The new GCSE English language specification brought with it many challenges but, surely, one of the most difficult introductions was the advent of what I came to call the “dreaded structure question”.
All of the exam boards were testing students explicitly on a new skill: analysis of structure. And, unsurprisingly, the introduction of a new question meant there were several misconceptions about what exactly was being assessed and how students (and teachers!) should approach it.
It quickly became apparent that teaching students to explore structure successfully would need a “bigger picture” approach.
Here are my tips for preparing students to tackle the structure question:
1. Teach the narrative arc first
When I planned for the English language GCSE, I decided to organise the learning into units based around skills. First up was to introduce students to the narrative arc: for them to learn what exactly the structure of a full narrative is and which features are common at the various stages.
Why will it help?
If students are familiar with common narrative exposition, then they will be expecting descriptions of the setting through complex sentences or pathetic fallacy, introductions to key characters and what passes for equilibrium in the protagonist’s life.
Consequently, they can comment confidently on what the writer attempts to focus on at the very start of the extract. They are also far clearer on identifying when the focus shifts as they are expecting a point of conflict or a shift in tone in order for the action to start rising.
2. Use films
Before everyone gets too appalled (or excited), hear me out. By film, I mean using very short excerpts – such as the opening to a Harry Potter movie.
Why will it help?
The great thing about using film is having the option to pause on specific scenes but also, by being able to identify the type of shot used, you can quickly identify which stage of the narrative arc is in progress. For example, a wide-angle shot is often used for the exposition in order to set the scene and introduce the characters. Pausing at the transition points between frames means you can explicitly teach students to be able to identify what is meant by “switching your focus”, then this skill can be transferred to written extracts.
3. Replace the word ‘interesting’ with the word ‘learning’
On the AQA specification, the question always asks: “How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?” If your students are anything like mine, their distinctly unimpressed gazes will tell you that they’re not finding anything interesting about the extract.
Why will this help?
Students ascribe a much higher level of excitement to the word “interesting” than they do to the word “learning”. Too often, they’re looking for bank heists or epic battle scenes instead of subtle structural shifts.
By teaching students to focus on what the author is telling us at each stage of the extract and what we are therefore learning about the characters, the situation, the plot, they are better able to consider and explain the writer’s choices.