Friday, July 29, 2022

Natsume Sōseki and Mary Seacole extracts on our VLE


We’ve recently seen a flurry on the activity on the VLE and that means that new authors have been selected and included. Our two latest additions are Natsume Sōseki and Mary Seacole.

Soseki was born in 1967 a time when Japan was becoming both westernised and industrialised and his writing reflects these changes. As well as being a highly successful novelist he became the Professor of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He remains immensely popular in Japan and there has been a global emergence of interest in his works in the 21st century.

Sōseki did spend some time in the UK. Arriving in 1900 he spent just over two years there on a government scholarship. Although this meant he could not afford to study at Cambridge, he went to UCL (University College London). Unfortunately, despite making some friends, he had a miserable time, writing later that “the two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves”. Yet the years he spent in the UK helped him to consolidate his knowledge of English literature and to go on to acquire two prestigious roles teaching English Literature at Japanese universities.

His novels predicted many of the issues that we face today, which is perhaps why he is being “rediscovered” on a global scale outside of Japan (where he has remained consistently popular and one of the most widely-read novelists that the country has produced).

Yet the extract we have chosen is about a boy – the protagonist of his 1906 novel Botchan (Young Master). This is definitely the kind of boy you will have come across yourself – full of mischief and naughtiness. However, the reasons for his behaviour are fully implied when his less than perfect home life is revealed to the reader. It’s hugely compelling and full of humour but rather poignant at the same time. We think it’s a great text for anyone studying towards Paper 1 - Explorations in creative reading and writing.

You can read the full novel of Botchan here.

Mary Seacole, too, was never forgotten in her birth country of Jamaica but after her death her legacy was neglected in the UK, leading to a “rediscovery” in the 1970s. She is now on the British History National Curriculum.

A British-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman who set up the “British Hotel” behind the lines during the Crimean War. A hugely popular figure during her own lifetime, she published her autobiography in 1857 which was an immediate best-seller. In 2004 she was voted the “Greatest Black Briton” in a poll. In the UK, there is an annual prize to recognise and develop leadership in nurses named after her. Her autobiography reveals a resilient and humorous woman who although faced with many obstacles throughout her life, resolutely refused to be side-lined. We have chosen an extract about the theft of a pig which will, we hope, have you smiling as Mrs Seacole entertainingly recounts the tale of the stolen porker! As a slice of autobiographical non-fiction, its place is most definitely deserved in our Paper 2 (Writers’ Viewpoints and Perspectives) section.

You can read Mary Seacole’s autobiography here.

It is said that “travel broadens the mind” and by including these two authors we hope to transport our learners to places as they were so long ago and to experiences that should be shared and remembered. While we are committed to "decolonising the curriculum", of course the more “traditional” writers will always, too, have a place so you can expect Dickens and Orwell and many others on the VLE. Yet when familiar voices are joined by others that are different and unique in their own right, don’t you think it improves the whole choir?

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Paper 2 Question 4 – The Neglected Question?


Is it me or is English Language Paper 2 Question 4 a little neglected when it comes to online resources (not to mention student interest)? There are the past papers, of course, but if I attempt to find resources by teachers or even educational companies, there seems to be fewer resources for this question than for any of the others. Not only that, when I ask other English teachers which one question they would like to improve on in terms of delivery, then it is invariably this one – and a lack of good resources is a reason often cited.

There could be a number of reasons for this, which I will discuss later. However, this question can not, should not, must not be overlooked. 16 marks are available for students to gain when answering this question. If I embed maths into this article in the same way I do in my GCSE English lessons (so, uhm, probably badly), then that represents ten percent of the overall qualification. There are 160 marks available over the two papers. Fortunately, 16/160 is an easy enough bit of maths for even my brain to understand.

Ten percent may seem like a lot – or maybe not. That will all depend on your perspective (and definitely more about perspectives later!). Yet to begin, let’s take a look at the most recent set of grade boundaries – for the November 2021 exam.

