Author logoEnglish literature - assessment and preparing for exams at GCSE

English and English literature
Aims of English literature
Assessment objectives for GCSE
Features to work on
The author
Comparison and contrast
Implied meaning
Understatement and overstatement
Readers and readings
How to assess literature
Response - sensitive and critical
Response - detail
Response - awareness of language
Authors' purposes and devices
Comparisons within and between texts
Example task: Foundation
Example task: Higher
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This guide is written for teachers and students in Key Stage 4, who are preparing for GCSE examinations in English Literature. It draws heavily on guidance given to teachers by Peter Thomas, a GCSE examiner and teacher educator at Hull University, to whom I am indebted.

English and English literature

At present English and English literature are separate subjects which can be studied at GCSE. English is a core subject in the National Curriculum. All students taking GCSE exams in Key Stage 4 must take English as part of their course in years 10 and 11. This will usually be a GCSE examined course, or alternatively a Certificate of Achievement course. Within all GCSE English courses, the requirements for Reading (En2) include the study of literature. Candidates must read poetry and prose fiction from classic and modern authors, and respond to this both in written coursework and timed formal examinations.

English literature is one of a large number of subjects which can be taken as an option in years 10 and 11. It adds to and enriches the reading requirements for English at Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum

Exam boards are currently drawing up new course specifications for English and for English literature, to reflect the new National Curriculum, which came into force in September of 2000. The existing GCSE courses will run until the June 2003 exam.

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Aims of GCSE English literature courses

The aims of English literature courses are to encourage candidates to develop:

  • the ability
    • to read, understand and respond to a wide range of types of literary texts,
    • to appreciate the ways in which authors achieve their effects, and
    • to acquire the skills necessary for literary study;
  • an awareness of social, historical and cultural contexts and influences in the study of literature;
  • the ability to construct and convey meaning in speech and writing, matching style to audience and purpose.

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Assessment objectives for GCSE English literature

There are three broad objectives for assessing candidates' achievements in English literature. Candidates must demonstrate their ability to:

  • respond to texts critically, sensitively and in detail, using textual evidence as appropriate;
  • explore how language, structure and forms contribute to the meaning of texts, considering different approaches to these texts and different interpretations of them;
  • explore relationships and comparisons within and between texts, selecting and evaluating relevant material.

If you are a teacher, developing a scheme of work, you may wish to make sure it has opportunities for candidates to show they have these abilities and have met the objectives. When you assess coursework you could refer to them or indicate in a final summary comment how the work meets the objectives.

If you are a student preparing coursework or revising for a written exam, you should try to meet all these objectives.

Doing these things will help inter-school moderators (assessors) to support school assessments, or will help examiners to award the best mark the candidate is able to achieve. Each of the assessment objectives is explained in detail below.

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Success in literature - features to work on

A very good way to help students focus and work efficiently in exams and in coursework is to give them a checklist of different things to do. It is possible to achieve the very highest grades without writing excessively. Teachers and students often confuse quality and quantity. For some kinds of coursework, you may need to write at length, to develop themes in detail for a complex text, but even here you should keep a sense of proportion. In exams, the time limits mean that able students may lose the chance to gain high marks by dwelling too long on one kind of response.

The list below can be remembered by students as an acronym - AACIR - or in its entirety by, for example, display on a wall and regular chanting or asking students to recall it with eyes shut. The list is:

  • attitude
  • author
  • comparison and contrast
  • implied meaning
  • reader and readings

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Attitudes in a text | Attitudes to a text | Attitudes behind a text | Attitudes in a reader

Attitudes in a text

The attitudes in a text are (usally) not those of the author, though we may suspect that some attitudes in it are close to the author's. In a play we will necessarily have a range of characters with differing attitudes. In prose fiction this may also happen, though we may also have a dominant narrative voice or third-person overview from the author. And in poetry, the writer may adopt or assume attitudes - this is perhaps where it is hardest to know whether the writer agrees with the attitude in the work.

Examples? In Romeo and Juliet Tybalt hates all Montagues, Mercutio dislikes Tybalt but doesn't support the feud, while Romeo regrets the feud and tries to keep out of fighting. Blake's The Tyger expresses awe at the power of nature (this probably is Blake's own view). And in A Christmas Carol we see different attitudes from the same character, Scrooge, while the ghosts who visit him and the sequence of events show which views the reader is being led to support.

