Teaching Question 4 (Paper 1, AQA GCSE English Language)

Having read a number of extremely useful blogs on this topic, I’ve decided to put forward my own method for teaching students how to answer the ‘evaluation’ question. The simple answer: turn the process into a debate. 

All students need to be well versed in formal debating. It will be much easier to evaluate the points in the argument if your planning is set up in the style of a debate. The first thing to do is to turn the question into a debate motion which makes sense.

An example question, drawing upon the opening of Hard Times, is:

‘After reading this text, a student said that the character of Mr Gradgrind seems more comic than cruel’. 

Students need to know to turn this into a motion, making it:

THBT Mr Gradgrind seems more comic than cruel.

Students will then proceed to draw up a table of ‘affirmative’ and ‘negative’ arguments, where they cite textual evidence as either being in favour of, or against, the motion.

This forces the students to engage in the process of evaluating as they subconsciously begin to assess the validity of certain strands of evidence, as they place them next to each other in the planning stage.

As an introduction, the students are required not to draw on specific strands of the argument, but to broadly acknowledge their point of view, beginning with the word ‘arguably’ and drawing in ‘however’, if there is an alternative side to argue. (AQA have stated that it is fine to simply agree with the statement.)

Each affirmative/negative point forms the basis for a paragraph. Students explain their point in full, referring to textual evidence and unpicking the artistic choices used by the writer. The key question is: how do the artistic choices support this point of your argument? I probably say this about twenty times in the lesson! Students are also well versed in the what-how-why process of explanation and analysis, so can guide themselves through the technical analysis aspect (zooming into individual words, zooming out to wider meanings.) The analysis of artistic choices is crucial in evidencing student’s points in relation to the debate.

A key skill which students need to assimilate is the use of hesitancy and ability to express the level of their conviction in their phrasing. Students need to be clear about how to assess the credibility of each point and make a comment about how far their point/evidence supports the statement in the question. Using the modal verbs ‘could’, ‘may’ and ‘might’ etcetera is useful, and drawing attention to expressing levels of certainty has been helpful in creating evaluative statements. I have been guiding my students into using phrases such as ‘arguably, the most convincing evidence could be…’, ‘it is likely that…’ and ‘the writer may be insinuating that…’ This adds a much needed sense of thoughtfulness and implied consideration to their arguments. Sensitively deployed arguments are, of course, the most convincing! Perfecting the phrases that show evaluative thinking have been the trickiest aspect of this question to hone so far.

Some examples of how to frame evaluative statements:

  • perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence is…
  • a relevant argument in support of the statement is…
  • this point could be said to lack validity because…
  • the idea that …. could negate the idea that…
  • is is debatable as to whether the writer intended…
  • … is in alignment with the idea that…

An example of evaluating the validity of a point is in this snippet from a model essay: (taken from an response to the statement ‘the narrator seems to be suffering emotionally‘, using an extract from The Girl on the Train.) Note that italicized sections are the evaluative elements of the answer.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that the narrator is ‘suffering emotionally’ lies in her descriptions of everyday objects. The narrator describes a shoe as ‘lonesome’, a pile of clothes as ‘abandoned’ and also uses the adjective ‘discarded’. These diction choices are interesting ways to describe the objects, as it affixes melancholy emotions to inanimate objects, and it is conceivable that she could be using such language as it mirrors her situation and/or state of mind. The narrator’s fixation on the ‘abandonment’ of everyday objects could indicate that she herself has been abandoned and feels lonesome. It is certainly indicative of her distressed state of mind and therefore would support the claim that she is ‘suffering emotionally’.

On the other hand, it is arguable that rather than ‘suffering emotionally’, the narrator is simply a bored and tired commuter. The narrator describes how the words in newspaper ‘blur in front of her eyes’. The verb ‘blur’ could indicate her tiredness, and therefore her lack of ability to focus on the words. However, this point could be said to lack validity due to the fact that her eyes could have been ‘blur[ring]’ with tears, or the notion that she cannot focus on the words because she is so preoccupied with something else. It seems more likely that this inability to focus is symptomatic of emotional distress.

Finally, the conclusion is the only place in which the students are allowed to write in the first person. They summarise their position in relation to the statement, drawing upon the range of evidence explored in their answers.

Thanks for reading!

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