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.



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