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GCSE English Language Paper 1: using the evaluation question to help with ‘structure’

We know that students find the structure question on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 1 a difficult nut to crack. Here’s an example from June 2019:

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

This text is from the beginning of a short story.

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 of the source

• how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops

• any other structural features that interest you.

If you want a suggested work-around this problem, jump to the end of this blog. If you want to read on for a boring rationale, please continue.

There are perhaps several reasons for why this question confounds: firstly, its position on the paper, secondly, the way it lures students into a chronological response, thirdly, its focus on its affective qualities, and finally its generic nature. Let’s take a look at these in turn.

  1. Its position in the paper

For me, the best papers are those that are structured in a way that eases candidates into the exam. This is not always possible I know (I’m thinking of English Literature Paper 1 which launches straight into either Shakespeare or Nineteenth-Century Fiction, depending upon which one the candidate attempts first). However, the paper design on both GCSE English Language papers weighs heavily upon the cognitive load of students: paper 2, for example, whilst it begins with the relatively straightforward True/False question 1, immediately requires candidates to read and synthesise both sources before dropping back down to a language question derived from a selected passage. The design of paper 1 provides similar difficulties: questions 1 and 2 are drawn from almost consecutive passages in the source (so far so good), but then it asks candidates to consider the whole text in question 3, before requiring them to wrestle with the confounded evaluation task. This last question, question 4, asks candidates to go back to the second half of the extract and respond to a fictive statement that requires them to weigh up its relevance and support their opinions with textual analysis.

  1. The chronological response

Despite our repeated efforts to encourage our students to explore other ways of talking about structure, the bullet points are, let’s face it, pretty scary for exam candidates. We can use as many teaching strategies as we want, but no amount of retrieval practice, deliberate practice, knowledge organiser or (heaven forbid) PEE paragraphs can stand up to the relentless pressure of the examiner’s voice in your head. Remember taking driving lessons and doing that three-point turn until you could do it in your sleep? And then, in your test, it’s as if Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has magicked the bones from your arm using that Brackium Emendo spell? That’s what happens. They mistake ‘could’ for ‘should’, can’t think of any interesting structural features for the life of them, and fall back on that old ‘at the beginning’ chestnut because it says so in the question.

  1. The effect on the reader.

The phrase ‘how has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader’ is problematic. The idea of ‘interest’ is mutable and personal, and how many of us have heard our students say ‘it doesn’t interest me at all’! Furthermore, students seem to think there is an ideal reader and a correct way to respond to this. The literary theorist Wolfgang Iser identified actual interpretation of the text as occurring at the coming together of “text and imagination”, and exists at a point between the author’s intentions and the readers affective response, and that “a literary text must … be conceived in such a way that it will engage the reader’s imagination in the task of working things out for himself (sic)” (213). Perhaps then it might be useful to think about how the text is structured to engage your imagination, although I can imagine similar retorts (‘I don’t have an imagination’, ‘it doesn’t engage me’). I like Iser’s concept of the text’s “virtual dimension” which occurs at the space where the writer’s text and the reader’s imagination come together, but his theory often rests on the reader approaching the text with some pre-formed schemata, an understanding of genre, or literary, social and cultural capital.

  1. The generic nature of the question.

The question, “How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?” has no steer. Whereas most questions have a focus (for example ‘how does the writer use language to describe the Hartop family?”), the structure task points candidates back to the whole text and leaves them looking ahead out to the horizon without really knowing what they are looking for. Our students then have to apply some generic sense of structure onto a text they have not read previously which often leads to similarly generic answers.

The almost-useful bit: so what can we do?

One way to approach the paper is to re-order questions 3 and 4, and to do the evaluation question first. This accomplishes a couple of things. Firstly, it means that the candidate will (hopefully) have now read the text twice: once as a quick read through at the start of the exam and then because of answering questions 1, 2 and 4. Because these three questions cover the source in sequential order, there is some logic to this procedure. Secondly, the beauty of question 4 is that it does have a focus. For example, for the Hartop paper, the question was:

A student said, ‘This part of the story, where Alice is sent back along the road to find what has fallen from the roof and returns with the chrysanthemums, shows how hard and cruel Hartop is, so that all of our sympathy is with Alice.’

Because this question requires the candidate to focus on the second half of the extract, it might be useful to see that the whole of the text moves towards this moment. So what if we use this statement as a steer for question 3, as follows:

How does the writer structure the text to build up to making us feel sorry for Alice? or

How does the writer structure the text to build up to making see how cruel Hartop is?

By approaching the question from this direction, the candidate now has a focus, something on which to hang their structural analysis. So, applying the redesigned question to the Hartop source (which you can find on the AQA website), candidates can start to think about other structural elements in addition to its chronological features.

