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

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.

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