One of the biggest areas for English teachers is the ‘why’ aspect of analysis. Why does the writer do this? Over the years, we have seen paragraph structures to address this and we even seen lists of verbs to address this issue. The problem is that whatever way we approach things we are using a pneumatic drill to open a flower. Things are usually more subtle, nuanced and complex than seems on appearance. Take the verb ‘challenges’. Yes, Dickens does challenge quite a few things in ‘A Christmas Carol’, but a word like challenge is such a blunt word to describe a complex situation.
‘A Christmas Carol’ was written to be sold as a book. The people who could afford it would be rich. The book was in a funny place. If it insults or attacks (or overtly challenges) the rich, then not many people would buy it. Therefore, the book doesn’t attack the rich in general. If we are honest, the book is designed to provoke emotions in the Victorian reader to feel good about themselves when they are kinder and charitable towards other people. If we look at the book, it isn’t ‘anti-rich’. Scrooge at the end of the story doesn’t stop being rich. He stays rich, but shares some of his money, time and company with others. So, in effect, the book is flattering the rich who behave like this, but at the same time subtly guilt tripping those that don’t behave like this. We often place a lot of effort on the redemption arc of Scrooge when, in fact, Scrooge represents varying parts of the readership. Of course, we boil this down to a simple soundbite like: Dickens challenges how the rich treated the poor.
When we look at analysis of texts, there are four main areas of inferences we make:
Character inferences - Scrooge feels X
Reader inferences - The reader feels X towards Y
Writer’s inferences - The writer wants to X
Context inferences - The attitude to Y at that time was X
Of course, there are loads more, but these are the general ones that students need some understanding to write a decent analysis paragraph. Character inferences are often the easiest for students because that skill is very much what they have done their whole life: reading tone and body language to work out what a person thinks or feels. The other three areas are the tricky ones.They are the ones that, often or not, we provide set statements /facts to form those inferences. Or, we provide them with words or phrases that imitates the act of making an inference. Throw in the word ‘challenge’ and you get something that sounds like a student making an inference around the writer’s intention.
So, how do we get students better at making inferences around the writer and his /her intentions? Well, for a start, we move away from presenting the writer’s intention ideas as fact and as something to be taught rather than found. All inferences around a writer’s thoughts and feelings are guesswork and conjecture. The best ones are rationalised inferences based on several points in the text. This is where I think we have a large problem. We expect students to be able to find and explore a writer’s thoughts and feelings in non-fiction texts, yet in Literature texts we expect the opposite. Let me tell you what Shakespeare is thinking here. Things are disjointed. We tell students a writer’s attitude towards themes, ideas, people and characters in a novel or play yet in non-fiction we are frustrated when students can’t find these inferences themselves.
The key thing then is our relationship with a text. Yes, exams have warped the curriculum, but so too have we to the extent that the text is secondary to the learning process. We teach the plot, characters, quotations and techniques and yet the key thing in all this is the text. The vehicle for the ideas. We need students to get better at finding those inferences themselves and that involves them exploring texts better.
Recently, I’ve been studying ‘A Christmas Carol’ with a Year 10 class. We had finished reading the text and were pulling things together. Together, we looked at the character of Bob Cratchit and I gave the class the following table:
The result was a heated debate about whether Dickens likes or dislikes Bob Cratchit. Some were saying that Dickens likes his ability to be happy in the face of adversity. Others said that Dickens dislikes how much a pushover he is. A few said he was too good to be true that they thought Dickens was taking the mick with him. All comments, however, were grounded with evidence in the text. Then, we related it to the context. Why should Dickens be taking the mick out of him at that time?
We repeated this again with several characters including Scrooge, Mrs Dilbur, Tiny Tim and so on. Each discussion built up ideas about the writer and what he was intending to do. Students were making comments about how Dickens likes Mrs Dilbur’s strength and ability to survive but dislikes her lack of respect to the dead. From it, students were exploring in detail what the writer is doing and why he is doing it. A character’s behaviour and background were separated because Dickens liked one and not the other and so on.
We need to help students co-construct a mental image of the writer when reading. We present writers as behemoths when they are thinking and feeling people (regardless if they are alive or not). In most, analysis structures the writer’s thoughts and feelings are an afterthought. They are the last E in PEE. They are the Why in the ‘What How Why’. And, if we are honest, they are the last thought when it comes to explanations.
It is almost like we need to treat the writer like we treat characters in a story. In the same way we co-construct inferences around a character in a story, such as Scrooge’s redemption, we need to do the same for the writer. What is the writer’s arc across the text? You only get to that by talking about the writer throughout the reading and through exploring what the writer thinks or feels. There needs to be an ongoing lesson narrative around this co-construction of the writer’s views and perspective. Working together to build that understanding.
If we want students to get better about talking about the writer’s intention, we need to start at the beginning and focus on helping students make inferences about the writer from the start. Who does Dickens like on page 1? How do you know?
Thanks for reading,