How to Approach a Literature Exam Question that contains an extract

Writing an essay is a composite process that is made up of multiple interdependent components. Here is a list of some of the things that a student typically needs to be able to do or know in order to succeed:

  1. They need to write fluently
  2. They need to be able to use accurate analytical sentence structures
  3. They need to use precise vocabulary
  4. They need a sophisticated understanding of the text

In addition to this, they need to know how to efficiently approach an examination question so that they answer the question fully (focussing on extract and the text as a whole), plan their answer and ensure that their analysis is conceptual, abstract and led by the big ideas within the text.

Here is the approach that I use:

STEP 1: Read the bit above the extract

This tells the student where in the text the extract has been taken from, allowing them to better understand it when they read it.

STEP 2: Read the Question and Underline the key words

This focusses them on what is actually being asked. It is worth spending a lot of time modelling how to deal with questions that have tricky wordings. Students need to be shown how to consider the key words in the broadest possible sense. If the question is How does Stevenson present the temptations faced by Dr.Jekyll, students should be shown that the focus of their essay can and probably should be much wider than one solitary character. They could write about society, Utterson, duty, transgression, Enfield, reputation, gossip and many other things that could be linked to this idea.

STEP 3: Read the extract and find stuff that fits the question

Students should find some useful evidence that fits the question and underline it. Some students may want to annotate here; others may not. It is difficult to say exactly how many pieces of evidence they should find but 3-5 pieces is often enough.

STEP 4: List Big Ideas

This is the start of the actual paragraph planning. Sophisticated essays will be led by big ideas and students should be taught these so that they are able to practice writing about them. Here are some of the possible big ideas connected with Jekyll and Hyde:

In the left-hand column are question words that these ideas could fit. One way of ensuring that students develop flexible knowledge that they can transfer to the widest possible range of relevant contexts is by demonstrating the similarity across different tasks.

STEP 5: Write Analytical Introduction

An analytical introduction (explained fully in this post) acts as a plan as well as ensuring that students keep their essay pitched at the level of big ideas. Here is an example that uses the big ideas above:

Each of the numbered, underlined parts will form a section of their essay.

STEP 6: Write about the extract

After writing their introduction, students should then write about the extract, ensuring that their focus fits the question and using the evidence that they found in STEP 3.

STEP 7: Write about the big ideas listed in the introduction.

Students may not write about all of these and this is ok: they may find that as they are writing, they are able to develop some of the big ideas in more depth than they initially realised.

Additional Points

  • While the approach above is focussed on questions with extracts, it works with questions that do not have extracts too: just remove steps 3 and 6.
  • I don’t think (you may disagree) that there is much to be gained from writing a conclusion in GCSE literature essays as you can fulfil the top band of the mark scheme without including one.

Like with most other things that we teach, this approach is most efficiently taught through explicit instruction and backwards fading, beginning with the teacher showing students how to do it before asking them to complete some then all of the steps themselves. Once students have learned the approach: practice, practice, practice!

Next Post: Teaching and Practising Big Ideas: Jekyll and Hyde


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