How to make GCSE literature set texts more accessible for students | Series 1, Episode 5

How to make GCSE literature set texts more accessible

Episode 5

Episode 5 show notes

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Episode 5 transcript

How to make GCSE English literature set texts more accessible for students

It’s the start of a new term. The GCSE English teacher hands out well-worn copies of a classic text. And within half a lesson or so, the book is opened and the analysis, unpicking, scrutinising and questioning of the prose begins. And from that point on, up to half the class is demotivated.

Why does this still happen?

Let’s look at it from the teacher’s point of view. The timetable is so constrained, every single lesson counts. Even a week of disruption to lessons can cause ripples. Teachers dive straight in because they don’t see any other option. And as for the teaching style, many stick to what they know. That might be subliminally reworking their experiences at school, relying on a lecturer’s delivery from a literature degree course, or taking tips from other staff that they’ve observed.

It’s interesting to point out that very rarely are secondary English teachers taught how to teach texts to teenagers. They might be taught what to focus on, which books and plays to teach, and occasionally why we teach them; but rarely is there any focus on how to teach a text effectively.

So many teachers, through no fault of their own, pedal furiously to deliver lessons that haven’t changed in style for 10, 20, 30 years or more.

Place yourself in the student’s shoes. It’s a little like joining a sports team for the first time only to find out that everyone else has already played for years and the coach expects you to reach their level in no time at all. For many students diving into that unknown book feels like a catch-up exercise from the start. It’s demoralising and demotivating.

Teachers are often enthusiastic about the text and wonder why that doesn’t rub off on the students. Imagine there’s a supercar costing millions in the school car park. Students would spot it, identify it, look around it, look through the windows, take selfies with it in the background, and talk about it. Now imagine that the children get told about the car, but instead of going to see it, they study it in class by unpicking the stitching on a tiny patch that’s been removed from the leather seat. That’s what it’s like when the teacher starts analysing the text before the student even knows the story. It’s no use then enthusing that the car or the book is a classic. The moment has gone. The boredom has set in.

The timetable becomes a series of hurdles that cannot be cleared. When the student has to write an essay on the first three chapters in week 2, some, many, or most might start writing before they’ve read or understood the story.

The whole exercise becomes reading for pressure rather than reading for pleasure.
It’s essential that every student knows the story before analysing the text. Without that, any teaching that follows is unlikely to be successful.

So how can we achieve this?

We need to engineer a situation where the students do not feel threatened by the text. A situation where the student looks at the text and thinks they have an advantage. A situation where they say: ‘Oh, I know that story. I know what this book is about.’ This really helps to build confidence and positivity.

The exact resources needed to make this happen will differ from student to student and class to class. It comes down to offering choices and opportunities that respect the students.
For example. A Christmas Carol. A classic text, but rarely a favourite with teenagers. It’s a great story, but not a story that’s easy for many teenagers to understand just from unpicking Dickens’ text 30 minutes at a time around a class. Usborne books has published a fantastic easy-reader version. But it’s aimed at 6-8-year-olds. Reading it will ensure your class of 15 years olds understands the story, but they won’t thank you or respect you. It’s about framing the learning experience.

Take the same text and tell your class they are going to visit Year 2 in the local primary school. Tell each student they need to read the text so that they can share it with a 7-year-old and talk about it. Ask them to prepare a short primary school assembly based on the picture book. There might be the odd teenage grumble but I guarantee every member of the class will know the key elements of the story backwards.

With difficult texts, teens need to be able to absorb the story with minimal effort. Film versions are ideal. There’s a Patrick Stewart-led adaptation that follows Dickens’ text closely. If that’s too boring try the Muppets’ Christmas Carol. Don’t knock it if it adds to your points per pupil average in August. There’s also a great audiobook version narrated by Tom Baker or another one read by Hugh Grant. Ideal for listening to on the bus, in the car, on the train, or in the lesson.

If you know that every student has a clear understanding of the story, teaching can become more flexible and interesting. In the same way, drama rehearsals can be blocked, the text no longer has to be taught chronologically. Teachers can teach thematically, teach the more relevant or interesting parts first, or let the students choose which blocks of the text to look at next.

Parents, try to increase that sense of advantage and being ahead of the game by watching films, seeing a play, reading graphic novel versions, and listening to audiobooks in the holidays before the teaching starts.

How to make an impenetrable GCSE text accessible for your teen child

To round up – find any way to provide a non-threatening, low-effort, confidence-building way to ensure teens know the story before analysing the text. Look for:

  • Film versions.TV adaptations.
  • Plays at the theatre.
  • Audiobooks.
  • Video games, simulations, interactive guides.
  • Graphic novels
  • Study guides, idiot guides, revision guides and crib sheets – see our GCSE English revision page.

In the classroom or at home, retell the story, explain it to a younger child, and try to recreate it as a drama, a short film, or an animation. Debate it, argue about it, critique it.

To develop an enthusiasm for the text, maybe run a themed day where staff and students dress up as the characters. Hot seat the characters, and write letters or messages from one character to another. These might be postcards, texts, Instagram posts, love letters, or divorce demands. Turn the story into a mock trial, a sitcom or a role play.

Above all, make sure that every student knows the story and engages with the story before analysing the text.

Episode 5 credits

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Credits specific to this episode

  • Kevin MacLeod – Bummin on Tremelo – (purchased lifetime extended licensed registered to Tom Tolkien license ID FML-170359-11969).

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About Tom Tolkien

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Tom Tolkien is a highly qualified (BA Hons, PGCE, QTS) children's literature expert and teacher with over 25 years of experience. He has led inset courses, developed curriculum materials, spoken at conferences, advised on longlisting for several international children's literature literature awards and written for educational publishers including contributing to a BETT award-nominated app. Social profiles: Twitter | Linkedin