Comparing texts – next steps – GCSE English language

pile-of-books-1024Gary-Roberts-finalThis article is the second in a series written by Mark Roberts, Head of English at Tavistock College. It was originally posted on his own blog.

Last time we looked at general advice for comparison of texts. This blog will look at comparison in more detail by breaking down the steps further.

Before doing this, it’s helpful to pause for a minute and consider the difference between comparing for GCSE English language (current specs: non-fiction; new specs: a combo of ‘literary’ fiction extracts and non-fiction from across the centuries) and GCSE English literature exams (current specs: comparison of poems; new specs: comparison of poems including unseen poetry).

Why does this matter? Well, there’s a big difference between comparing something that you have only just read and something that you’ve been studying for up to two years. All teachers worth their Maldon sea salt, advertise the fact that it’s a good idea to plan your comparisons in advance of a lit exam but I’m not sure they always show explicitly how to do this. (I’ll return to this in my next installment).

However, in lang exams- for example the notorious AQA Q4 on the current spec – you are obviously not going to be able to this in advance, but there are still ways to teach the comparison skill that help avoid shoddy linkage.

There’s a big difference between comparing something that you have only just read and something that you’ve been studying for up to two years.

For the purpose of this blog, let’s start with the unseen stuff on language papers. I said last time that comparing themes/feelings/effect on reader is the most effective way to compare.

On Q4 lang pupils will need to pick out say three quotes from each text, preferably with juicy language features. This is usually not too much of a hardship. The problems begin when you ask pupils to now plan out their comparisons.

At this stage they often complain that they can’t find two that ‘go together’, let alone enough for three meaningful links. This is usually because they are, in my opinion, planning the wrong way round. Or at least the most difficult way round. What pupils need to do it this:

  1. Start with two quotes (one from each source) that contains interesting language features and notable key words. Ones that they feel confident analysing.
  2. Annotate quote 1 briefly (while they are reading the text for the first time ideally), picking out the language feature/key words/word class/sentence form/synonyms or connotations for the key words.
  3. Make sure they include the all important effect(s) on the reader.
  4. Repeat for quote 2.
  5. Only then do they try and find the links: namely, the effect on the reader (or themes or feelings if they struggle with this). Simply put – is the effect different or similar. Hey presto, you’ve got yourself a comparison.
  6. Write up the PEA 1/PEA 2/ Compare.
  7. Repeat for quotes 3 and 4. Then write up. Then do quotes 5 and 6. Then write up. Finished.

The annotations will look something like this:

Doing it this way has the following advantages over trying to spot a general link between the texts and then looking for quotes to support:

  • You get to write about the quotes that you like. The ones that have the best language and, crucially, the ones you understand.
  • It forces you to focus on effect on reader, which is a key skill for language anaylsis as well.
  • You generally make meaningful comparisons (it avoids banal offerings such as ‘this uses a metaphor, this also uses a metaphor’ or ‘Source 1 is positive but Source 3 is negative).
  • It helps you spot opportunities for developed comparisons, like in my example above. Pupils who can reflect on similarities and differences within the same comparison are likely to move into the highest mark band.
  • You compare as you go, throughout the answer, allowing greater opportunity for comparison marks and avoiding forgetting it at the end. After all, this method makes it a central part of your planning.
  • You can compare anything with anything (I call this “apples and oranges” rather than trying to find another citrus fruit). Remember to continually emphasise that contrasts are just as valid as similarities; pupils need to get away from the idea of stuff ‘going together’.

I’ll return to planning comparisons for literature exams soon (with a bit of context thrown in too).

Thanks for reading,


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