Teaching Question 4 (Paper 2, AQA GCSE English Language) PART ONE

My initial approach to Question 4, Paper 2 was twofold:

  1. I wanted my students to have a secure understanding of the broad differences in attitudes between nineteenth century (C19) and twentieth/twenty-first century (C20-21);
  2. and I knew I needed to engage in some explicit vocabulary instruction, so that pupils would be able to attribute names to the conceptual differences between the time periods, and also have a bank of vocabulary which helps them to adequately describe the writers’ viewpoints/perspectives.

As an introduction to Question 4, I used a classic dictionary race to get students to define the following terms*:

  • Conservative
  • Liberal
  • Descriptive
  • Prosaic

Knowing the definitions of these concepts led nicely into a discussion whereby students were able to express ideas and share examples about what they would expect to find in older/modern texts. I really enjoy these discussions because of the cross-curricular links with history and politics and I’m always amazed by the knowledge and political insight of students when these discussions are facilitated. That being said, the discussion was lead quite heavily, and I prompted the discussion by considering the stylistic differences between Dickens and Priestley. We also considered potential differences relating to: the treatment of women; the illegality of homosexuality; the idea of empire and subsequent issues of race and culture; rigid social hierarchies; and finally it was interesting to discuss the extent to which these issues are still present in society today (and how such attitudes could be detected in texts.)

In order to reign this discussion back in, students completed a table where they noted ideas about what they would expect from C19/C20-21 texts (language and perspectives.) The table below doesn’t really do justice to the classroom discussion, (nor does it properly acknowledge the fluidity of concepts) but it should give an impression of the general conversations that took place.

Despite the boxing of the two time periods, students were warned that these were tentative predictions, and should not be applied to the texts in a blanket fashion – this was just a way to get thinking about potential differences.

Next, I gave the students this list:

We then turned our attention to thinking about writers’ perspectives upon the events that they describe. We explored two texts; a BBC news report on the famine in Sudan, and a journalist’s report on the famine in Ireland in the late 1840’s.

The single most important thing for students to be able to gauge more subtle perspectives seemed to be the ability to discern fact from opinion, and considering what perspectives are presented when opinions are presented as facts.

Students were able to discern that the journalist in the 1840’s used much more descriptive language, yet seemed far less emotionally attached to the events being described. Students were able to bring in some very interesting points about C19 inclinations towards social hierarchy and less compassion towards the poor, as they have witnessed in Dickens. In the 2008 news report, much more direct and factual language was used, including many more cultural references, and these language factors revealed the urgency of the situation and was indicative of how many people wanted to intervene and assist the situation. This meant that although the text seemed less compassionate on the surface, it actually contained much more sympathetic viewpoints. Students were able to make some valid points about direct language being appropriate for wider audiences and the need for newspapers to appear less biased and to continuously cite facts and statistics to prove events. Overall, students were able to use words such as ‘reserved’, ‘forward’, ‘detached’, ‘distant’, and ‘concerned’ to describe the writer’s perspective in relation to the events that they are describing.

*Note: students were warned against applying ‘conservative’ to C19 in a blanket fashion. They were made aware that the concepts in the introduction activity were not binary opposites, nor were they concretely attached to either time period. They simply opened up ideas/concepts to debate. 

Next post: the process of constructing comparative paragraphs for responding to this question.

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