Three tips for teaching unseen texts for the new English language GCSE

The new English language GCSE can feel confusing and unconnected for students, says this English teacher, whose department set out to solve the problem

Edward Scrivens

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Leave it to the French to accurately diagnose the average 15-year-old student’s experience of the English language curriculum.

For our students, GCSE English language units of work are often a confusing morass of unlinked, unfamiliar, unseen extracts. They bounce from one to the next, feeling only plus ça change – everything changing, all the time.

As a department, we set out to tackle this with Year 11 in November — after I accidentally taught three texts in a row where the dying of the light was a metaphor for the fading of the narrator’s happiness. From there, three approaches grew.

1. Categorise extracts by technique

We have tried to plot the canonical conventions of unseen texts. Literary extracts have a core of similar conventions, which can and should be taught in groups to build students’ knowledge base. I want to be able to ask the question, “what other texts does this remind you of?” and receive a sensible answer from our students.

At present, some of our clusters include:

  • The symbolism of light
  • The symbolism of objects
  • Movement and journeys
  • Stasis and entrapment
  • Exaggerated characters
  • Transformations
  • Doorways
  • Colour symbolism
  • Polemical overexaggeration
  • Allusion to Classical/Biblical styles
  • The war metaphor

2. Explicitly teach ‘portable points’

As experienced readers, English teachers know that certain techniques function in almost exactly the same way in each text in which they appear. Therefore, it makes sense to teach students those likely effects.

We generated a list of 12, which include, among others, the three likely effects of longer sentences: they often create a sense of speed; they often create a relaxed or peaceful rhythm; they often create a sense of busy chaos.

In essence, a student armed with these has less unpredictability to process – they are starting their analysis by sifting through a range of portable points which they know well, deciding which apply most effectively to the text in from of them.

3. Use consistent sentence stems to express symbolic ideas

Students often pick up the allusion in a text; they “get it” in general terms, but then cannot express their nebulous understanding in concrete language.

We keep it simple. Among the other sentence stems that English departments across the land are using, we have thrown in “this reminds the reader of...”

Students are suddenly liberated to express their half-formed idea, to convey a writer’s hint that is too subtle to be described as an allusion or a metaphor, to explore intertextuality without having to wade through complex terminology. For some of our middle-ability students, this sentence stem has seen a dramatic shift in their ability to express the complexities of a piece of unseen non-fiction.

We have an ongoing challenge – our curriculum must support all readers, however inexperienced, to tackle a huge variety of unseen texts. The structure and order of our curriculum really matters. Everything may change – but chosen wisely, our curriculum should help students to see what actually remains the same.

Edward Scrivens is assistant principal — English and Literacy at Thorns Community College. He tweets at @teachingmagpie

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Edward Scrivens

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