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Attitudes to a text

Students should be invited to make a judgement on any work, but make it an informed judgement. They should form an attitude to a text and consider other people's attitudes, in a kind of dialogue, before attempting to evaluate what they have read.

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Attitudes behind a text

Every writer will be in some way representative of his or her time and place. One reason why the National Curriculum has a range of required reading is to let pupils experience a diversity of viewpoints. Sometimes, the student needs to look at the writer's culture and assumptions, which lie behind the text as it immediately appears.

Examples? In Macbeth we are not sure whether all the supernatural things are really happening or are just in Macbeth's mind, but Shakespeare knows that his audience will accept witches with magical powers as plausible (believable). In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare knows his audience will understand why in many cases arranged marriages are better than love matches. Some modern writers assume that romantic or sentimental love or self-development are more important than duty or keeping of promises. Writers such as Dante or George Herbert have a clear sense of God's presence as an immediate and almost tangible reality in their lives.

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Attitudes in a reader

Contemporary authors may be able to assume some things about their readers' attitudes and write in ways which makes use of this. So escapist fiction may have careful product-placement of luxury goods included in a narrative. On the other hand, young people may be helped by what they read to question or challenge their own attitudes. To Kill a Mockingbird was written partly to challenge racist attitudes which were perhaps as widespread in the USA at the time of writing (1960) as at the time when the story is set, in the 1930s. In its use as a text for UK schools in the 21st century it may be challenging nothing much. It may be simply reinforcing the reader's disapproval of racism.

Some writers go out of their way to find out about their readers, and then write to help them develop their own attitudes or qualities of character. Examples? Judy Blume or Jacqueline Wilson.

Boys and girls often have very different attitudes which affect the way they read a text. Teachers and examiners may need to take care not to disadvantage either sex in selecting particular texts for study, or rewarding students more for displaying approved attitudes. For example understanding description of character is not in itself worth more marks than understanding narrative sequence. But there are teachers who think it is, or should be.

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The author

At the most basic level, students need to see that there IS an author, and write about the author's attitudes (if these appear), purposes and techniques or methods. It is worth their learning the standard spelling of “author” (especially when they are studying Arthur Miller). It is also worth their learning, almost as a mechanical habit, to refer to the author in their responses to texts:

  • “The author [or name] shows that...”
  • “In this stanza the poet questions...”
  • “Later the playwright brings together...”

The negative version of this advice is to caution students against writing about texts as if recording events in the real world - this is especially dangerous with narratives: “Then Piggy got killed by Roger, and Ralph ran onto the beach. Then a man came in a white uniform and took Ralph home. He was sad because Simon and Piggy got killed.”

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Comparison and contrast

What's the difference? ask your students. As a method, no difference at all - you put A and B together (or A, B and C). And when they show some similarities we find a comparison and when we see some difference we make a contrast. So we compare Piggy and Simon as outsiders (in Lord of the Flies) and contrast Piggy, a rational and objective child-adult with Simon, a visionary dreamer.

Children need to beware of finding a contrast or comparison which is meaningless. Suppose they are comparing the Gradgrind family in Hard Times with the Conways in Time and the Conways. They could look at ideas of reaping and sowing, of single-parent families, of the relationship of house and home, of work and play and of the way both texts explore glimpses of the future. But it would be silly to write: “Hard Times is a novel written in 1854 but Time and the Conways is a play written in 1937”. And even sillier to write: “These texts are similar because both have women in them.” It's not enough to find similarities or differences - they need to be interesting or tell us something.

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So what kinds of similarity or difference are worth looking for? Are there things we can expect students to look for in any texts? There are - some of them will be in many and some are almost guaranteed to be in all texts. These could include comparisons or contrast in:

  • time (relative or absolute, short term or long term)
  • sex and gender
  • attitude, mood, atmosphere
  • purpose and audience
  • language, form, genre, structure and other technique or method
  • relevance
  • the reader's preference

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And this list can be used twice over. First for comparisons between two (or among several) texts, and second for comparisons within a single text. Examples: we can compare (very usefully) Pip in Great Expectations with Jane in Jane Eyre - both are characters from humble homes in search of fulfilment through social mobility. But we can also compare each character within each text at different stages in the narrative. In fact both authors do this for us. And Kay in Time and the Conways does so - at the end of Act Two she asks what has happened to the family of which she used to be part:

“Oh, silly girl of Nineteen Nineteen! Oh, lucky girl!...Remember what we once were and what we thought we'd be. And now this. And it's all we's us. Every step we've taken - every tick of the clock - making everything worse”

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Implied meaning

Implied meaning is not anything the reader imagines to be in a text - it must be implied by something the reader has found. What the students needs to look for is anything which should maybe not be taken simply in its plain or obvious sense.

