Teaching the new GCSE English language unseen prose extract – some strategies

Last time I wrote about some of the common problems pupils face when faced with an unseen prose extract. I promised a few of my teaching ideas to try and deal with this and here they are:

At the early stages, you’ll obviously want to ease your class into dealing with unseen prose extracts. I used to tell the group to read the extract and then ask ‘Any questions? Which bits don’t you understand? Any confusing vocab? Where and when do we think this might have been set? etc.’ I’d make it clear that there were no daft questions/responses at this point but still I’d tend to get the more confident kids raising issues and asking the right kind of questions.

  1. So I now give them a post-it and ask them to imagine they’ve just got this extract in an exam. I’m their Exam Genie and they are allowed to write down three questions (Only three, mind. Remember what happens to people who get greedy where genies and wishes are concerned.) of me that would help them tackle the extract. Then we stick them anonymously on the board and I summarise. Pupils are often very reassured to realise they aren’t being thick and most of the class don’t understand what ‘benediction’ means or where the hell ‘Saskatchewan’ is. We then fill in the gaps – using other pupils’ knowledge where possible – and then get stuck in. They obviously won’t be able to do this is the real exam but it’s an early scaffold that can be gradually dismantled.
  2. We spend a lot of time looking at titles of novels in isolation. Here’s a quick list of books that you may or may not have read. Spend 30 seconds writing down connotations/denotations:
  • The Collector
  • The Damned Utd
  • The Outsider
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • The Book of Strange New Things
  • Brighton Rock
  • If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
  • Trainspotting
  • The Man Who Was Thursday
  • Crash

We then share ideas as a group and feedback as a class. Interesting conversations like this crop up:

Student A: It must be about football.

Student B: But ‘united’ can just mean being together. Being unified.

Student C: Yes, but when ‘united’ is abbreviated to ‘Utd’ that’s always football – like in Man Utd.

3. Next we do little creative writing exercises, such as write the opening line to The Collector. Then we compare their versions with the real thing, at which point they have the chance to reconsider whether they actual story will match their initial list of connotations.

4. Then we look at opening lines and title together. Do they seem to complement or contradict each other? Does that mean the title is straightforward or ironic? You can also stick some narrative hook stuff in here. You’ll obviously want to stamp down hard on the phrase ‘It make makes the reader want to read on’.

5. After that we start to look at whole extracts, in terms of tone/atmosphere/mood (thanks to @MrsAMinett for pointing out that I’d missed this pretty vital ingredient of an unseen off my last list). I ask the class to highlight positive and negative words/phrases at which point some clever dick shouts out ‘But sir, you banned us from using ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in this classroom at the start of Year 10!’. I patiently explain that it’s ok to use + and – as general categories as long as we are then going to refine our categories into more precise emotions (anxiety, joy, relief, anticipation etc.)when we answer the question. We then start to notice that there is usually a lot more of one category than the other and see if we can link that back to the title/opening line.

6. Next up is my old mate Todorov, with his much-maligned theory of narrative stages. Quite rightly, this flawed theory has taken a bit of a kicking over the years. But I find it really useful precisely because it has big gaping holes in it. It allows pupils to spot the times when it works and comment on the times when it really doesn’t.


Todorov’s theory is meant to deal with whole texts, so, given that unseens are usually openings, we are only usually dealing with stages 1 and/or 2. But as a general rule, it’s a good idea to start simple when introducing Todorov. I’ve used classic fairy tales and The Gruffalo before, as well as episodes of The Simpsons or even Thomas the bloody Tank Engine. Anyway, let’s have a look at an extract from In Cold Blood and see if all this is any use:

Down by the depot, the postmistress, a gaunt woman who wears a rawhide jacket and denims and cowboy boots, presides over a falling-apart post office. The depot itself, with its peeling sulphur-colored paint, is equally melancholy; the Chief, the Super-Chief, the El Capitan go by every day, but these celebrated expresses never pause there. No passenger trains do – only an occasional freight. Up on the highway, there are two filling stations, one of which doubles as a meagerly supplied grocery store, while the other does extra duty as a cafe – Hartman’s Cafe, where Mrs. Hartman, the proprietress, dispenses sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and 3 .2 beer. (Holcomb, like all the rest of Kansas, is “dry.”)

