Revision that delves deeper

7th March 2014 at 00:00
A three-stage approach helps students to fathom literary texts

Sometimes, students need help to understand what revision of literary texts really involves. One definition of revision is "study of work done in order to prepare for an exam", but this has limited usefulness. What exactly is the work done? And how do you define when it is "done"?

I prefer this alternative definition: "reconsidering and altering in the light of further evidence". To achieve this with my older students, I treat revision of literature as progressive, falling into three stages: while studying a text; post-text; and pre-exam.

1. First look

In this stage, students make notes on their reading before class, and on the discussion during class. During the study of a text, I periodically ask them to sift through these notes (for example, at the end of a chapter or act) and write down the most significant things they have learned or observed and what they still need to understand or find out.

This is an opportunity for students to take ownership of the revision process, moving from merely taking notes to the higher analytical skill of making personal sense of their learning. It also enables me to see what they have individually learned and whether they have taken on board the issues I want them to understand or consider. The results of this approach can be disconcerting and surprising. You may need to dedicate a class to sharing, deconstructing and reconsidering some of the points articulated, but it's better to do this now than to leave students to wade through incoherent notes before the exam.

2. Returning to the text

The minutiae of studying literature can lead students to lose appreciation of how the parts make up the whole. A revision class at the end of a block of study offers an opportunity for the class to reconsider and alter their views communally. Instead of individual "final" essays on one topic, written and marked in isolation, five or six small-group presentations on different aspects of the text can help them to evaluate the text more dynamically. Get the groups to choose from a list of topics or create one themselves. Sample questions could include "How differently is authority demonstrated in The Crucible?" and "What moments in Heart of Darkness help us to define the narrator?" Further evidencegathering and articulation of ideas is more useful than exam-writing practice at this point, and group work boosts individual understanding.

3. Exam preparation

Solitary revision of texts before an exam is often discouraging, but when shared as a class it is much more stimulating. I take each text in turn, divide it into sections for pairs of students and ask them to present their work chronologically during a single session. In this way, the text is brought alive as one coherent whole. The students' brief is: to narrate their section vividly but concisely; to give it a heading and define some significant aspects; to identify one telling quote; and to pose one high-level question to which they may or may not have an answer - for example, "Does Jim in The Glass Menagerie kiss Laura for his own pleasure or for hers?" This approach gives you the chance to see where students are in their understanding and to contribute to this for the final time.

Elizabeth Stephan teaches at Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire, England. She is the author of IB English A: literature study and revision guide and has taught in Japan, Europe and the US

Top 10 Literature revision resources

1 Template treat

These questions, focusing on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave, provide a useful template for framing the revision of any literary text.


2 Component parts

Break the task of revising poetry and prose down into key areas with this presentation and template, which provide simple mnemonics for remembering analysis techniques.


3 Rigorous revision

This bumper revision pack includes a range of helpful resources, from word banks and tips on descriptive writing techniques to exam advice and a glossary of poetic devices.


4 Poetic primer

This resource contains everything your students need to revise for English literature questions on poetry, including sample questions and essay guidance.


5 Quick peek

These revision cards contain small, manageable chunks of information and interpretation about a wide selection of popular poems and texts. They can be used as a starting point for more in-depth exploration.


6 Bard breakdown

Focused on the Shakespeare plays Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, this pack of worksheets and questions can be adapted to structure revision of any text.


7 Exam enlightenment

This probing revision aid gets students in the right frame of mind for exams and offers helpful hints, including how to use quotations and how to back up opinions with evidence.


8 Rhyme reasoning

A comprehensive PowerPoint on how to plan for poetry comparison questions and how to structure answers.


9 Perfect answer

This booklet offers a comprehensive guide to how to get top marks in a poetry analysis exam.


10 Warning signs

A prose analysis framework exploring what students should look for in a text, how to structure an essay and some exam dos and don'ts. A useful revision aid.


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