High-tension plot

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Your forum for practical tips and ideas

The highest praise we can hope for from a lower-ability GCSE group reading a powerful or poignant poem is often "It's short" or "It doesn't go on too much". So the prospect of teaching a selection of Victorian short stories, each at least 10 pages long, and comparing the different techniques used by the writers to encourage their readers to feel the tension in their narratives, filled me with dread.

I first set about getting them interested in the stories. I extracted the most tense and exciting moments from each (the longest extract being just under a page). After each reading, they always asked: "What happens next?"

I then asked them why they wanted to know that. Answers were varied and relevant, ranging from sympathy for the character to the way in which the writer created the atmosphere.

From this point, we were able to read on; the group was not only engaged, but had a developing awareness of the writer's technique. I used character grids, key word and quotation banks and theme boxes sparingly, and only with reference to the student's own visual image of the way in which tension increased in the stories.

I looked at the use of graphs in the maths department. Asking the question "How tense is the extract?", I used adjectives from "mild" to "captivating" on the vertical axis.

Students copied extracts from their quotation bank which they felt expressed the tension of a story and then plotted these quotations on the appropriate adjectives, doing this for the beginning, middle and end of each extract.

My students completed their coursework with a confidence that I hadn't seen since they wrote their autobiographical piece. The results were extremely satisfying: each was able to use language competently and express thoughtful and substantiated opinions.

Jay Tarbath, English teacher, Coombeshead College, Newton Abbot, Devon

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