Book Review Revise the English and English Literature Anthology for Aqa a Gcse

I must emphasise at the outset of this review that Revise the English and English Literature Anthology for AQA A is intended for pupils taking GCSE English examinations, but only those who are studying the AQA Specification A as is clear from the title. (AQA is an examination board.) Pupils will be supplied by their schools with the AQA Anthology itself (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0198318812); the Anthology is not available in online or offline bookshops, but if you did need to obtain a copy, you might find one on Ebay.

Tony Childs’ book is therefore intended to assist with revision of the Anthology, by taking the poems and short stories one by one and asking questions that will guide pupils in the understanding and analysis of the works. The book opens with a six-page introduction that explains the aims of the book, how it can help with revision, and how to prepare for the examination. The summary stresses the importance of reading all the texts again before attempting to answer the questions in this book. There is also some guidance on sitting the examinations themselves, giving details of how long they last, how many questions there are, how to make a good choice of question, and how to plan an answer before starting to write.

The book is then divided into two main sections, Section 1 on English and Section 2 on English Literature: all pupils study at least half the poems in Section 1; all pupils study some of the poetry in Section 2; and some pupils study the prose in Section 2.

Section 1 English
All pupils have to study this section of the Anthology, although some schools concentrate on only Cluster 1 or Cluster 2, each of which contains eight poems. In the examination, there is a choice of two questions, one featuring poems from Cluster 1 and the other poems from Cluster 2. A pupil who has only studied one of the clusters will therefore not have a choice of questions. Cluster 1 contains poems by poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Chinua Achebe and Grace Nichols, whilst Cluster 2 has works by John Agard, Moniza Alvi and Tom Leonard amongst others. Some of these are written in non-standard English, and most are by poets of non-British origin.

Section 1 briefly explains how the English Anthology fits into the course, and then goes on to discuss what the examiners are looking for over the following two pages. It then looks at the poems one by one, giving a little information about the author followed in some cases by a glossary, and then the main ‘Read and revise’ set of questions. The questions are preceded by two or three sentences giving a reminder to read the poem and pointing out a basic feature of it, for example, ‘Notice particularly the changing length of sentence’ for Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘Blessing’. To give an example of the type of questions presented in this book, for Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s ‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes’, Childs asks, ‘Which details in the description of the scavengers contrast with the people in the Mercedes? Look for words and phrases, and think about their effect.’ Whilst the book does not provide answers to these questions, they will guide pupils in their reading of the poems and show them the points that they need to look for. The questions are followed by ‘Final thoughts’, a brief summing up, for example ‘Read the poem again. Much of the poem is at least half-joking, and is like a song. How does this change at the end?’ sums up John Agard’s ‘Half-Caste’. Finally, there is a table suggesting which poems in the collection could be compared to the one in question.

After all the poems have been dealt with, Childs discusses how to go about comparing poems from different cultures and traditions. He takes ‘Night of the Scorpion’ and ‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes’ and draws up a plan giving notes on how they could be compared in terms of meanings and interpretations; linguistic, structural and presentational devices; language variations; and finally place and culture. The following two pages on Structuring a response to Poems from Different Cultures and Traditions considers the question ‘Compare the ways in which the poets present people in Night of the Scorpion and one other poem of your choice from the selection.’ It offers clear advice in the form of bullet points as well as a table of detailed notes. Pupils are always advised to end by stating which poem of the two they prefer and why.

Section 2 English Literature
All pupils have to study some poems from the Pre-1914 Poetry Bank; alongside these, some pupils study the poems of Seamus Heaney and Gillian Clarke, whilst others study those of Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. Most examination questions involve comparing two poems, either one by Heaney with one by Clarke or one by Duffy with one by Armitage, and referring in addition to two poems from the Pre-1914 Bank. The Pre-1914 Poetry Bank includes works by poets such as Walt Whitman, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, William Blake and William Wordsworth.

Section 2 opens, similarly to Section 1, by showing how the English Literature Anthology fits into the course and explaining what the examiners are looking for. The Assessment Objectives are explained, which include responding to texts critically, sensitively and in detail; exploring how language, structure and form contribute to meaning; and exploring relationships and comparisons within and between texts. Childs notes that examiners will be looking for an understanding of the texts and an ability to think about them and compare one with another.