If we rethink our approach to this question then, we can examine the following: 

  • The setting: semi-darkness, rain, a desolate mood, reflecting Alice’s own misery perhaps.
  • Then? The desolate mood of the opening is reinforced by the image of the Hartops squashed together in the van at the start; Alice, like her mother, has no ‘voice’; they are compared to swedes and to clay – organic and indiscernible from the soils and earth which provides their livelihood. The whole scene is a picture of misery.
  • Then? The contrast between Hartop’s active, determined intent and the passive apprehension of Alice and Mrs Hartop emphasises the influence he has on the mood inside the van.
  • Then? Hartop instructs Alice to get out, exiling her from the van. Outside, the shift in physical location exposes Alice to the fury of the elements.
  • But? The lights of the village are a contrast to the gloom of the van and of the elements. They are described as “stars”, a symbol of hope and beauty compared to her present situation.
  • Then? The narrative shifts back to Hartop’s terse disapprobation, although at this point we might also start to understand that his need to make a living means he seems to value the flowers more than his daughter’s well-being
  • So? The structure of the text reinforces Alice’s misery through the mirroring of exterior and interior spaces, before shifting to a description of the family that likens them to the earth and organic matter, to emphasise their rootedness in nature, compounding the sense that Alice is inseparable from her family and the rural poverty which defines them. The shift to the image of the stars is temporary respite from this miserable existence, but the lights come from the village, perhaps where she herself lives, and so suggests that her definition of escape and fantasy is circumscribed by the narrow confines of her immediate milieu.

Even if candidates were able to write about how the text begins with a miserable setting, continues with Alice’s misery, provides a glimmer of hope in the image of light, but ultimately ends in more misery, then at least they will be engaging with the text on a less superficial level. Furthermore, the identification of a focus for the question enables candidates to re-read the text (after having completed question 4). As Iser notes, the virtual dimension, that is our ‘gestalt’ interpretation of the text, becomes clearer when reading for structure in the light of a particular steer. He writes:

when we have finished the text, and read it again, clearly our extra knowledge will result in a different time-sequence: we shall tend to establish connections by referring to our awareness of what is to come, and so certain aspects of the text will assume a significance we did not attach to them on a first reading. (Iser, 216)

Although this is stating what we as English teacher might refer to as the “flipping obvious” in that the more we read a text, the clearer it becomes, by adopting a focus for our reading (“I am reading for this particular reason”), then the selection of material is less arbitrary.

To conclude, have a look at these previous evaluation questions, and see how I’ve adapted the accompanying structure question:

November 2019

A student said, ‘In this part of the story, where Zoe and Jake are caught in the avalanche, I can’t believe Zoe is so slow to react to the warning signs because, in the end, the situation sounds really dangerous.’

Structure: How does the writer structure the text to build up to the dangerous situation?

June 2019

A student said, ‘This part of the story, where Alice is sent back along the road to find what has fallen from the roof and returns with the chrysanthemums, shows how hard and cruel Hartop is, so that all of our sympathy is with Alice.’

Structure: How does the writer structure the text to build up to making us feel sorry for Alice?

November 2018

A student said, ‘This part of the story, where the men encounter the Tyrannosaurus Rex, shows Eckels is right to panic. The Monster is terrifying!’

Structure: How does the writer structure the text to build up towards the monster as terrifying?

June 2018

A student said, ‘This part of the story, where Mr Fisher is marking homework, shows Tibbet’s story is better than Mr Fisher expected, and his reaction is extreme.’

Structure: How does the writer structure the text to build up to Mr Fisher’s response to Tibbet’s homework?

November 2017

A reader said, ‘This part of the story, where Alice decides to continue digging for the object, is very mysterious, and suggests her discovery may be life-changing.’

Structure: How does the writer structure the text to build up the mystery of Alice’s discovery?

June 2017

A student said, ‘This part of the story, set in the hat shop, shows that the red-haired girl has many advantages in life, and I think Rosabel is right to be angry.’

Structure: How does the writer structure the text to build up to Rosabel’s sense of anger?

 

Reference:

Iser, W. (1994) The Reading Process: a Phenomenological Approach. in Lodge, D. (ed.) Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (Longman: London).

Also, thanks to Aaron at Oldbury Academy for the inspiration.

 

 

2 thoughts on “GCSE English Language Paper 1: using the evaluation question to help with ‘structure’

    1. Hello Miss,
      This is veryyyy useful thanks alot for uploading. It is possible for you writer a sample answer for this question like band 4?
      Thanks.

      Like

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