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.

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15 thoughts on “Teaching Structure for the new English GCSEs

  1. Hi Mark

    Thanks for this – I’m also using the terms macro and micro structure. It feels appropriate and I suppose comes from my film studies teaching.

    Really informative blog!

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  2. Thanks. I’m finding STEPCCOPS really useful for all my students. How do I get acces to the team English Dropbox so I can access the ppt?

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  3. Interesting that AQA have bulleted ‘Sentence Forms’ in Q2 on Paper 1 (Language). Like you, I’ve been focusing on sentence forms as a structural feature (Q3). I’ve had lots of questions from students (and colleagues) wanting clarification on this

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