Students had to get 68 marks for a grade 4. To get a 5, they had to get 79, a difference of 11 marks.

It gets more interesting the higher the grades go.

To get a 5 it is 79 – to get a 6 it is 90. That’s 11 marks.

To get a 6 it is 90 – to get a 7 it is 101. That’s 11 marks too. Pattern?

Then between grades 7 and 8 – and 8 and 9 – there are 10 marks.

Here it is in the form of a chart.


So, none of the numerical differences between the “important” grade boundaries are larger than the number of marks available for Paper 2 Question 4.

The implication here is that if students give P2Q4 a good go then their chances of popping themselves up into the next grade boundary are fairly high. If they are half-way to getting a grade 5 already, for example, then to get inside that grade boundary they would “only” need 6/16 for this question.

As such, this is a question that shouldn’t be neglected and perhaps my Google search skills are lacking. Maybe it is a reason why it is sometimes a little overlooked – perhaps students can get half-marks on this question on autopilot? Regardless, I do find it very difficult to get good resources (apart from past papers) for this question. Why is this?

I think the answer is the texts - or more accurately finding good ones. The GCSE exam team have some time to research the topic chosen for the paper. They have some time to find relevant texts which show differences or similarities between writers’ perspectives to the extent needed to enable students to have enough choice around the areas of the texts to which they choose to respond. No wonder AQA allows them to respond to the texts in their entirety for this question. Plus, if you find the original texts you will soon discover that some, erm, editing has gone on in order to manipulate them into the format of the questions. Sometimes words and sentences are added – and occasionally whole paragraphs are excised. There’s no shame there – the editing is cleverly done and does not destroy the original meaning or intention but that too… takes time.


It could also be because AO3 – Assessment Objective 3 – is not examined in any other question but this one. If any AO is going to get lost, this could be the one. Let’s remind ourselves of the objective: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts. Just a quick read of this AO and you know it’s not for the faint-hearted resource creator.

Joining these issues up, it’s difficult to find appropriate texts and it’s the only time this particular skill is assessed in the exam. I think we have the primary reasons for the dearth of resources for this question. As for the resources I have found, there has also on occasion been a confusion between Question 2 and Question 4. Sometimes, in teacher written past-papers, question 2 has been about the attitudes of the writers (or attitudes of people in the texts) – something which is avoided in AQA produced papers. It will just confuse my students if I expose them to attitudes for question 2 as well as for question 4. It goes to show how hard it is to source these texts, as one not only has to take the assessment objective into account but also all of the other questions in Section A of the exam – and their assessment objectives into the bargain.

There is a final reason why this question sometimes doesn’t get the time it really needs in both teacher delivery and student attention. It’s the last “Section A” question over the two papers. Schools and particularly colleges have Schemes of Learning that place this question right at the end of the delivery – and this does make perfect sense. However, other things can get in the way, and the approach to this question can sometimes be hurried and not in the detail needed. Plus, do you ever see “GCSE fatigue” spreading around a class like gossip in the staffroom? In my experience if it is going to happen at any point, it’s usually when we get to this question!

Skills for this question can be embedded earlier. Discussion of how writers have portrayed characters and settings can be a good starting point. However, as the question itself is around a non-fiction text it’s a good idea to introduce short texts and focus on emotive and persuasive techniques throughout the academic year. When it comes to the question, there are various ways to deal with P2Q4. Here’s how I approach it (this graphic concerns the “cycling” past paper). 

I take time to sidle up to this as my students at least find this question intimidating. The full lessons can be found on the VLE alongside a number of quizzes about methods.

Of course, this is a “step one”, and the process has to be developed and repeated by the students. Generally, I advise that the students make three points about each text. This is not the only way that this question could be approached but I find that this works well with my learners.

The second post in this series about Paper 2 Question 4 will be published soon. In the meantime, if you know where there are some great (preferably free) resources for this question - then leave a comment below! Thanks!