Making the text do the work

By York Notes Series Consultant, Mike Gould


How you can simplify learning and resources and still deliver

In this blog, our York Notes consultant and former Head of English and Drama, Mike Gould, explores six ways to 'make the text do the work': simplifying learning while still making a big impact. The blog includes a downloadable PDF guide for use in the classroom or at home and offers activities around one text to boost students' English Language and Literature studies.

Download the PDF guide here

English teachers have always been fantastic at ‘making do’ – whether that’s finding a use for that old poetry anthology at the back of the book cupboard or tweaking a worksheet for a different age or ability range. And, when time is short, keeping things simple for learners – and for yourself – seems a sensible move. One particular approach is to try to build as much as you can around a single text, thus reducing the need for multiple resources. Here’s how you might do it.

1. Choose a short ‘unseen’ prose text (extract or full piece)

Why? Apart from being good practice for GCSE English Language papers or any other test, encouraging students to engage with an unseen prose piece may also help you generate some outcomes you might use in lieu of mocks or moderated work. If it is a text that is also freely available online (for example, one that is out of copyright) then students can also access it independently, and if part of a longer text, they can also read it in full, should they so wish.

2. Choose a text that has ‘cross-over’ potential

Why? Choosing such a text will help develop skills in both English Language and Literature. It can shed light on or explore themes, contexts or relationships similar to those of one or more of your class’s set texts at the same time as supporting students’ wider language skills and building their cultural knowledge. For example, you could use Katherine Mansfield’s short story 'A Cup of Tea' which tells the story of an encounter between a privileged young married woman and a street girl. Published in 1922, it is not far removed in time from Priestley’s An Inspector Calls and interrogates some similar issues of social class and gender.

3. Use the text for both critical study and creative response

Why? By choosing a brilliant author – such as Katherine Mansfield – you are modelling great writing. Rather than simply approaching the text as a critical response piece or focusing on one aspect (such as use of language), look at the text’s qualities as a whole – how it establishes voice and viewpoint, how dialogue advances the story, how relationships are portrayed. Then you can move seamlessly to focusing on a core aspect – as an exam question might (e.g. language, structure, etc.) – and then on to creative responses, for example asking students to write their own story about an encounter between two people from different worlds. Or if you have only provided an extract, ask them to write their own conclusion to the story, trying to maintain a similar style. This latter task is especially good for getting ‘inside’ the language, thus feeding back into critical understanding.

4. Use the text as a more focused window onto a set text

Why? It is great to choose a text with the cross-over potential mentioned at the start, but what you do with it is key. One possibility is to ask questions: How similar is the relationship of the girl and the narrator to that between Sheila and Eva/Daisy in An Inspector Calls? Or How are the poor represented in ‘A Cup of Tea’ compared with in A Christmas Carol?

5. Use the text to expand horizons

Why? No text exists in a vacuum. Once you have established knowledge around the author, genre, context, themes or language you can introduce links to other works by the same author (in Mansfield’s case it could be The Garden Party which also explores ideas of class) or, if students have only studied an extract from the text, the whole of the original story. You could also supply links to social or historical contexts relevant to the story. Research or project work which takes students off in different directions can be great for maintaining engagement. In the case of ‘A Cup of Tea’, the main character is partly modelled on one of Mansfield’s own friends, the writer Elizabeth von Arnim, who has her own interesting story.

6. Use the text as a blank template for exploration

Why? You can do some or all of the above, or take a much lighter approach, allowing your students to choose how to respond. While this goes against some of our better instincts as teachers, it may be one that reaps rewards for some learners who either have the confidence to work with the text, or find working within strict guidelines challenging. So, for these students you could offer them a menu of choices: ‘respond creatively to the text – for example, in art or written form (e.g. poem, story, etc.) – as inspired by any aspect of it’; ‘write a short commentary explaining what you think the text’s key themes are’; ‘create a dramatic reading of the text’ – and so on.

The key to the success of building so much work around one short piece is to choose your text well, and to allow for multiple types of response. Creating a project-style approach in which you give students a range of tasks around the text to get on with, supported at appropriate times, may also reduce the need to direct the learning at every stage. Cast the net wide, and hopefully you will find a rich catch.

To download a PDF guide and set of activities on ‘A Cup of Tea’ which students might use as a springboard, click below.

Download the PDF guide here

For more support on English Language and Literature revision check out our Revision and Exam Practice guides. Want to help your students get to grips with An Inspector Calls or A Christmas Carol? We’ve got you covered with our range of text-specific Study Guides, Workbooks and Practice Tests.

Mike Gould is a former Head of English and Drama and author of over 150 books and other educational resources. He has worked as a lecturer in English and education at Brighton University.