Like many people at the moment, I am looking at the new GCSE in English and pondering the ‘how am I going to teach that’ that often follows a new change in education. I have already offered my general first impressions of the new AQA GCSE English Language paper here.
The question is: How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?
The reassuring thing I have discovered from AQA is that the fiction extract will be from either the 20th or 21stCentury. Paper 2 will have the 19th Century component, but the remaining texts on the papers will be either 20th or 21stCentury. That means that the three centuries will be spread across the two papers. Therefore, when looking for examples for this paper we should look mainly at modern texts. I have already started raiding my bookcase for examples and I’d love others to recommend examples to me.
However, just for the purpose of this blog I am going to refer to the opening of ‘A Christmas Carol’ even though it is from a period that will not be featured in the exam.
Extract from ‘A Christmas Carol’
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
I think structure has been one of those underdeveloped aspects of English teaching. Until you get to A-level, it is a throwaway comment or something we explicitly tell students. Look, Shakespeare alternates between serious and comic scenes. Look how the poem at the end inverts what has previously been said. Structure all too often becomes the unlocking device for understanding. It hasn’t been the driving force behind the questions or questioning. If you look at most approaches to analysis, it is all about the words and techniques. Rarely do we see structure thrown in there. Why? Well, because words and techniques require, sometimes, a limited knowledge of the whole text, whereas structure involves whole text knowledge and engagement.
So, for me, the key to structure is whole text reading. Students cannot comment effectively on the structure of a text without reading closely the whole text. Yes, you could cheat and get students to focus on the opening and the closing of a text, but you miss the jigsaw piece in the middle. Therefore, students must read closely and thoroughly the text. The exam system promotes quick superficial reading and I think we need to actively work against this. The ideas on a structure question will not jump out.
Question 1: What is the extract about?
Marley is dead. Scrooge is aware of this.
Marley is definitely dead.
Scrooge was aware that Marley was dead. Scrooge is only person linked to Marley. Scrooge wasn’t upset.
Marley died before the story starts.
Scrooge shared a business with Marley and never changed the name after Marley’s death.
Scrooge is an unpleasant character.
Looking at the content of an extract is important when analysing the structure. It is too easy for students to jump and highlight what is repeated but a simple summary like this helps us to see some structural decisions.
It starts with Marley and then ends with Scrooge.
It repeats the point that Marley is dead.
It links the characters together.
It shows us the consequences of the death of Marley in stages. The funeral. The business after the death.
So, I think that students need to develop the skill of summarising what happens in the extract. This, this and this happens. Ultimately, we are looking for patterns and looking at the shape of the extract. Starting with a summary allows for students then to develop ideas further by relating the idea to the whole text, the reader and the writer.
It starts with Marley and then ends with Scrooge so that the relationship between the two characters is clear. Marley is the image of how Scrooge will turn out. The two characters are linked closely and, in effect, they could have the same possible outcome. The fact that Scrooge doesn’t want to change the name of the business is not out of saving money, or a sense of loyalty or respect, but because Scrooge and Marley are one and the same person.
Question 2: What is really going on here? The Writer
One seemingly simple question has the ability to transform the analysis. On the surface, this is happening but what is really happening is such and such.
If we look at the likely extracts student will have in the exam, there are a few things students could look for when summing up what is really going on.
Students need to step away from the extract at times and look at the whole thing, but I don’t always think I, or we, prepare them enough with the tools for looking at structure. What is the writer really doing here?
We can easily apply this to the opening of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The extract is the introduction of a character. In fact, two characters. And, to be precise, the extract is actually the journey that one character has after the death of the other, prior to the story starting. The events that led to Scrooge being as cruel as he is now. I have struggled with the exam boards use of terminology for this question, but when you look at these phrases above, they give us appropriate terms without the need for blinging it up with some obscure Greek phrase to describe and even more obscure structural device. It would be far better for students to highlight that this extract is trying to introduce a character to us than spot an odd structural device. Then, this idea of introducing a character feeds into the rest of the ideas so far.
How does this link in to what we have so far?
Marley is dead. Scrooge is aware of this. Shows us that the characters are linked.
Marley is definitely dead. Shows us that Scrooge cannot deny the death and that they might be a reason he doesn’t want it to happen.
Scrooge was aware that Marley was dead. Scrooge is only person linked to Marley. Scrooge wasn’t upset. Shows us how Marley only had Scrooge and no one else, implying the same of Scrooge.
