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The advice in this article was originally written for some of my students who were preparing for the AQA English Paper One examination. However, the information is potentially useful for pupils preparing for any GCSE Non-Fiction/Media English examination, although please bear in mind that it is generally aimed at students taking the Higher Tier paper.
The first paper for English Language is designed to test your ability to analyse non-fiction and media texts. The exam is concerned with the pieces of writing that surround us every day, such as advertisements, newspaper articles and leaflets. These are things that everybody from every social background will read, whereas the literature pieces you study in other areas of English are likely to be encountered by those who have been more highly educated. The exam aims to make you see that English is everywhere around us and that language is being used and manipulated all the time, not just in books. All the extracts will be on very similar topics but contain differences in their layout, language and presentation and the more subtle your analysis of these differences the better your mark will be. The best way to approach the language tasks is through the four key areas of purpose, tone, structure and language.
- Obviously the first thing to do in the exam is to read the piece and make sure that you understand it. However, the next most important thing to think about is the purpose of the text. Have a look at who wrote it, the name may well not mean anything to you but occasionally you might get an article by a famous person (in the Dark Ages when I did my English Language Paper One, one of the extracts was written by Jamie Oliver). You may well be given some biographical information about the person who wrote the article. If this is the case, then use it! Nothing will be on the exam paper if it is not directly useful to the questions you are being asked. Think about why this person may have wanted to write a piece on this topic, what kinds of ideas would he/she be eager to get across? Is the person famous for having a certain set of ideals or principles and could this affect his/her writing? For example, going back to Jamie Oliver, he is famous for being passionately committed to improving children’s eating habits through his work on school dinners. Could this have any impact on the way that he writes about food?
- If looking at the person who wrote it does not help, the next place to try could be thinking about where the piece was published. If it is a newspaper article, see if you are told which newspaper the piece came from. If not, see if there are any visual clues. For example if there is a large picture and not much font on the page then there is a good chance the piece could belong to a tabloid newspaper. Have a think about the work you will have done in earlier years about tabloids and broadsheets. Who is each type of newspaper aimed at? What purpose does each have? If you have an article that looks like it may well have come from a tabloid, then the purpose of the article may be as much to entertain as to inform, whereas a broadsheet article is likely to be far more concerned with getting the facts across to the reader. Being aware of distinctions in purpose like this will lead you into a much more subtle response.
- Of course, the pieces you are given will not just be written articles, there is also a good chance you could be given an advertisement of some kind to look at. Have a think about what product or concept is being advertised and who the target audience of the advert is. In the past you were most likely to get mock ups of a paper leaflet (one year students got an advert that came in the shape of a sick bag!) However, these days there is also a good chance that you might get something that was designed for the internet. When thinking about the purpose of the item in front of you, it could be worth thinking about the audiences the writers are trying to capture with their product choice. Young people might be more likely to come across advertisements online, whereas potentially the older generation might prefer paper-based advertising. It is always important to bear in mind the impact the target audience can have upon the choices made when designing the item.
- As well as the very important question of why a piece has been written, you also need to think about how the writer puts across the point that he/she is trying to make. Tone is something that will be more obvious in some texts than it will in others.
- One good way to gauge the tone of an article is look at the punctuation used. If there are lots of exclamation marks then this might suggest quite a light tone to the article, or that the writer is extremely passionate about what he/she is saying. If there are bullet points used then it suggests that the writer wants to communicate information and it might thus represent a more neutral tone. If there are lots of phrases that have been put into quotation marks then it might suggest that the writer is being sarcastic.
- You may also be able to pick up on some points to do with tone by looking at the type of text that has been used. Large, bold letters suggest a very dramatic tone where the writer wants to make as much impact as possible. Smaller writing implies that the writer wishes to draw the reader in and hint at a more meditative tone.
- Obviously the words and language themselves also present an opportunity to make some comments on tone. If there is a lot of colloquial language used then the writer might be trying to adopt a familiar and informal tone, whereas elevated language will suggest a more serious tone but could also be a sign of mockery. Remember as well that just because a piece of writing is funny, it does not always mean that it is frivolous. Satirical writing will often use humour as a means of making a serious point about something in society. Do not make superficial judgements about tone, remember that to get an A* then examiners are looking for the most subtle responses.
