Sunday 18 February 2024

Being precise around the writer’s intention

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, 


Xris 


Sunday 28 January 2024

A question of tone and not techniques

In the time I have been teaching, I have seen the teaching of English compartmentalised in so many different ways. And, dear reader, you cannot put it solely at the hands of the GCSE exams. We’ve had the National Curriculum and APP grids along the way. They all attempt to make the subject an easily digestible tick list. When you do that, you see the general focus is one making the abstract concrete. You see limiting writing structures for analysis. You see an emphasis on concrete knowledge like facts around historical context and identification of techniques. We see students able to repeat facts and spot techniques, but they cannot explain why they are used. This then leads to the teacher having to explicitly teach why a technique is used. And, this repeats on and on. 

Tone is the single biggest thing that improves writing and reading across all levels. It is everywhere in our subject yet it is nowhere at the same time. Tone is something that glues words, sentences, techniques and paragraphs together. It is something that connects the reader to the writer. It is something that links the context to the writer’s purpose. It is hidden below the subject of a text and it is the seam of gold that helps students unlock meaning and understanding. Yet, it is something so hard to compartmentalise. Yes, you can name it for sure, but you can’t really define it fully because it sits across so many domains and processes.  

Look at how tone is everywhere in the AQA English exams: 


English Language

Reading 

Paper 1 - the narrator’s tone, the individual tone of characters, the writer’s own tone 

Paper 2 - the tone of the writer is both extracts 

Writing 

Paper 1 - the tone of their characters, the tone of their writing 

Paper 2 - the tone of their writing 


English Literature 


Shakespeare 

The tone of the extract, the tone of the character, the tone of the writer. 


Pre1914 Novel 

The tone of the extract, the tone of the character, the tone of the writer. 


Modern Text 

The tone of the extract, the tone of the character, the tone of the writer. 


Poetry Anthology 

The tone of the extract, the tone of the voice,  the tone of the writer. 

Repeat for the other poem 


Unseen poetry 


The tone of the extract, the tone of the voice,  the tone of the writer. 


Tone is everywhere in English, because it is literally everywhere in life. If students are receptive to the concept of tone, we have a seam of gold to mine in the English classroom. 


The problem in English lessons is that the questions become focused on the microdetails. Specific words. Specific techniques. Why did Dickens describe Scrooge as an ‘oyster’? When exploring that question, we are exploring quite precise knowledge. What is an oyster? What is the symbolism of oysters? If you know nothing about oysters, then you are stuck. Not many students know what an oyster is, so you are on a losing foot from the start.  


When we move the questioning away from microdetail, we focus more on the interconnectivity within a text. Take the following question: How does Dickens create a sympathetic tone in Stave 1? To respond to that question, you have to join parts of the text together, whether they be plot detail or writer’s methods. But, there’s also a personal aspect. The evidence to support the point can vary from student to student. The questioning can then be layered up. Why is Dickens so sympathetic here? What isn’t he sympathetic about? Interestingly, what is empathic about? 


Teaching tone in literature texts is paramount, but it isn’t a concrete thing. There’s more than one technique to show pity. More than one technique to show anger. And so. I’d argue that instead of using pretty empty verbs around the writer when exploring intent, there’s more legs in talking about tone. Instead of talking of what Dickens is challenging in the story, talk about what makes him angry. Anger, of course,  leads to ‘challenging’.  


From a language analysis perspective, starting with tone means you are already joining up parts of the text. How is this extract comical? The use of exaggeration. The word ‘blubber’. The repetition of ‘again’. Then, analysis starts with what makes the exaggeration comical, rather than the tumbleweed moment of ‘What is the reader supposed to feel with this exaggeration?.  


From a writing perspective, teaching students about the subtle types of tone they can use is highly beneficial. The default tone for transactional writing is usually Facebook rant or end of the world apocalypse. The better writers have a breezy and light tone that knows when to pack a punch and when to understate things. 


The starting point is to talk about tone. Talk about awe, frustration, sarcasm, irony, bitterness and so on. Talk about when tone changes. Talk about why tone changes. Talk about why that tone then. Don’t just give a wordbank of tone words. Actually, talk about tone and teach about tone. 


You’d think we’d give tone the same level of respect as full stops and capital letters given that they are in every piece of writing, but we don’t. There’s so much time given to techniques with the hope that students can spot it in the rare occurrence of it appearing in an exam. I can guarantee the text will have a tone. 


Thanks for reading, 


Xris