And that, really, is all. Unless you include, as one must, the Holcomb School, a good-looking establishment, which reveals a circumstance that the appearance of the community otherwise camouflages: that the parents who send their children to this modern and ably staffed “consolidated” school – the grades go from kindergarten through senior high, and a fleet of buses transport the students, of which there are usually around three hundred and sixty, from as far as sixteen miles away – are, in general, a prosperous people. Farm ranchers, most of them, they are outdoor folk of very varied stock – German, Irish, Norwegian, Mexican, Japanese. They raise cattle and sheep, grow wheat, milo, grass seed, and sugar beets. Farming is always a chancy business, but in west-era Kansas its practitioners consider themselves “born gamblers,” for they must contend with an extremely shallow precipitation (the annual average is eighteen inches) and anguishing irrigation problems. However, the last seven years have been years of droughtless beneficence. The farm ranchers in Finney County, of which Holcomb is a part, have done well; money has been made not from farming alone but also from the exploitation of plentiful natural-gas resources, and its acquisition is reflected in the new school, the comfortable interiors of the farmhouses, the steep and swollen grain elevators.

Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few American – in fact, few Kansans – had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.

Most pupils will spot that we are dealing with an everyday, run-of-the-mill, down-at-heel (insert cliché of your choice) kinda place. Equilibrium is in place. So where does the disruption make itself noticed in this extract? Yes. You’re right: ‘Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few American – in fact, few Kansans – had ever heard of Holcomb.’ Now this is not giving the game away. There’s no explosion gone off, nobody has been shot or had their wife leave them. But there’s a distinct feeling of something unsettling taking place to upset the natural order. Get them to write a paragraph and explain why.

Let’s now look at the opening line to Brighton Rock:

‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’

And that’s all you need. Because we have clearly jumped straight past Equilibrium and have landed on Disruption… unless you are going to argue that in the seedy, dog-eat-dog world that Hale inhabits a possible assassination passes for Equilibrium. And then things start to get very interesting.

Hopefully this is useful stuff. The next thing that I’m working on involves archetypes. That’s for another day though. Thanks for reading.


New GCSE English Language: coping with the unseen prose extract

‘A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.’ King Lear

There’s always been a luck of the draw with the texts on the GCSE English language exams. I remember some years ago there was an AQA paper that featured a front page article from The Independent about the absurdity of supermarket packaging, featuring a shrink-wrapped swede. I can still recall the blind panic spreading across the exam hall as our entire cohort (85% non-white, with a very large proportion of EAL speakers) looked around as if to say: what the f**k is a swede? Cultural, as well as general, knowledge issues can certainly cause more concerns than knowing whether it’s a simile or a metaphor.

But the unseen prose element is a new kind of worry for GCSE pupils (and some of their teachers).  Especially when it’s ‘literary’ fiction from a different century.  Having seen my Yr13 lit group make a real mess of a mock unseen prose question (The Siege by Helen Dunmore), I can understand the anxieties at KS4. We discussed what went wrong and why, and over the course of several lessons and a few more unseen extracts we came up with a list of difficulties that the unseen can cause:

