Memorising quotes – should we expect pupils to remember more?


“More? You want MORE?” (Oliver!)

Over the past year or so, there has been a lot written about closed book GCSE English literature exams. Some blogs and articles have argued that expecting students to remember about a hundred quotes or so for a couple of exams is an unnecessary form of cruelty, devised only to test those with decent memories. Others have countered that closed book exams encourage pupils to engage with texts in a much deeper way, embedding content in their brains in a manner that allows them to truly appreciate the text’s deeper meaning.

What’s my take? Me, I want MORE.

Not only am I convinced that pupils can, and should, memorise upwards of a 100 quotes for the Literature exams, but I also believe that they can, and should, aim to memorise some extra quotes to enable them to have a deep understanding of a text and show off this knowledge.

The purpose of this blog is not to state the case for closed book exams. Others, such as David Didau, have already put forward very convincing arguments. Instead, this blog is intended to offer an insight into my practice and explain how I think that demanding more of a pupil’s memory will enable them – eventually – to offer vastly improved interpretations of the GCSE English Literature texts.

Memorising more

So what more do I demand? In addition to the key quotes for each character/theme etc., I also expect pupils to memorise quotes that a) showcase their awareness of context or b) introduce a critical viewpoint. That sounds like what A level pupils have to do, I hear you say. Yes, and that’s what I’ve been expecting of my two mixed ability GCSE groups. So far, they’ve largely risen to the challenge, having gone from wailing in unison, a la Harry Seacombe, ‘You want MORE?’ to recognising the impact this has had on their performance in assessments.

To see what this might entail, let’s look at some example sentences for Romeo and Juliet essays, focussing on the context of male violence:

  1. In that time there were lots of duels between men.
  2. In the Elizabethan era there were lots of duels between young men.
  3. Tybalt behaves like many young men from the Elizabethan period – quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  4. Shakespeare uses Tybalt as an example of the violent and quarreling nature of young men from the Elizabethan period, many of whom were quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  5. Neil McGregor has written about the explosive tempers of privileged young men during the Elizabethan period, many of whom were obsessed with the idea of defending their honour and were quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  6. Neil McGregor has written that in the Elizabethan period ‘weapons were part of everyday life’.  Privileged young men, like Tybalt, were obsessed with the idea of defending their honour and were quick to fight a duel if challenged, preparing themselves with daggers that were ‘part fashion accessory, part murder weapon’.

The six sentences should, I believe, correlate with the six bands of context bullet points of the mark scheme.

Imagine my delight when the extract and question on male violence came up on the AQA GCSE Lit paper 1 exam and lots of my pupils (including many Grade 5 hopefuls), told me “I got McGregor in”.

In my opinion, the examples above don’t just add to the memory burden – although, of course, they do have to learn them in advance. In my experience, they act as a context prompt, helping to develop wishy washy statements about ‘patriarchal society’ and so on. If a pupil is struggling to articulate the significance of Tybalt’s ‘Fetch me my rapier, boy’ I’ll say something like what did Neil McGregor say?

I’ve found that these context quotes are particularly helpful for the poetry anthology questions, especially for “contextless” poems such as The Emigre and (god forbid they might need it one day) T****e.

Here’s a flavour of some of the things I’ve asked mine to memorise:

  • Poppies – ‘The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’ Stalin
  • London – ‘Man is born free and everywhere is in chains’ Rousseau
  • Ozymandias – ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ Lord Acton
  • The Emigre – ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there‘ L.P. Hartley; ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant‘ Louis D. Brandeis
  • Charge of the Light Brigade, Bayonet Charge – ‘If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever‘ Achilles, The Illiad

Some will inevitably argue this is asking too much. Some may want to ‘aim a blow at my head with a ladle’. Some will continue telling their pupils that they are hard done to and that it is unfair for the exams boards to expect them to remember so much. I’ll keep on drilling them in memory platform starters and making sure they have a sound awareness of context and critical thought.

Thanks for reading,