An 'upside down, inside out' approach to GCSE English

This teacher has been asking her students to approach GCSE English literature questions from the 'wrong' way round to help them get better at writing about a text's big themes

Kate McCabe

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Inside Outside Upside Down is a wonder of a book.

Written by Stan and Jan Berenstain (1968), it has a beautiful, lilting rhythm and cleverly breaks a complex narrative into a handful of words (a young bear goes into a box, mistakenly is taken away on a truck into town, before finally being able to run home to his mother). The title immediately sprang to my mind when reflecting on a writing approach for GCSE literature essays.

The examiner reports from the summer 2017 exams emphasised the need to lead with the big themes of texts. It was noted that "a frequent indicator of higher level responses was that of beginning by responding to the focus of the question using the whole text" and that "this indicated a confident, strong grasp of the text and its ideas".

What those "big" ideas are, as well as how students can adapt their approach to lead with them, has preoccupied much of my thinking this term when teaching Years 10 and 11. I wanted to find a way to give every student the opportunity to write a "higher-level response", regardless of their perceived ability, while being careful not to overburden them with strategies and too many layers of analysis to juggle all at once.

GCSE English themes

First of all, in order to lead with ideas, I have been much more direct about what the big themes and ideas are in a text. I have worked on turning the text "inside out" from the very start. For example, rather than waiting for students to notice that many things are locked away in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I have told them that concealment matters before we even begin reading. They then have an ear and an eye out for anything locked in and do the rest of the work themselves, thinking thematically as the narrative unfolds.

As well teaching students to pay attention to big themes, I have also been teaching them to tackle questions with ‘outside in’ eyes and an ‘upside down’ reading of the paper. Typically, an AQA GCSE English literature paper has a short extract followed by a question that contains wording along the lines of:

Starting with this speech, explain how far you think Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a powerful woman.

 Write about:

• How Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth in this extract.

• How Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth in the play as a whole.

The first step is to find a way into the question. I am always mindful that this needs explicit modelling. Students need to find the key to the question: in this case, Lady Macbeth as a powerful woman. Then everything – points, paragraphs, quotes – should revolve around this key.

An upside-down approach

We then ask students to focus on the second bullet point first, the play as a whole (upside down, inside out). Students bullet point three to four ideas about how Lady Macbeth is a powerful woman in the play as a whole. Their ideas range from her wickedness, her manipulation and control to her ambition. With these ideas in mind, they are much better placed to find evidence from the extract that supports these big ideas, rather than trying to do it the other way round. They have activated their textual schema and words such as "spirits" and "murdering" begin to leap from the page, and sort themselves neatly into groups. The big ideas begin to lead the way.

This approach, I think, opens up the first assessment objective: reading, understanding and responding to texts. It gives students permission to root their answer firmly in their understanding of the whole text and not bolt on comments at the end of a lengthy, close-word-analysis paragraph.

It may well be that we will have to reign in the writing if the focus strays too far from the extract and word-level analysis is lost altogether. But I hope, at least, we’ll have students that stop being so fixated on the individual, unseen extract that they too find themselves constrained within the box, unable to step outside.

Kate McCabe is head of faculty for English and media at St Gregory the Great Catholic School in Oxford

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