them written like this:
Dickens presents education as something that will solve problems in society.
Dickens uses the visit of three ghost to teach Scrooge of the benefits of changing his attitude.
Dickens teaches the Victorian audience why they must care for others in society.
On a sheet of paper, students add to these three sentences and develop the explanation. This term we’ve been doing this regularly. The emphasis is on development and extending thinking. We wanted to avoid the listing of aspects and promote the development of ideas. This has become a bit of a planning tool for us. Presents/ Uses/Teaches.
The problem with the literature text is the extract, if I am honest. The tiny extract is seen as the source of answers and it becomes an obsession for students. I tell students to use the extract for language analysis and use the whole text to answer the question. The answers to the question are not in the extract and sadly students think that is the case. They’ll warp their thinking by obsessing on the extract, so essays will be constant reference to the extract. Also, using three sentences like this has been really useful for me as it promotes developing the existing idea rather than searching for a new idea. All too often in literature analysis students are stumped because they can’t think of something new or original. This approach allowed them to build on what is existing and extend it.
Another model used is this one. This one is about using multiple elements and forcing students not to fixate on one sole thing.
Shakespeare presents love as dangerous and deadly.
character contrast of characters foreshadowing
Imagery setting event structure
word repetition juxtaposition symbol
Shakespeare teaches us
Love hate family fate/ destiny freewill light/darkness conflict
…. because ….
The problem we find is the obsession of one technique to rule them all. More advanced students talk about combinations of techniques. Or, they’d develop the idea by referring to several different aspects in the text. By forcing students to think of several aspects in the ‘use’ element, we have seen some interesting combinations of things. And, if I am honest, it is a bit source of enjoyment, because you are asking students to be creative and not spot the most obvious thing. The development of an idea through three techniques is interesting and has lots of scope for lessons.
Finally, to extend the development of think we get students to see that themes are not viewed in isolation and an idea can cover several themes. This allows for extension of the point and make more meaningful connections. So when talking about love, students feel they can link hate and family in their discussion. Students, like us, compartmentalise things and it is all too easy to narrow the focus. The writer uses X to show the theme of love.
In the end, students have a plan for a paragraph where they are looking at multiple elements and multiple ideas and they have extended their thinking and ideas. I have taught students that the ‘presents / uses / teaches’ are different threads and they all should be interwoven together rather than written as threads rather than discrete sentences.
We can easily obsess over the words and the techniques but students need to develop explanations and ideas. We need to put explanation at the front of teaching analysis. We need to get students better at explaining and developing their thoughts. There needs to be a balance.
Thanks for reading,