In their A-level English exam, my students must write a comparative analysis of three previously unseen pieces of text in an hour and a half. Understandably, when first presented with this task they are overwhelmed.
I devised a structured approach to dispel their initial panic and enable them to complete the exercise methodically and confidently. I also wanted them to enjoy - rather than merely survive - the challenge.
Before the first lesson I collect some dinner plates from the college refectory, and equip myself with coloured pens and large sheets of paper. We begin by reading through the three extracts I have chosen.
I deliberately select three distinct genres - a novel, a poem and a play - but all are connected by subject matter or theme. The extracts, labelled A, B and C, are shorter than those in the exam.
Working in small groups, students use a plate as a template for drawing a large Venn diagram of three overlapping sets: A, B and C. They then identify similarities and differences between the extracts, entering these in the relevant sections of the diagram. For example, we start with the most basic difference - genre - which they duly enter into each of the separate circles.
Next, we may decide that two texts are written in the first person and this is entered in the intersection between the circles of those two texts. And so it continues, with the students thoroughly engaged, searching for ever-more obscure ideas.
Each group then displays their sheet on the classroom wall. They circulate the room, making notes on what others spotted and they did not.
I conclude by identifying some of the students' best points and explaining that in the next lesson we will use a comparative framework to construct an answer from their diagrams and notes.
Having overcome their fear of looking at three extracts simultaneously, the students are more confident as we tackle the complex matter of writing a coherent response.
Ruth Ferguson is an English lecturer in a further education college in the South East of England
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