Is complex literary terminology really necessary?

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Why did I start with the above quotation? Here’s a few possible reasons:

  1. I believe this pithy aphorism neatly sums up the general tone of the argument that follows
  2. I’ve seen other writers do this and I want to copy them
  3. It’s by a famous thinker so appears to add credence to my viewpoint
  4. Traditionalists who follow my blog will love it
  5. It makes me sound clever (well read)

In this instance, there’s a bit of a clue that the last reason is my primary motivation. It’s a photo. Had this quotation been a central tenet of my worldview then I might well have memorised it by now and have quickly typed it up. Instead, I took a photo of a list of famous quotations from The Week magazine and thought ‘that’ll go well with my fancy terminology blog’. So sometimes peppering work with quotations from philosophers or long words is unnecessary; often it’s just showing off. There’s nothing wrong with showing off every now and then, of course: I’m a teacher – what other perks are there apart from demonstrating how clever you are on a daily basis?

The problem is that other equally clever (or cleverer) people see through this. Examiners (I know, but some of them are quite clever) tend to notice when pupils bang in posh terms without really doing anything meaningful with them. ‘Feature spotting’ is what we call it.

So, as teachers – especially as English teachers – we have to be careful with teaching complex terminology for the sake of it. And lots of English teachers on Twitter do feel that a lot of it, the Greek stuff in particular, is just showing off, flexing of intellectual muscles.

But  I think that there is a place for complex terminology when it is used to illuminate, as well as impress. The reason I’m writing this is in response to AQA’s recent ‘how to teach the new English GCSE’ sessions. @xris32, in his typically astute and helpful blog on teaching structure, noted how AQA had classified ‘sentence’ as technical terminology in one of their worrying exemplars. This is a good thing, we were told by the well-meaning trainer, because it means you don’t need to teach the complex stuff for pupils to get really good marks. There’s a feww things about this that concern me: 1. I don’t believe her, 2. if ‘sentence’ is a technical term then surely anything (‘word’, ‘writing’) can be and 3. often the technical term can provide far more than a simple (simplistic?) alternative phrase. Let’s look at one of my personal favourites, anagnorosis, as an example:

anagnorosis noun, plural anagnorises

[[an-ag-nawruh-sis] 

1.

(in ancient Greek tragedy) the critical moment of recognition or discovery.

 

More precisely, it is when a character makes a critical discovery. A discovery or moment of realisation that will utterly shake their foundations and make them view the world – or one part of it – through a different lens.

Why should we use this then? Won’t ‘moment of realisation’ or ‘key discovery’ do just as well. There a few reasons why I think the complex term is preferable:

  1. It’s shorter. Not a groundbreaking reason but anything that saves time in an exam/lesson is a good thing.
  2. It makes the student focus on key scenes within a play/passages within prose/lines within a poem. It shifts from being a plot point to a critical structural shift. Look at Othello for example. The eponymous tragic hero doesn’t just realise that Iago is lying: he is forced to deal with the recognition that his naive, jealous nature is his fatal flaw (‘hamartia’ if you like) and that it has brought about his downfall. In other words, Shakespeare’s use of anagnorisis conveys Othello’s self-destructive character as much as Iago’s Machiavellian machinations.
  3. It also makes them consider the structural significance of when the anagnorosis occurs. In Romeo & Juliet the lovers’ anagnorises occurs relatively early in the play (‘My only love is my only hate’, ‘my life is my foe’s debt’) and the fascination comes in the pair’s refusal to acknowledge this paradigm shift and decision to self-destroy. In Othello it happens at the denouement. The audience’s fascination is the delicious delay in waiting to see the Othello’s reaction to Iago’s unmasking. You could argue that ‘moment of realisation’ could do the same but by making it a “language feature”, especially one with a daft name, they are more likely to remember it. The same goes for anthropomorphism, which always gets an intake of breath and a laugh when you first say it.
  4. It encourages pupils to look for anagnorises in other texts and hopefully consider the structural importance of that section. My Year 10s were perplexed by this ridiculously complicated – and bloody hard-to-spell word – during R&J but I was thrilled to discover them using it, and applying it well, to Hughes’s ‘Bayonet Charge’ (‘Suddenly he awoke and was running…’).
  5. I thought we were meant to be moving towards mastery learning? Is it fair to suddenly say to A level pupils “Right now I’m going to introduce you to the clever stuff that you couldn’t handle in Year 9”? If they’re going to need top level terminology at KS5, surely it’s better to introduce, along with the 19th century texts, at KS3 or KS4?
  6. It sounds clever. When used properly, it really does.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

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Teaching structure – model answer part 2

As the first blog on model answers proved so popular, I thought I’d provide a second, less impressive response to the opening extract from The Spy who Came in From the Cold. Again I’d be interested in your thoughts on what this would get:

the-spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold.24323

By starting the novel at night the writer makes it seem mysterious and dangerous. The phrase ‘Darkness had fallen’ is effective because it makes it seem like it has happened suddenly which makes it seem mysterious. But because Leamas is inside and looking out through the window he seems more safer than the character Karl who is outside and unsafe.