The Teacher Training Agency's National Curriculum for Initial Teacher Training in secondary English teaching reads: “Teachers must develop pupils as critical readers, recognising that:

  • writers manage authorial relationships, e.g. those between (sic.) narrator, author and reader
  • texts can be construed and interpreted in different ways.”

This is a kind of reference - the text may contain a phrase or longer structure which echoes another text. Example? In Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' the line “And the first one now/Will later be last” is an allusion to the gospel of St. Matthew (19:30): “But many that are first shall be last.”

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Understatement and overstatement

How can you tell when writers understate or overstate things? It's not easy, but sometimes an author will appear to exaggerate or minimize a statement or attitude. A good example of understatement would be the final line of Mid-Term Break, where Seamus Heaney describes the coffin of his young brother as: “A four foot box, a foot for every year”. The understatement is partly in the slang eupehmism “box” for “coffin”, but mostly in the use of the measurements to tell us the age of the child and indirectly show the poet's grief.

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This takes many forms - what they all have in common is some space between what appears and what really is. A very familiar and crude form of irony is sarcasm, as when you greet a foolish action with “That's really brilliant”. Dramatic irony occurs when the character on stage does not know what the audience or other characters realize, or when actions or words earlier in the play lead to some later action or consequence - as when Othello says to Desdemona “Honey, you will be well desired in Cyprus”, but it is his fear of another's desire that leads to him killing her.

More generally, students should look out for the kind of irony where writers in some way distance themselves from the views expressed in their work - does the author really mean what he or she appears to mean? If there were no irony in the author's stance, Swift's A Modest Proposal would be horrible and inhumane. At different times, questions of good and bad taste may limit a writer's readiness to be ironic.

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Readers and readings

Reading the text | Reading the author | Reading the reading

This guidance will help students make use of the principles outlined above, as they make coherent responses to texts they study.

Students should look for ambiguity (alternative meanings). They should look for these both in the text, and in their response to it - for example where they change their reading after some reflection.

Students should look for ambivalence (alternative attitudes). They should look for these both in the text and in their reading of it.

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Reading the text

In reading the text, students should try to achieve knowledge of content, familiarity with the text in detail and an appropriate (perceptive, sensitive) response. (Assessment objective 1)

Reading the text (AO1): examples
  • He has to shoot him in the head because if he didn't do it, something more cruel would happen to him and he wouldn't understand about it.
  • This book is about prejudice and injustice. It's also about growing up and getting into other people's shoes.
  • It's mainly about racism but there's a lot about growing up and learning about people.
  • There's a lot of description about where they go but I like the bits where they are talking to each other.
  • At the start of the story...but later on...
  • When she talks to [name] she is...but when she talks to [other name] she...

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Reading the author

In reading the author, students should try to achieve understanding of the writer's purposes (in relation to the audience), of the writer's means of control of the text and of the writer's use of literary devices, methods and techniques. (Assessment objectives 1 and 2)

Reading the author (AO1 and 2); purpose and devices: examples
  • He wants you to think that Jack is organised and confident because the first time you meet him he's leading the choir and giving orders
  • She makes you feel sorry for TJ when his “friends” let him down, even if you don't like him because of the way he treated other people himself.
  • He thought all humans have evil in them, even if they are posh or so called civilised British. This is because he saw what decent people were like in war when there were no rules. Also he was a teacher and he must have seen nasty parts in lots of people he taught.

