Along with my dissection of ‘Tissue’, the two most popular blog posts I’ve ever written focussed on the teaching of the structure and evaluation questions on the new GCSE English language specs. Given that these involve skills that were previously only really taught at KS5, this wasn’t much of a surprise. For the structure question, I attempted to identify the most relevant structural features that writers use, and give tips about how pupils could apply them and explain the effect they have on a reader. For the evaluation question, I introduced the GRANDDAD mnemonic (somewhat apologetically given how fed up we rightly get with some of these often unhelpful aide memoires). Since then this creaky little amalgam of the elements of fiction have taken on a life of its own, to the extent that it’s even been pilfered, more than once, and sold on TES resources (not acceptable – don’t even think about it). More amusingly, a colleague in my faculty told me about a pupil from a nearby school whom he tutors. This pupil told him not to worry about teaching her Q4 (AQA’s evaluation question) because her teacher had ‘invented a new way’ of answering it… yes, it was everyone’s favourite geriatric mnemonic.
I digress. Now into my second year of teaching the structure and evaluation questions, I feel ready to do my own bit of evaluation- what’s worked and what needs to be gently and discretely euthanised, away from the glare of the classroom. The reflections that follow will focus on the AQA paper (specifically the sample paper that uses Isabel Allende’s City of the Beasts), but as ever will include general points that will apply to all specs. I’ve just finished marking a Year 10 paper lang 1 assessment, not long after marking a Yr11 mock on the same paper. Here’s what I found.
Q3 How is the text structured to interest you as a reader? (8 marks)
My original list for the structure question, I’ve come to realise, is too long and some of the structural features on it are too hard for the majority of GCSE pupils. With my current bunch of Year 10s, I’ve pruned my list of ten features down to five:
- Narrative time (narrative summary, scene time, exploded time and flashbacks/flashforwards)
- Spatial shifts
- Todorov’s narrative stages (specifically equilibrium and disruption)
- Exposition (through thought, background information, conflict, dialogue and dates/time etc.)
- Patterns (types of repetition, contrasts/juxtapositions, semantic field etc.)
I’ve found these likely to appear in most texts, the easiest for pupils to learn, and, crucially, the ones that best enable pupils to identify the effect on the reader. If I had the narrow down these even further I’d say focus on spatial shifts, Todorov and patterns. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that other structural devices that I’ve introduced while teaching literature – such as foreshadowing, anagnorosis, in media res, unreliable narrators etc. – have kept on appearing in pupil answers as well.
Responses to the question
Very common errors – across all ability ranges – include:
- not identifying any structural features (often involved mainly paraphrasing the bullet points)
- not using evidence to support point about use of structural features
- misunderstanding of structural features (in the City of the Beasts extract for example, most pupils erroneously identified the narrator’s exposition through background information as a series of flashbacks)
- not explaining the precise effect on the reader (the perennially vague assertion ‘makes you want to read on’)
- Analysing language instead of structure
Slightly less common errors
- Evaluating i.e. giving a Q4 response
- re-telling the story
- noting that spatial shifts are often imagined rather than physical movements, implying Alex’s disinclination to face up to reality
- the use of pleonasm and traductio (especially on the pronoun ‘her’) highlighting Alex’s obsession with his mother’s welfare
Generally, this is a question that most pupils find a real struggle. Most of our pupils are gaining 3, 4 or 5 marks.
A student said ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness.’
To what extent do you agree? (20 marks)
Having taught the evaluation to two classes now I can indeed confirm the bloody obvious: it’s a lot, lot easier to teach this questions to pupils who read. Or have read a book. Ever. I can also confirm that GRANDDAD works. But I feel obliged to point out that it is far from essential. I marked or moderated quite a few papers that I or my colleagues had awarded 16 or above (18 is the highest we’ve given yet). Most used GRANDDAD to frame their response. Some – voracious readers of course – ignored it and did their own thing to great effect. Funnily enough, the second group made me even more pleased than the first. But the non-readers who didn’t use any of GRANDDAD generally crashed and burned.
Responses to the question
Very common errors – again across all ability ranges – include:
- By far the most common mistake: not using the language of evaluation (as Nick Wells has helpfully pointed out, AQA clearly expect a hybrid of analysis plus evaluation)
- Not using evidence to support evaluation
- Re-telling the story
Less common errors:
- Not leaving enough time to answer Q4 properly, or at all. Thank god that this is nonetheless a big improvement on last year’s Q4 fiasco where many pupils failed to write anything at all
- Focussing only on their own opinion – using Alex’s domestic woes as an opportunity to vent their own grievances against their feckless parents and the adult world at large. Often entertaining, but not rewarded with actual marks
- Lots, using David Lodge’s quote about names, focussed on the averageness of the protagonist’s name and linked this to the universal themes of love and death that affect all readers. Some, cleverly, linked the name and the everyman/ordinary guy archetype. Others focussed on his unusual surname (‘Cold’) and made perceptive use of the lack of domestic warmth in his mother’s absence
- Some pupils, presumably GCSE Psychology students, made great use of Freudian psychoanalysis of the character. Even Little Hans (I thought they were referring to Donald Trump for a moment) got a look in, as did Freud’s dream theory. Cracking stuff
- Allende’s use (and subversion) of cliche: the dream sequence, the incompetent father thrown into the domestic role, the strict yet loving mother
- My favourite: symbolism about the crow. One pupil recycled something I’d mentioned when teaching R&J: the collective noun for the crow being a murder of crows. They then expertly evaluated its use as a symbol of death in this context
A BIG ‘HOWEVER’
While it’s easy to get frustrated that pupils have failed to evaluate properly, AQA have certainly not helped with this example paper. Look again at the question. It’s a shocker. Most pupils have, quite reasonably, read the statement and accompanying question and thought I have to say whether I think Alex is struggling or not. Which, of course, is not what the mark scheme is looking for at all. What the question is asking them is actually do you think the writer does a good job of showing that Alex is struggling? This is a very poorly written question – unlike, I have to say, the other examples which are absolutely fine – and AQA have to get their act in order to ensure this doesn’t happen in the real exam. The question is bloody hard enough as it is without this kind of misleading statement.
While we’re at it, the bullet points don’t help one bit. Pupils who tried to structure their answer around the bullet points generally did a lot worse. The bullet points are not your friend, is what I say to my pupils and I suggest you do the same.
Thanks for reading,