The writer then does a flashback to go back in time. This tells the reader when he first met Karl. When he says ‘that’ll cost us another couple of hundred a year’ it shows that he thought Karl was too expensive right from the start.

Then he goes back to the present day. ‘Herr Thomas! Quick!’ is used to create tension because there is two exclamatory sentences which show shock and surprise building up as the extract develops. ‘Quick!’ speeds the plot up and makes it seem like a race against time. ‘Then, totally unexpected, the searchlights went on’ is when the reader realises that he is going to be shot.

It ends very seriously with the quote ‘Leamas hoped to God he was dead’. This is exposition through thoughts and shows us that Leamas is like all spies because he is cruel and cold. It makes us want to read on to find out if Karl really is dead and why he wants him not to survive.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

Teaching structure – a model answer

I’ve written at length previously about my approach to teaching structure and unseen extracts in general but this term I am finally going to teach it to my Year 10 group, rather than road test elements on my Year 13 and Year 11 groups. As always, I created some of my own question papers and completed a couple of model answers. When I write model answers for anything, I remind myself of the following:

  • Keep to the time limit. How the hell can you expect pupils to produce this kind of work in 12 minutes if you can’t?
  • Think about what they are going to do with it. Is it to be laminated and solemnly placed into their folders as an ‘aspirational’ piece, or are they actually going to get stuck into it: critiquing, querying, improving. Even the best pieces, therefore, should have scope for development.
  • Scaffold as well. Make sure there is a range of responses – not just an unattainable (for most) grade 9 screamer, but also a grade 6 with sloppy SPaG and a grade 4 that contains a fundamental error and so needs nudging up to grade 5 and beyond.
  • For the top end ones, don’t show off too much. Unless they are starting to get cocky and you want to prove a point.
  • Write as a teenager. Pretend to be fifteen. Not a 46-year-old academic who’s been reading too much Derrida.
  • An obvious one but easily overlooked: don’t forget to display them the skills and content you want them to reproduce. I’ve occasionally been guilty in the past of forgetting this when I’m mid-flow and have created something wonderful but displays none of the key objectives I’ve been trying to ram home in the previous lesson.

Here’s the extract I used and the question:

Source A Spy Who Came in from the Cold

spy came in cold

Q3 You now need to think about the whole of the source.

This text is from the opening of a novel.

How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?

You could write about:

  • what the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning
  • how and why the writer changes this focus as the extract develops
  • any other structural features that interest you. [8 marks]

And my response:

Q3

The writer begins the extract by focussing on the checkpoint at the Berlin wall, with the narrator Leamas noticing the darkness and small amounts of light, which seems to represent the murky nature of spying. The absence of light is used by Le Carre in an ironic way as it foreshadows the dramatic disruption of the equilibrium on line 37 when ‘totally unexpected, the searchlights went on, white and brilliant, catching Karl…’

Le Carre then uses a flashback device to give the reader more insight into the work of a spy and Leamas’s low opinion of his fellow characters.  ‘after that dinner in the Schürzstrasse last year. Karl has just had his big scoop…’ By switching the narrative backwards in time, the writer is able to prolong the tension of the ‘present day’ (it’s not really as it is still told in the past tense but it feels immediate) scene.  The use of the metaphor ‘big scoop’, implies jealousy on Leamas’s part, as a ‘scoop’ is normally used to describe a journalist who gets an important story. ‘Scoop’ in this sense makes him seem selfish, filling his hands with metaphorical rewards.

The really clever part of the writer’s use of structure though is the writer’s decision to tell Karl’s botched escape from Leamas’s point of view. ‘He was through, he was coming towards them, he had made it’ gives a sense of complacency on the part of the narrator but also reinforces Karl’s hubristic naivety, as he seems to relax before he’d actually crossed the line of safety. The climactic line ‘Leamas hoped to God he was dead’ appears callous to the reader on first inspection and seems to leave the reader feeling that the narrator is being vindictive because Karl failed to listen to his mentor’s advice to not ‘overdo it’ (although Karl could never’ hear’ these thoughts of course – they were inside Leamas’s head).  But on closer inspection we can see that this is actually caring:  captured spies are tortured – a fate worse than death.

Let me know what you think and what kind of grade you think this would get. Having been on the AQA course I’m pretty confident in my grading, so it will be interesting to see if we agree. I’d love to see some other responses to this extract – yours or pupils – so please keep sharing.

I will share my response to this extract for Q4 (evaluation) in due course.

Thanks

Mark