  1. Setting/context – spatial and temporal. e.g. pupils work out the story is set in Russia but don’t know when (or why the location/time period might be significant). General knowledge is vital here, of course. Pupils with a solid awareness of history, politics and religion generally have a distinct advantage over those that don’t.
  2. Characterisation – the need to quickly work out some basic information about the protagonist, such as gender/age/social class/occupation/ethnicity/nationality/sexual orientation.
  3. Narrative POV – is it 3rd person omniscient or 3rd person limited? Is the use of ‘you’ indicative of an actual switch to 2nd person or a stylistic device? Sounds obvious but it’s often not clear.
  4. Openings – it usually is an opening and writers have a nasty habit of being enigmatic/mysterious/ambiguous/deliberately misleading to begin with. They don’t like giving too much away and the poor candidate has to decode their intentions pretty sharpish.
  5. False assumptions – we might call these ‘red herrings’. We recently looked at The Damned Utd by David Peace, a fictionalised account of the football manager Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 day spell as manager of Leeds United. The class knew it was set in 1974 and there was an early mention of ‘not taking the kids to work’ on that day. They all, quite reasonably, assumed that men didn’t really do childcare in the 1970s, so we must be dealing with a female narrator, leading to similarly nightmarish results as Mr Clough had during his Leeds stint. Taking a metaphorical step back and interrogating these assumptions for a minute can save a lot of heartache a few minutes down the line. Especially when everything else points to a very masculine protagonist. This can even work to a pupil’s advantage: ‘On the surface XXX appears to be a story based on the idea of XXXXX. However, on further inspections we can see that…’
  6. Missing the bloody obvious – The Dunmore extract was tough going but the exam board had kindly – as they always do – provided a title: The Siege. Did any of my pupils mention the word ‘siege’ or link their analysis to the context of a surrounded city full of starving citizens at any point? Or course not. They now all make sure that they spend a good couple of minutes pondering the significance and connotations of the title. The writer picked it for a reason after all.
  7. Being too definite about meaning – Pause for a minute before labelling the weather at the beginning of Jamaica Inn a ‘prophetic warning to hubristic mankind about the lasting effects of climate change’. If in doubt, pupils can fall back on hedging language: ‘It might be argued…’, ‘Some readers would interpret this as…’

I’ll put together some practical examples of how you can teach pupils to avoid these mistakes in the near future.

Thanks for reading.


Teaching Structure for the new English GCSEs

I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a while. I spent most of Year 11 gained time in the summer thinking about structure. Then creating a monster Powerpoint and resources booklet on analysing structure. I was going to write a blog then but Chris Curtis (@Xris32) knocked out a typically sensible, clever and detailed post all about structure here.

Naturally, I enjoyed it reading Chris’s blog and liked the deceptively simple idea of structure being mainly about introducing character, spotting patterns and noting the character’s journey within the extract. He deliberately avoids fancy terminology but I’m a big fan of ‘obscure Greek’ stuff so my ‘blinged-up’ approach will definitely include ‘analepsis’ and ‘anagnorosis’ alongside the more prosaic ‘narrative time’.

Firstly, though, why does structure fill some teachers of KS3 and KS4 English with feelings of dread? The answer is pretty simple I think: apart from A level literature, we have mostly skirted around the teaching of structure in prose. Poetry (often badly in my opinion but that’s for another day) and drama yes. But prose no. A dash of foreshadowing here and a pinch of cyclical structure here but nothing too meaty.  We weren’t taught it at GCSE and we haven’t needed to do so at that age or earlier until now. My hunch is that, like the switch away from Of Mice and Men, we will be grateful for the enforced, rushed change in the end.

So what is my approach? I began by looking at the example extracts and the question format on the GCSE language exemplar materials. I’m doing AQA, so my focus is mainly on Q3, although obviously the skills are transferrable to the study of literature (and there’s little between exam boards on the language paper from what I’ve seen). It is important, I think, to note the following. Some of these observations are spelling out the bloody obvious but sometimes that’s no bad thing:

  • The extracts will be short (40 lines or so)
  • They will probably use openings (or possibly endings)
  • They will introduce some characters
  • There is likely to be some kind of shift in tone/setting/atmosphere
  • They are going to be using ‘literary’ fiction
  • They are unseen texts

With that in mind I quickly realised that our old friend foreshadowing probably won’t be much use: unless pupils have miraculously read the book they won’t be able to make links to later in the text. Similarly, with short extracts it will often be about looking for subtle changes, which means getting to grips with structure at a sentence level as well as whole text. Indeed, I soon decided that I wanted to include what I’ll call ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ structural features; I’m sure someone else can tell me what they are really called – probably an obscure Greek word I’ve not yet come across.

As much as I started to enjoy my study of all things structural, I realised that this can be pretty dry stuff at times. So I elected to use film extracts alongside prose extracts. Not only because I thought it might break lessons up a bit but also because I think it forces pupils to consider the differences between the director’s and writer’s craft. A good example is the opening scene from Silence of the Lambs where we learn loads about Agent Starling despite very little dialogue. Contrasting this with the opening of Catcher in the Rye produces interesting points of comparison. One other thing that the study of film does is allows us to notice how the modern movie panders to those who expect immediate action. This leads nicely to a juxtaposition of modern and traditional narratives to see how long it takes for stuff to happen and why that might be.