The poems of Heaney, Clarke, Duffy, Armitage and those of the Pre-1914 Poetry Bank are then looked at in detail, one by one, in a way similar to that of Section 1. Questions include ‘The person in the poem is violent. Find as many violent actions, thoughts or intentions as you can in the poem’ (for Duffy’s Education for Leisure), or ‘In lines 4-6, find two examples of things being unusually sad and affecting one stated, one implied’ (for Heaney’s Mid-Term Break). Some of the questions are broken down into several bullet points relating to the same aspect of the poem. Final thoughts sum up each poem, and again there is a table suggesting which other poems are suitable for comparison.

A sub-section on Comparing poems/ Structuring a poetry response explains a little about the choice of questions offered in the examination and what candidates might be asked to compare, for instance feelings, ideas, and the poets’ styles of writing. A plan is given in the form of a table for the question ‘Compare the ways that poets write about nature in four or more of the poems you have studied. You should write about The Field Mouse by Gillian Clarke and Storm on the Island by Seamus Heaney, and two poems from the Pre-1914 Poetry Bank’. Childs selects Tennyson’s The Eagle and Clare’s Sonnet from the Pre-1914 Bank. In the plan, one column is dedicated to each poem, and notes are then made on aggression connected with nature, feelings caused by nature, other issues, language, structure and form.

Prose follows the poetry: many pupils study a novel as a set text for English Literature, such as Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, but the short stories in the AQA Anthology provide an alternative to the novel. Pupils do, however, have to compare two short stories from the selection in the examination. There are seven short stories altogether, the authors of which are Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Cary, Graham Swift, Leslie Norris and Michele Roberts all modern or contemporary writers.

Revision guidance for the Anthology Short Stories is presented in the same way as it is for the poems. Each story is looked at in turn through a series of questions (preceded again by a brief note on the author and a glossary where necessary). Final thoughts are followed by two examples of examination questions which require the story to be compared in some way to one of the others in the collection.

Following the detailed analysis of each story, Childs gives guidance on comparing short stories with regard to both content and style. Structuring a Prose Response on the following two pages shows how to ‘Compare two stories where characters face difficult situations’. Taking Lessing’s ‘Flight’ and Roberts’ ‘Your Shoes’, Childs defines the four main points to consider and shows how to make a plan in table form giving notes on these four points.

Sample answers and commentaries give three responses to the question ‘Doris Lessing uses pigeons to represent something else. Write about how she does this, and how the author of one other story in the Anthology uses the same technique.’ One of the sample answers was awarded a Grade A, one a Grade C, and the third a Grade E. Each sample answer is followed by a commentary.

The Glossary on the final page gives definitions of terms such as alliteration, paradox, refrain and syntax.

This is probably the best book available to assist in studying and revising the AQA Anthology. Whilst it does not provide answers to the questions asked, the nature of these questions gives a clear idea of what needs to be considered for each poem or short story and assists in giving a sound understanding. Even an able pupil who understands a poem or story well, however, may not be confident in comparing it with another work in the Anthology, and Childs’ book gives plenty of advice in this area. There is a bonus for those studying the poems of Cluster 1 for English, as well as those studying the poems of Heaney and Clarke for English Literature, as some of these are focused on when showing how to structure a response to the poems.

I have used this book on a one-to-one basis both when introducing a pupil to a poem or short story for the first time and for the purposes of revision. I have also lent it to one or two more able pupils who were aiming at a Grade A for English and English Literature, and they were able to gain a stronger insight into the Anthology by using this book on their own. I do think it would be difficult for a less able pupil to use the book without a tutor or parent guiding them, but for a parent who does wish to help, this is an ideal book. No-one is likely to be using every single sub-section of the book, but even so, if it results in achieving even one grade higher, GBP6.50 seems a small price to pay. I would definitely recommend this book as a study guide or a revision guide for the examinations in question.

Revise the English and English Literature Anthology for AQA A
by Tony Childs
Heinemann, 2002
Paperback, 252 pages
ISBN 0435102885