Studying unseen fiction (part 1)

 

garden-gnome-523380_640One of the real pleasures of teaching CIE iGCSE Literature this year was preparing students for analysis of unseen prose fiction. Unlike the Language counterpart – the prose fiction selected by Cambridge have always unusual, interesting and challenging.

The new English Language GCSE sticks unseen fiction back in the game from this September and whether you have chosen a board that does contemporary or old, it will be something to tackle.

It’s a bit different, but the same as well.

different

Prose extracts whether they are from short or long fiction provide a unique opportunity to test students independent inference and deduction skills. After all, we aren’t in the room to clarify plot, character, themes and purpose. Nor is there the typical Unit 1 shouty headline and garish picture choice to help guide understanding.  Students are presented with part of a text, rather than a whole. They are literally in medias res.

How did I work it out?

Culture of strong readers

Now is this time – more than ever before – to look at the culture of reading in your school. It is clear that students who are strong readers – whether they read extensively for pleasure or not – will be more successful than those who aren’t. I have written before about the importance of developing readers who are confident. In this new exam, we cannot risk students who stumble through sentences struggling to decode individual words at the loss of whole passage meaning.

But how, here are a few things I have tried:

  1. Talk a lot about what I read. I don’t just mean the obligatory Miss L is reading posters. I have used whole school assembly time to talk about reading, struggling with reading, about books.  I regularly start my lessons with a book review, a mini-read (the bit just before the oh-shit moment is always a good one to read), a book trailer. Talk about books a lot.
  2. Article of the week. This is something else that I have written on before. The idea from Kelly Gallagher was first implemented to build cultural knowledge – to get students to think about current issues, to help them understand the world they are growing up. For part of the year – I did this. It resulted in some of the best classroom conversations I have ever had. See here for one.
    The idea is that each week you set an article for a homework task and students respond to it with some reflective writing. This can work just as well with prose fiction extracts and in fact, although I loved the discussions that resulted from the non-fiction articles I set, I loved even more the learning that resulted from the prose extracts.

Teaching unseen prose fiction – what, how and maybe why?

The process seemed pretty simple to me, at the beginning. We need to be able to pick up any extract and say what was going on, how the writer created these goings and why.

So working out what is happening in an unseen text is the first port of call. Basic comprehension seems obvious enough. Yet we don’t often tackle it in KS3 anymore, not cold, without any surrounding prior knowledge. In terms out that actions and events are easily misinterpreted.

Here is the process we came up with (minus the exam question hoo-ha):

  1. Read the text. Read it again. Read it a third time.
  2. Write a bullet summary of the WHAT covering – characters, events, relationships.  WHAT the writer is doing.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it? I challenge you to try it – perhaps even with this CIE old exam paper. Unseen lit paper – example 1 It’s amazing what different versions of the conversation between Dr Aziz and Mrs Moore I got. Were they arguing, were they flirting, are they friends, strangers?

We spent more time than expected get good and accurate at reading the WHAT in unseen texts.  This is where my prose fiction article of the week came in useful. But also 100s of paragraph long extracts as starter tasks.

Next came how – HOW is the writer are doing the WHAT?

    1. We would always start with dialogue for prose fiction, CIE are pretty reliable at choosing an extract with good dialogue.
      How does the dialogue reveal character, relationships?
      How does the dialogue move the action forward?
      How does the dialogue reveal history, background?
    2. Setting is another one that students can get their mitts on with relative ease – how does the writer bring the place to life?
    3. Mood is less easy if you haven’t done prior work on it. Mood in prose fiction is often connected with those awful vague adjectives like gloomy and eerie. I think mood and reader’s reaction are also sometimes confused.   This blog does a better job of explaining it –  I use the list of mood words here to study sentences and short extracts before we tackle longer ones. I have some lesson resources to share on mood shortly.
    4. Language, form and structure come more naturally – they are ingrained in our curriculum and students tend to be happy finding techniques. The above groundwork should ensure that they have something to say once they have found them.
    5. Themes and ideas can be another tricky one – while it might be possible to identify the theme of mortality or death in an extract concerning a funeral, it would be very difficult for a student to infer where the writer might be going with that idea.  We don’t have a long view.  We can hedge our bets “The writer might be suggesting” but before we go this far, we have to ask what are the expectation of analysing themes in an unseen text? It is not the same as looking at science and religion in Jekyll & Hyde.

Why – why is the writer up to all this?

To adequately look at themes and ideas, we must tackle the WHY. And if I’m honest – this was the area that I found most difficult. We are used to teaching the writer’s purpose, intention. After all every text has a message – we know that.   So tricky was the why, that it deserves it’s very own blog post. Soon, promise.

Thanks for reading

ps. You may want to ignore all of the above after results day next week.

 

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