- You may be asked to look specifically at structure as part of the exam question. Analysing structure could involve looking at the physical layout of the item on the page, but it is really referring to the organisation of the ideas in the writing. Remember that every piece you are given in the exam will have a very strong purpose, and the structure will have been carefully thought through in order to enhance this purpose as much as possible. Writers do not just put their ideas down on the page at random; there is a clear logic to everything that they do. In writing this guide I have not just written down everything that I can think of to say about Language Paper One, I have broken my thoughts down and arranged them into different sections, and also used an introduction and conclusion to guide the reader.
- Remember that when you look at how the piece begins you should not just be thinking about the first paragraph. Have a look at the title that has been used. Titles have to be just as carefully thought out as any other part of the writing as this is the first element of the text that will catch the reader’s attention. Once you have got some really strong ideas on this, then turn to the introduction. Look at any devices the writer makes use of in the introduction such as rhetorical questions. Think about what mood and tone the writer creates through the introduction and why he/she includes the things that they do. Do they tell us exactly what their article will be about in the first paragraph or do they keep us in suspense and only slowly reveal details as they move through the text? Think about adverts you have seen on the television where you have absolutely no idea what product is actually been advertised until the last few seconds. See whether you have any items in front of you that do the same thing in writing and consider the effect.
- As you continue to work through the article and look at structure think about the order of the points and how much information is contained in each paragraph. Does the writer use lengthy paragraphs where he/she can work through his/her points and ideas extensively or are the paragraphs succinct, with only a small amount for the reader to digest? Can you easily follow the line of argument running throughout the text or is the writing a bit more digressive? Remember that pieces of writing that aim to inform/persuade/argue may well have very precise structures whereas writing to describe may be a little more artistic and not quite so determined to follow the rules of essay writing.
- Have a look at the technique that the writer employs in order to conclude his/her piece. Does the piece reach an outright and incontrovertible conclusion or are there questions that are left unanswered? Does the piece end suddenly or does the writer spend quite a bit of time working up to a conclusion?
- The chances are that as you look at all the other important areas of non-fiction analysis you will find yourself automatically making comments about the language. However, you may well find yourself answering questions specifically about language. One thing to remember is that language and literature are not mutually exclusive. Some of the terms that you have learnt through the study of literature can also help you write about language. Obviously caesura and enjambement are not that useful but you may well see writers using metaphors, similes, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Just as with literature, it is not enough just to point these out, you must tell us why these devices are needed in order to enhance the writer’s meaning. Remember that language is always doing something; it is never just there to look pretty.
- Another important part of analysing language is learning to distinguish between facts and opinions in writing. Sometimes this is really easy. For example if we are given figures then we know that this is a fact because we can look it up to make sure it is correct. However, sometimes the distinction is more blurred. For example, you might see someone claim that his/her company is the best in the country at doing such and such. This could just be somebody’s opinion but there could also possibly be a poll or some kind of “Top 50” list somewhere out there to support the assertion. Hence it has the potential to be both fact and opinion. You need to be able to recognise when the writer is using facts and opinions in order to manipulate the reader. Remember that just because there are facts used in the article does not mean that everything it says must be true. Facts can be deliberately manipulated in order to give a false impression. For example I am sure you have seen the theatre production advertisements using quotations from newspaper reviews to promote their show. Sometimes you might see a quotation saying “so and so really stood out in this production”. The rest of the quotation might read “which was generally so awful” but the producers have conveniently ignored this part. Be alert to the potential for language to deceive.
In the exam you will be faced with a variety of extracts and several questions to consider. This means that you need to read and work quickly. Unlike some of the other essay questions you do not have time to work into your answer; it needs to be strong from the beginning. Remember you are not under any obligation to attempt the questions in order but it is a good idea to do the question with the least marks first. This will probably be your weakest answer as you are still warming up and getting used to the exam conditions. As you read through the texts have some of the ideas I have mentioned above in mind and take note of places where you could potentially comment on these. This paper is a bit of a stamina test and most people’s least favourite part of the English exams but think of it as a challenge and a chance to prove yourself to the examiner. Remember everything that you have learnt about essay writing from English Literature and apply the same skills. Your answers still need to be well structured and supported with plenty of evidence from the texts. Ultimately you are just dealing with a different kind of literature, the kind that surrounds us every day and that helps us function rather than the kind that we read for pleasure and learning. Nobody will mark you down because you have written an “English Literature answer” rather than an “English Language answer”. They are different factions of the same subject, not polar opposites.