Friday, July 23, 2021

New Authors Added to Pass GCSE English


We’ve had a flurry of recent activity as we prepare for the launch of the Pass GCSE EnglishVirtual Learning Environment (VLE). 

One of the great things about creating a VLE is the wealth of literature from which we can choose.  We’re not restricted, as the examiners are, by three centuries of literature so we can include writers like Pu Songling who was writing just a few decades after Shakespeare.  Of course, it’s in translation and it may be express cultural behaviour that is different to experience or expectation, but it introduces learners to literature that they may not have encountered before from civilisations they know little about.  It could spark an interest that leads to a lifetime of exploration.  Here’s a little about him.

Building a VLE has also given us an insight in to how hard finding the “right texts” is for this qualification. It isn’t simply a matter of pulling one off a shelf, it has to fit the assessment framework “just so”.  So, for example, for Paper 1 the text must contain enough detail for candidates to not only answer questions about structure and language (in separate questions) but also for a critical response to the text to be generated.  It isn’t every single beautiful piece of literature that fits the bill – finding extracts that “ticks all the boxes” is hard work.  No wonder that in the “proper” exams there is the occasional deft editing of the original for it to be something that candidates can respond to (especially in terms of length)! 

It’s not just finding texts that have the right elements – they have to be in the right order, too.  So, for Paper 1, the first half of a text must have the elements in place for candidates to answer questions 1 and 2.  Question 3 is the structure of the whole piece, but the text must have elements of structure that are fairly straightforward to pinpoint, explain and comment upon. Question 4 is always the second half of the text so again must have enough elements to engender a critical response. Paper 2 is, if anything, worse!  Although contrasting attitudes are usually straightforward enough to find on any given subject, finding something else that both writers mention that can be used to form the summary needed for question 2 is an entirely different kettle of fish!

We have managed to find some authors who “tick all the boxes” but it has meant a great deal of reading (which isn’t detrimental in any way other than the time it takes!).  Perhaps it’s no surprise that we found something from Orwell, whose work is now in the public domain in the UK.  Under UK Copyright law, copyright expires 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author died.  As Orwell died (sadly, too young) in 1950, that means that his work went into the public domain in the UK in 2020. 

As an aside, did you know that although Orwell’s work is out of copyright in the UK, if you want to photocopy a whole edition of, say, 1984, you still have to be wary of copyright constraints? That’s because typesetting, (the way that the work is presented on the page) is also subject to copyright.  This is set in the UK to 25 years from the end of the year in which the edition was first published So an edition of 1984 that was published in 1984 is fine to copy but one published in 2004 isn’t.

Copyright is something that we take seriously and that has meant that “old” texts predominate.  However, the idea that has taken root (particularly among students) that the older the text is then the more challenging is simply untrue.  Not everything before 1900 is unfathomably wordy! Take, for example, Fanny Fern, something of a celebrity journalist in her day – her beautiful, direct prose often seems like it was written yesterday.  Why we don’t hear more about her is beyond me.

As such, while we have been able to use authors that students are already familiar with, like Dickens, building the VLE has also given us the opportunity to rediscover writers who have been overlooked or even forgotten for no apparent reason.  Arthur Morrison is a case in point. 

Of course, some were not recognized in their own lifetime, such as Herman Melville.   He isn’t exactly the Van Gogh of literature as he did enjoy some early success. However, he didn’t live long enough to see the renaissance of interest in his work that led to his inclusion in the pantheon of the greats of American literature. One must hope that he wasn’t too disillusioned with the lack of commendation his work received during his lifetime.  The startling piece we are using from the posthumously published Billy Budd shows what a remarkable writer he truly was.

Finally, we have a children’s author – Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Her prose brims over with beautiful descriptive passages which don’t go on too long because she kept her audience in mid!


So, these six now join the others on the VLE.  If you are a little concerned about the lack of ethnic diversity on display here, please be assured that we are making every effort we can to include prose work from as diverse a selection of writers as possible.  You will find blog posts here on some of those writers, including William Bells Brown, Mary E Jones Parrish and OttobahCuguano. Plus, our “Reading for Pleasure” section allows us to include links to modern short stories and other prose from a great selection of writers from all over the world.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Why Planning is important in GCSE English Creative Writing


The great composer Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” 
I can’t think of a better way to start this post as that’s exactly how I feel about Paper 1 Question 5 of GCSE English Language!  Planning is vital to success on this question but my goodness, 45 minutes is something of a constraint. “Not quite enough time” is something I hear from my students all the time – but expressed in a manner not quite so polite!