Marley died before the story starts. Scrooge has had some time to get over the death of associate.
Scrooge shared a business with Marley and never changed the name after Marley’s death. Scrooge worked with Marley.
Scrooge is an unpleasant character. Scrooge might be unpleasant as a result of these events or that is isolated and lonely.
How does each aspect work to introduce the character? Well, the writer builds up Scrooge in layers. He starts with his relationship to another character and then we get to understand him better. If we wanted to go one better, we could get students to think about whether this is a typical way to introduce a character. What are the other ways of introducing a character?
Then, this allows for us to develop the explanation further. Why chose this particular approach for introducing a character? Now, we are exploring the writer’s reasons behind his choices.
Question 3: How does the reader’s feelings change in the extract? The Reader
I am sorry for not using a single technical term for analysis so far but I do think understanding the key ideas and concepts is far more important than terminology. Understanding that writers introduce characters in different ways is probably more important and clever than teaching the term foreshadowing. After all, character introductions always foreshadow the real character but knowing it is an introduction is more insightful than spotting something that links to later in the text.
Possibly, this question could be one of the hardest for us to teach and for students to get their head around. The writer wants the reader to feel something. Our feelings are structured by the writer. Therefore, we need to look at how texts are structured to evoke particular feelings. The extract will feature an emotional journey. We start feeling one thing, and, then by the end, we feel something different.
Look at the extract from ‘A Christmas Carol’.
Marley was dead…. and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
From the start to the end of the extract we feel several different emotions but there is a clear journey. It starts with sympathy and shock. Somebody has died. They didn’t have many people around them. Marley only had one person in his life. By the end of the extract, we lose some of that sympathy and start to dislike the character. He doesn’t like Christmas. There are no redeemable features about the character. No sense of humanity. No feelings. Just coldness.
The extract is structured to make us feel particular emotions. We need to teach students how emotions and a reader’s reaction is an important part of the analysis. Why did the writer not start the story with Scrooge kicking a child? He didn’t because he wanted to show the complexity of the character’s emotions. He isn’t a truly evil character. There is a pattern of events that led to him being miserable. The circumstances build up in the extract to make the person. We see the layers of Scrooge built up over the course the description. The writer is either trying to build the sympathy or he is trying to shock us with the how inhuman he is being.
The more subtle the emotion discovered in the extract, the more insightful the comment from a student. Therefore, we need to work on the emotional vocabulary student have. They also need to define the difference between the reader’s reaction and the writer’s tone. They don’t always link and they are not one and the same thing.
Question 4: How does it all link together?
This is where I think students need to get a highlighter and look for connections within a text. They need to physically see how it is glued together.
I will use the following terms when looking at this aspect.
Repeated – it happens again
Reflected - it is connected in someway
Inverted - it’s opposite is used
Mirrored - it happens again or it is copied in a different way
Take ‘Of Mice and Men’. I think it is easy to demonstrate these things with the story.
Repeated – it happens again
George and Lennie are chased out of a place – Weed / The Ranch
Reflected - it is connected / symbolised in someway
Candy’s physical disability is connected to Crook’s physical disability
Inverted - it’s opposite is used
George and Lennie’s relationship / Curley and Curley’s wife’s relationship
Mirrored - it happens again or it is copied in a different way
Lennie killing the mouse, killing the dog, killing Curely’s wife
Let’s look at ‘A Christmas Carol’.
Repeated: Marley is dead
Marley’s death is repeated several times to highlight the impact it has on the character.
Reflected: Wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching
All these verbs symbolise Scrooge’s determination not to share the precious things he has
Inverted: The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley.
The extract starts with only one person, yet the name of the business inverts this ideas. A constant reminder of the past.
Mirrored: Scrooge’s life mirrors Marley’s death. There is nobody around him.
Again, it is not necessarily complex terminology that drives the level of thinking. It is more about the concept and the reason for the writer using the concept.
So, in a nutshell, this is how I am going to approach the structure question.
What is the extract about?
What is it really about? Or: What is the writer really doing here?
How does the reader’s feelings change in the extract?
How does it all link together?
There is a second part to this blog as I have missed aspects such as narrative perspective, narrator and use of time, but I will carry those on in the next blog. However, at the moment, this is my initial approach to teaching the structure question and I will explore the other aspects after I have gone through these questions.
Thanks for reading,
Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog