I’ve often had students say to me that they find it difficult to revise for English Literature. I do have some sympathy for this as it isn’t as straightforward as it is for many other subjects. This post contains some ideas they could use to prepare for the English Literature exams.
- Focus on writers’ ideas and themes
Every question in the Literature exam links to the ideas and themes that the writer is trying to communicate, but students frequently fall into the trap of talking about characters as if they are real. It is essential that they see characters as methods of communication of ideas and themes, rather than real people.
One method I’ve used to help students focus on this is for them to create a mind map of each character from the Literature set texts. They then add as much detail as they can about how the writer uses that character to communicate their ideas and themes.
To develop this they could plan an exam question using the information from their mind maps.
- Focus on language, structure and form
Although a good Literature response can be written based solely on language, it is important for students not to ignore structure and form. They need to be clear on what these terms mean. Here is a video I’ve created with a poetry focus to help them with that:
Once they are clear on the terms, I’d again ask them to mind map or discuss ideas for each using a past paper question.
To develop this give students a past paper question and ask them to write a paragraph for each of the terms.
- Learning Quotations
Many students panic about this, but my advice to them is to learn quotations which are short, focused and can be used to explore more than one idea or theme.
For example, the four word quotation from Mrs Birling in An Inspector Calls, “Girls of that class”, can be used to explore a huge range of ideas and themes that Priestley was communicating to his audience.
Once they have their list they can create flashcards, stick them to the fridge, record them, repeat them, test each other and so on. I like to have a quotation with a word missing written up as they enter the room to get them thinking at the start of each lesson.
Again a mind map or notes to link each of these quotations to the ideas of the writers and themes would be a really useful revision activity.
- Using a variety of approaches
It is key to remember that, if you are of a “certain age” like I am, it is likely that your students learn in a different way to you. Although note taking, mind maps and similar should play a very important role in exam preparation, students today have a huge range of exciting options available to them. Technology can be harnessed for collaboration, digital notes and creation of revision materials. If your students are similar to mine and seem to be reluctant to remove their headphones podcasts can be a brilliant resource. GCSEpod provide revision podcasts for the Literature texts. They guide students towards focusing on what will really help them in the exam in an accessible way. Audiobooks can be a fantastic resource too. Recordings of most of the set texts can be found for free on YouTube. Although you have to pay, Audible has some fantastic recordings too. It has just released the definitive Holmes collection narrated by Stephen Fry. I got a little too excited about this!
- Past papers
Not the most glamorous of options but arguably the best. I try to avoid sending students off with a past paper to complete as I’ve never had a 100% return rate under those circumstances! I train my students to approach their use of past papers in the following stages:
Stage 1 – Work through the paper taking as much time as you need. Use the texts, notes and plan each response carefully. This should begin to increase confidence.
Stage 2 – On another paper take one question at a time. Make sure a reasonable period of time is left between attempting each. During this process reduce the support by taking away either notes or the text. Aim to complete the questions under timed conditions.
Stage 3 – Full response under timed conditions. Ask students to complete this process at least twice before the real exams.
If the stages above are followed, the student should have developed a reasonable confidence in tackling the exams and know where their strengths and weaknesses are.
To develop this they could self-assess their responses using the mark scheme, add to their notes where they felt the gaps in their knowledge occurred and have a go at writing their own questions.
I always tell my students that planning responses, along with completing past papers, is one of the most useful forms of revision they can do.
Ask them to write own Literature question (or find a poem) and write a detailed plan of what they would include. I ask them to include their topic sentence (to get them used to “getting started”), the quotation they would use (which always has to be 10 words or fewer) and then bullet point all the ideas they could include. I ask them to aim for an absolute minimum of five bullet points.
At the end of each planned paragraph ask them to make sure it is fully focused on the question. Some students tend to write a good first paragraph then drift off, telling me everything I ever needed to know (and lots of things I didn’t) about Lady Macbeth. Keeping a tight and relevant focus will go a long way in the exam.
Finally, I advise my students to complete a quick version of this in the exam – just a quick list of bullet points or a mini mind map of where they are going to take their response. As an examiner you can generally see that the students who have taken five minutes to consider where their response will go get better marks.
I know how stressful this point of the year is so I hope that you find some of these ideas useful.