Planning is also the subject of one of the multimedia lessons on the VLE and something I want to expand on a little here in a way I couldn’t in the lesson which is almost purely instructive.  Here I want to scratch my head a little about the psychology of planning – or to put it more precisely, I want to start by wondering out loud why so many of my students begin their GCSE course with me considering planning as inessential to their success in both creative and functional writing, but especially the former.

I work in a FE college. Most of these students are “resits”, which Is a nice way of saying that they didn’t do very well the first time (for any number of reasons, bone-idleness being at the forefront but still one of many reasons why students do poorly in English Language). Those who are new to the qualification are usually those who have been through the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) pathway and these “newbies” tend to be quite receptive to planning texts.

Just as people do poorly at GCSE English for one of many reasons, there may be just as many explanations why so many students are unreceptive to the idea of planning a piece of creative writing.  However, do you know why I think that students can be less than keen to plan?  It’s because they don’t know how – and they’re just too embarrassed to admit it and ask in front of their peers (being at that peculiar time of life known as "teen").  Somewhere along the line, they didn’t quite get what the point of it was – and again the reasons for this can be many (and is almost leading to a “chicken and the egg” situation here). Regardless of the reason, this lack of knowledge around how to plan can lead to many a student refusing to attempt it.  They know they should know how to plan, they know they don’t – they decide not to bother.

So, it’s often a case of back to the drawing board – and that is exactly what the lesson on the VLE is all about, using the WAGOLL technique.  I’m generally averse to acronyms but What A Good One Looks Like is a favourite as it reminds me that being able to look at the finished product first can often make learning how to make one so much easier.  Before I ask students to write anything creative, I show them how to plan it first.  For GCSE English this involves considering what the examiner is looking for – and that means taking a look at the assessment objectives that cover the writing skills.

This may sound boring but again I am often surprised that students (in whatever previous educational setting) have not retained knowledge of the skills that they need to demonstrate when writing a creative text whether narrative or descriptive.  I hope I don’t sound like I’m pointing a finger, but it is comparable to telling someone to build a house but not letting them know how many rooms you want, what type of rooms you want – and where to put the windows and doors!

So, although it sounds dry as a bone, one of the first things I will show students is a list of the skills needed for both AO5 and A06.  That’s the content of their text and how it’s organised (aka structured) for AO5 and the technical accuracy (spelling, grammar, punctuation) of the text for AO6. This might involve revision or re-evaluation for the learners – you might be surprised how many blank faces I get when I ask for someone to tell me what they think “sentence demarcation” is.  Yet this is essential information.  I’ve heard some say it’s like building a cage for the students; I prefer to think of it as giving them a frame.  Focusing on what is to be assessed is never a constraint on creativity, indeed it can be a spur.

Plus, assessment objectives don’t need to be boring – a good Kahoot on them will get the attention of the class and lead on to a discussion about their importance.  When students know what they are going to be assessed on, they begin to focus on these skills.

The next step is to show students how to plan.  Again, along the lines of WAGOLL, it’s no good just giving a creative writing task and saying “spend five minutes planning before you start writing” if they don’t know what a good plan looks like or even how to plan a story at all.

So, I show them what a good plan looks like and how to plan is built in to this.  I do a little live modelling – not the Naomi Campbell type – starting with a question and then going through the steps I would take to plan it.  I ask for tips from the students as I go along (and encourage them to laugh at as well as with me) but try very much to bring the plan in to a specific format (which you can see on the VLE).  My approach is that I ask my students to think about structure first.  My mantra is “if you have good structure, then good language follows like a puppy wagging its tail.   Structure is the house, language the home furnishings.  Again – and this is an opinion I hold strongly – giving students a format is not a constraint when it is done properly.  Why? Once something (in this case the format of story telling for GCSE English) is acquired then experimentation upon it can begin.  If no format is acquired there will never be any experimentation only floudering.

Creating the structure of a text gives the students a sense of excitement – they have the finished product essentially planned in about eight quick lines.  It’s also great “unconscious revision” for Paper 1 Question 3. Many can’t wait to start writing but I haven’t quite finished. I then ask them to consider the language they could use in each part of their plan.  You can see an example on the left here.  I have used this method for quite a while now – it gives a sense of immediate success, and first attempts can sometimes be startlingly good.

Perhaps give it a try.  The comprehensive version of this method – and how I follow on from the introduction to creative writing – is all on the Pass GCSE English VLE.

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