Something that worked with AQA Language Paper 1 Question 3.

AQA Paper 1 Question 3
This seems to be the question that worries everyone. Except for the monster that is Question 4 on Paper 2, it seems to have baffled students and teachers alike. For one of my groups, nothing I tried was working. At the end of my tether with it, one day, as I was modelling for what felt like the six thousandth time, out of nowhere came an idea. Much like those that arrive in my brain in the shower, it seems to be one of my better ideas. It worked brilliantly. I’d like to thank my brain for being 18 months late to the party.

One of the areas that seemed to be problematic for mine was in contextualising their comments and showing a clear understanding of the extract as a whole. To address this, I asked them to look at the first sentence of each paragraph, not in terms of its structure, but in terms of its focus and content. I used this extract, Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby:

Starting with the first sentence of the extract, we identified the focus as being on the character of Gatsby.
We carried on, with the focus of each of the paragraphs. The next one revealed a focus on fruit. The one after, caterers. Finally, I asked them to identify the content of the last sentence.

This particular extract, combined with this focus, worked brilliantly in moving students away from the “makes you want to read on” that I was frustratingly accustomed to seeing from answers on this question.

We looked at the chain of events: the neighbour, the fruit, the caterers and the guests. By looking at the content specifically, students were then able to draw out an answer to “why”.

Here are some of the points my group made, word for word:

• The focus on the neighbour at the start of the extract could imply that he is an important character to the narrator.

• The change of focus from the neighbour to the fruit could show the extravagance of the character because it’s the next thing that the narrator focuses on, it could be that as soon as you see the main character, it’s like their extravagance is the first thing you notice about them and it could be that the narrator is almost fascinated by this as well, which is why it’s positioned in this way.

• The focus then changes to the caterers and when they arrive, which is often “At least once a fortnight” which could show that the narrator is often watching these events as an outsider and because this is the third focus, it might be that the narrator is not involved.

• The final sentence ends with a focus on the guests. The focus is on his criticism of them, which could suggest that the extract is building up to this. The narrator mocks the people who are attending and by building up towards this, he emphasises he feelings towards them.

Now, I’m not saying these are perfect, but they are a great deal more contextualised than previous attempts they’d done. Time and time again, students weren’t contextualising their comments on the effects of the structural choices, and this really helped them to tweak this. Their marks were moving up, from Band 1 responses to some Band 3 responses. It also meant that students were able to comment more on the extract as a whole, summarising how it develops, alongside making analytical comments as to the effects.
From this, I’ve been better able to develop students’ answers more. They’re thinking less about how to make contextualised comments, because they have a clear model and process to follow. Having a process to follow has, I think, eased the cognitive load and allowed them to be able to focus more on their analysis. Previously, I’ve been guilty of bombarding them with structural terminology. A step back from this has renewed their focus on how they could approach it in the exam. I think AQA have been really clear, recently, that phrases like “focus” and “shift” can be used in answers that score highly. Their clarity on this has helped me strip back the approach – it’s about what’s said, where, and why. Using “What, where and why” is refreshingly simple and proving effective for my students on this question. I’m certainly seeing far less of the “the writer makes you interested so you read the next bit” comments. And that can only be a good thing, right?

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