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Reading the reading

In reading the reading, students should try to give a coherent account of their dynamic process of their developing a reading of the text - this can allow for some statement of initial responses, with reasons for their reaching a more considered later judgement. (Assessment objectives 1, 2and 3)

Reading the reading (AO1, 2 and 3); comparison, contrast, evaluation: examples
  • When I first read this I thought...but later...(reflecting on response)
  • I thought this meant that, but now I think...(exploring ambiguity)
  • I don't like this sort of poem but I suppose old people over 25 would think it was beautiful (alternative empathies)
  • When she does this I think she's horrible, but later she does something I think takes real guts (handling ambivalence)
  • Even though both these poems rhyme, one has more realistic language (stylistic)
  • Both these poems are by womem but they say different things about men (author and attitude)
  • One of these is written before 1914 and has old fashioned language but the idea they are getting across is the same (context and meaning; similarity and discontinuity)
  • [This] is a twentieth century poem which is a sonnet, like [other poem] but it takes a different point of view about sex and marriage...(style and attitude; similarity and discontinuity)
  • People thought that this was right then, but you wouldn't find women today putting up with this. I'd tell him where to go! (context and attitude; text and self)

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Assessing literature: skills hierarchies

Response - sensitive and critical (AO1)
  • G - simple response to text and/or task
  • F - statement of preference within/between tasks
  • E - supported response to character/situation
  • D - explained response to situation/ideas
  • C - sustained reponse to situation/ideas or author's purposes
  • B - measured/qualified, developed response, exploring writers' ideas and/or methods
  • A - sensitive insight/exploration into texts and authors' purposes
  • A* -
  • independent evaluation or analysis of text and task

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Response - detail (AO1)
  • G - reference to some detail
  • F - range of details, some inference
  • E - some comment on specific details
  • D - range of comment on specific details
  • C - effective use of details to support answer
  • B - details linked to authors' intentions and purposes
  • A - finds significance/structure in patterns of detail
  • A* - independent discovery and interpretation of details

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Response - awareness of language (AO2)
  • G - reference to language as a feature
  • F - location of area(s) of language interest
  • E - selection of quotations for language interest
  • D - identification of specific feature of language interest
  • C - explanation of feature(s) of language interest
  • B - exploration of feature(s) of language interest
  • A - evaluation/analysis of writers' use of language and effects on reader
  • A* - independent/imaginative insight/analysis

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Authors' purposes and devices (AO2)
  • G - simple response to text and/or task
  • F - simple comment on method or effect
  • E - some awareness of an author at work
  • D - identification of effects intended or achieved
  • C - explanation of effects achieved/authors' purposes
  • B - measured/qualified/exploratory response to writers' ideas/methods
  • A - sensitive insight into authors' purposes - insight/empathy into writers
  • A* - indpendent insight/enthusiasm/interpretation/evaluation

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Comparisons within and between texts (AO3)
  • G - selection of texts suitable for comparison
  • F - simple linkage related to subject matter/preference
  • E - comment on similarity or difference
  • D - structured comments on similarities and differences
  • C - sustained focus on similarities and differences
  • B - developed comparison/contrast of style/ideas/characters
  • A - insight into comparison/contrast of context/meaning
  • A* - independent analytical/evaluative comparison/contrast

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Example of assessment task: Foundation Tier

Animals play an important part in both The Call of the Wild and Flight.

Write about four episodes (including both stories) where animals are important, showing what people think of them and what effect the animals have on them. You should write about:

  • different kinds of animal
    (A01 - detail/textual evidence)
  • the way different characters feel about animals
    (AO3 - relationships and comparisons within texts)
  • your own feelings about the situation
    (A01 - critical/sensitive;
     AO3 - select and evaluate)
  • how the writer makes situations realistic or sad

  • (AO2 - language/structure/forms)

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Example of assessment task: Higher Tier

Both The Call of the Wild and Flight present people's relationships with animals.

Compare the two stories, showing how the writers use animals to bring out people's thoughts and feelings. You should write about:

  • the different kinds of animal in the stories
    (A01 - detail/textual evidence)
  • why animals are important to different people
    (AO3 - relationships and comparisons within texts)
  • writers' choice of words to bring out thoughts and feelings
    (A01 - critical/sensitive; AO2 - language and meaning)
  • the importance of animals in each story as a whole

  • (AO3 - comparisons between texts;
     AO2 - structure/form and meaning, alternative interpretation and evaluation)

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© Andrew Moore, 2000, 2004; Contact me

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