My list of structural features are:

  1. Sequence – difference between plot and summary, chronological vs. episodic and, a favourite of mine, Todorov’s theory of narrative stages. As I reckon we’ll be dealing mainly with opening s, there will be an easy opportunity to identify and comment on the disruption of the equilibrium.
  2. Time – narrative summary, scene time, flashback (analepsis)/flashforward (prolepsis) and exploded time
  3. Exposition – through conflict/thoughts/dialogue/character introduction/background info/letters, emails, newspaper clippings etc.
  4. Spatial shifts
  5. Patterns – repetition, juxtaposition, emphasis, compare and contrast
  6. Cohesion
  7. Cause and effect
  8. Problem and solution
  9. Order & Positioning – syntax/subject+verb+object etc.
  10. Sentence Forms – simple, compound, complex/declarative, imperative, interrogative, exclamatory

Any ideas for a mnemonic, by the way? I’ve just managed to come up with STEPCCOPS which isn’t particularly brilliant but might have to do.

The extracts I’ve used have been pretty diverse (albeit mainly 20th century): Goldfinger, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, The Old Man and the Sea, The Damned Utd, High Rise

Alright, how am I actually getting on with the teaching of it? I’ve not actually started teaching it to Year 10 – that’s scheduled for next half term  – but have been trialling it out on Year 8 and Year 11 with very positive effects so far. Oh, and It’s actually become an essential resource for my Year 13 lit group who say it is initially difficult to grasp but makes sense and has improved their analysis of unseen extracts no end. Which is nice as that’s what it was designed for.

I’ll let you know how I get on in due course.

The War against Waffle

As I spend a fair chunk of my life coercing reluctant writers to squeeze out a few more words, it seems somewhat churlish to ask them, at times, to write less. But that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of with some of my pupils recently. Working as a journalist before becoming a teacher means I’m hard-wired to spot superfluous prose. When you have a lot to say on a subject and only 500 words allocated for the column – and God help you if you irritate your sub-editor by thinking they can trim it down from 517 for you – then concise writing becomes a necessity.

Indeed, looking back at that first paragraph, I can already identify a couple of sections that could perhaps do with some pruning:

But that’s what I’ve been doing done it a lot with some of my classes recently. Working as a Going from journalist before becoming then a to teacher means I’m hard-wired to spot superfluous prose.

My Year 13 and Year 11 classes certainly aren’t wary of putting pen to paper but often lack precision and clarity when writing essays. I’ve used two excellent style guides to help:


Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers by Harold Evans has been a personal style bible for some time whereas The Elements of Style by the marvellously named Strunk and White is a very welcome new discovery (a Christmas present from my wife).

They both deal with cliché, tautology and avoiding flowery language, yet my favourite teaching tool so far has been the sections on excising wasteful words. This passage on a Macbeth essay has been shown to all of my classes (n.b.They aren’t fond of the passive voice, so I’ll have to go back and re-write that as ‘I’ve shown this passage on a Macbeth essay to all of my classes’ at some point):

20160108_101102 (1)

The benefits of getting pupils to edit their work in this way are, I think, at least three-fold: 1) easier to read 2) clarifies argument 3) saves time in exam/word limit in coursework/controlled assessment.

My next step was to introduce some of my example paragraphs of analysis on a poem by Hayden Carruth – with more waffle than Bird’s Eye Potato – and cracking out the coloured pens for them to savage it:

edited passage

This extract was ripe for revision but what happened next was beautiful. The next lesson we looked at a published critical essay on Carruth and… they started critiquing the verbosity of one clumsily written paragraph. We then looked back at previous examples of my writing and they enjoyed picking out the odd unnecessary phrase such as ‘with regard to’ and ‘since the time of writing’. After that we took apart their mock exam essays and they went home to scrutinise their coursework drafts.

This is at the higher end of the ability spectrum but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be applied explicitly at KS3 or earlier. Right, with regard to this blog, time to sort it this blog out before I go up to the right hand corner and click the blue publish button.