I’ve been thinking about and reading about evaluation a lot recently. When the new GCSE English Language contents were unveiled most English teachers wobbled a bit over the structure question. I knew from the start though that it was the evaluation question that was going to be the real toughy.
Lots have blogs have been written about why asking fifteen or sixteen-year-old pupils to appraise the work of some of our finest writers is a daft idea. I agree, but we’re stuck with it so I quickly switched to pondering the best way to approach this beast of a question.
There have been a couple of really useful and very sensible blogs by @JamesTheo and @NSMWells looking at the theory behind evaluation and the skills required to make a proper job of it. I totally agree with the idea that sentence starters alone won’t do the job and support the idea that ultimately we need to expose students to a rich diet of high quality texts, bringing alive the context to give them the tools to decode and value the quality of a piece of writing.
This is what our KS3 redesign (a euphemism for binning virtually all of the previous schemes) sets out to do. Yet I inherited a class of Year 10 reluctant readers who were in no more of a position to judge the quality of Doris Lessing’s oeuvre than I am qualified to espouse on the relative musicological merits of Stockhausen and Shostakovitch. And they have an end-of-unit assessment on the topic next week.
So what was (and still is to some extent) needed was a crash course in literary theory. The writer’s craft. Elements of fiction. The art of fiction. The stuff that writers do. Whatever you want to call it – and let’s be honest, this is stuff that was largely previously saved for A level – they need to get their heads around the ingredients used by the best writers of fiction. And Daphne De Maurier.
Here’s my take. A practical approach – and very much an evolving approach that will require equal parts trial and error – on how to teach the evaluation question at GCSE language. I do AQA so we are talking Q4 here (why is it always Q4 that is designed to shaft everyone, by the way?) but lots of this will be applicable to other exam boards:
- The statements/questions/bullet points are not your friend. Nor the pupils’. Nick Wells is absolutely right about the misleading nature of the statements and prompts. The most successful responses I’ve had from pupils so far virtually ignore the statement and only make a cursory mention of whether they agree. The wisest approach, I believe, it to take them as pure starting points and then get down to the nitty gritty of evaluation with hefty chunks of analysis thrown in (another point that Nick nails: AQA don’t really want just evaluation; they want a hybrid of both, or mainly analysis with the odd evaluative nod)
- Unless you’re Frank Kermode or a very bright pupil, you’d better agree with the statement because a) the extract will usually be from a famous, highly-respected writer b) it will probably be a high-quality critically acclaimed work c) which means it will be well-written and d) your examiner will probably love it, or at least grudgingly admire parts of it, so won’t take kindly to some bumfluff-faced upstart slagging it off. Having said that, there are some ways of tentatively criticising, which I’ll return to next time.
- It’s an unseen extract, very likely from the opening, so you have to be savvy about what beginnings usually contain and share in common. There’s little point, I would argue, in spending lots of time talking about climax and denouement with this in mind.
Taking all this into account, I’ve decided to teach evaluation by focusing on the following elements of fiction:
- Genre – specifically the writer’s (effective naturally) use of generic conventions. We’ve looked at the obvious stuff that might come up but also introduced bildungsroman etc. to liven things up a tad
- Reader response – this runs throughout all the other elements – how does the writer provoke a response from a reader and is this done well?
- Atmosphere – Is the writer successful in creating a particular mood?
- Names – Bearing mind David Lodge’s comment that ‘in a novel names are never neutral. They always signify something, even if it is only ordinariness…the naming of characters is always an important part of creating them.’ Are they well-chosen? Do they fit (or deliberately not fit for ironic effect)?
- Dialogue – is it realistic or clunky? How does it add to our understanding and successfully shape characterisation?
- Description of character – Does the physical description do a good job at giving us an insight into the ‘true’ character?
- Archetypes – does the writer use stock characters effectively to assist the reader or do they subvert archetypes to challenge our expectations? Not just obvious archetypes like the antagonist or femme fatale but more obscure ones such as the redshirt (who is conveniently killed off during the opening of a story)
- Description of location – How does the description of place add to the reader’s appreciation of the atmosphere?
How have we got on so far? It’s been hard. As hard as I imagined it would be. But they are starting to get it. Next time I’ll share some pupils responses and some model answers. Perhaps you can come up with some fresher, more sprightly ideas. For now I’m sticking with GRANDDAD.
Thanks for reading,