Saturday, 18 April 2015

They're both fruit, but one's an apple and the other's a pear.

There’s something that’s been bugging me of late (that has perhaps become more acute as we reach the final death throes of Year 11 exam preparation) and that’s how the devil to help students create ‘holding together’ comparison.

Now it strikes me that at a number of points during the English GCSE and A Level courses you can get away with ‘connections’ and ‘links’ – ‘faux comparison’, if you will. In fact, in the AQA AS LITB1 exam the assessment criteria merely demand that you respond to the same bloody question on each text! A one hour response to three texts in fact becomes three discrete mini-essays. However, at other times what is required is meaty, developed, nuanced comparison and this is where many of my students end up quite simply stumped because to truly compare, weigh, balance, intertwine and discriminate verbally is one thing, but to record these explorations in a coherent written response is quite another.
So, how have I tackled this? Well, first of all, as well as the usual exploration of themes, context and ideas I make sure from the outset that all students can say a lot about a little for each text individually before they even attempt to compare.

To do this we spend a lot of time deconstructing texts at a word and sentence level (see activities like ‘onion analysis’, ‘the least popular word’ and ‘black out analysis’ on my blog). Then I give them a scaffold to develop these ideas into a confident written response such as our PEARAW or @chrishildrew’s WETRATS. Note: the aim should always be to remove these stabilisers as students grow with confidence, but for many the security of the sentence starter in their first encounter with the oft dreaded analytical essay cannot be underestimated.

Next step? Students need to rehearse the comparison in a non-essay based format before they attempt to really write. In previous years, I’ve used the ubiquitous Venn diagram for this purpose, but I’ve found it increasingly less effective of late as it seems to lead to generalisation for less able students who struggle to focus on textual detail. I like spider web analysis, where post-it notes allows students to develop the link, but also a good game of ‘odd one out’ works nicely.
And then, finally, I introduce the fruit. Apple and pears, to be more specific.
For ‘the fruit’ to work you have to concur with me that two texts being selected for comparison by necessity have at least one similarity (otherwise, quite frankly, why would you bother). It thus follows that a logical place to start is by defining that similarity. Not in the general sense, but by pinpointing that shared quality, whether it be theme, tone, language technique, or subject matter. Students then need to hone in on this quality in the first text.
What then follows is where this first text diverges from the second: their difference (for any similarity between two discrete texts will only go so far). ‘Ok, they’re both fruit, but, can you now identify that one’s an apple and the other a pear?’

What results is an initial essay structure that devotes a meaty chunk of time to comparison, encourages students to make developed links, and is nuanced through discussion of meetings and departures:
·         Both are fruit.
·         Zoom in on text 1 (WETRATS, PEARAW etc.)
·         But one’s an apple and the other’s a pear.
·         Zoom in on text 2

That is until one bright spark pipes up: “But, Miss, they’re not fruit at all! They’re poems.”


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