English Language extracts: Smashing the superficial with Dickens.

29 Mar 2017

left behind

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Charles Dickens ‘Hard Times’

Fine, the facts: in the course of a two hour GCSE exam the students will have one hour, one long 20th century fiction extract (roughly 65-70 lines) to unpick challenging plot and language and hunt down forty marks. This half term my delightful top set Year 10 group have faced this intimidating challenge. In order to facilitate familiarness with how to approach an extract and the style of questions we have had  a diverse range of literary adventures: they recoiled in horror at Winston’s room 101 experience; they created diverse opinions about Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye; they explored the depiction of setting in ‘A Passage to India’. We have ignored the 20th century remit and explored various texts, in part to assist them with the 19th century section of their other GCSE Language examination. Improvements have been made: they can now read for meaning more effectively, they are quicker at writing about the extracts and they can write about language fairly well.

Yet there is are still questions that stump them as we reach the end of the term, questions that evaluate authorial methods and a require their personal response: they are usually phrased in the WJEC Eduqas exam as: what impression does the writer create… Or evaluate how the writer presents…  Or to what extent do you agree the the writer makes us feel sympathy with? The challenge here is an ability to reflect on the nuances of a character or motivations. Repeatedly the students have been superficial and limited in their evaluation of the nature of the character or events. Interestingly I have found that students in the top set are more inhibited when offering views on characters – perhaps it is a fear of being wrong or intellectual credence? Regardless, I need them to be able to recognise the complexity of character, the depth of human motivation and the inherent contradictions in behaviour. Easy then.

Time to delve into the master of character creation: Dickens himself. I need a  figure that can is perfectly crafted and will evoke strong opinions from readers. Welcome to the fold Mr Thomas Gradgrind, the sharp tongued teacher-protagonist in Dickens’s tenth novel ‘Hard Times’.

Students (eagerly?!) strolled into Wednesday’s lesson to  the sounds of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick on the Wall.’ We had a quick fire question session about themes and ideas of the song, introducing them to concepts surrounding education and conflicting ideologies regarding learning (surprise of the week: a die hard Pink Floyd fan lurks in my Year 10 class.) On the board I had written Gradgrind’s surname. We spoke his name in unison a few times, and I asked them to form predictions about his character based on the double alliterative quality of his name. Interesting thoughts but nothing too profound: harsh, controlling, bitter all appeared.

We then looked at the question: what impression does Dickens create of Mr Gradgrind in the extract? (10 marks) I went into full pugnacious probing questioning mode to elicit reminders from them about how to approach this question: use of an overview, focus on the author’s methods and language, range of quotations etc. The image I have led on to remind them on what to consider with this question is this:


The idea is that I am trying to encourage them to do the following:

  1. Take an objective look at the character – mirroring a therapist’s detachment.
  2. Considering the varying influences that impact on their perception of the character.
  3. Think about the complexity of the character, not looking at the superficial but looking at the nuances of character development.
  4. Listen carefully to the character’s dialogue, what does it reveal about them?

I then presented them with the opening of the extract, in part to intrigue them about the character and in part to work on target number four – evaluating what dialogue reveals about character:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

They had three minutes on a timer to record brief notes in their book: what is the method and what is your impression? Note the superficiality of the below:


They shared ideas and by this point there was a degree of interest in his character, so we could build on this by using the next twenty minutes or so to exploring this short extract. I wanted to keep the extract specific so the focus could be on technique and evaluation:

‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, – nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, – all helped the emphasis.

The initial reading is always individual, with students highlighting or underlining words that they are unfamiliar with. This is followed by them turning the extract face down and I pugnaciously probe them on key plot elements of the plot. This has worked well throughout the term in ensuring they are reading carefully and taking in as much as possible in the first read. We then discussed the key vocabulary and defined it in books. For this style of task the students are then paired up to note down their initial annotations about the character then we combine as a class to explore in detail. I also ask them to build up a collection of words in their book that encapsulate his nature.

Once they have had some time to reflect and discuss we then come together as a class. This is when the pugnacious probing comes back into force to try to move beyond the superficial:

“What does this reveal about his character?”

“What method has Dickens employed?”

“What does this depict about this personality?”

“Why has Dickens used that particular adjective?”

I have taken to repeating “why” and “more” in a fairly manic style in these lessons – seeking to encourage them to think in more detail about authorial purpose. They didn’t like it at first but this has become a fairly routine part of lessons. This probing eventually got them to reflect more on the fascinating narrative voice in the extract, with Dickens’s ironic and mocking voice further highlighting Mr Gradgrind’s nature. Two different examples of the final annotations:


Once I was sure that they had a grasp of the complexity of his character and how Dickens had achieved this we moved on to the writing. I wrote the below paragraph with students on the Powerpoint, talking through my thought process and asking them to lead on areas. Rather than writing on the board this gave us more of an opportunity to chop and change elements and dissect exactly how we wanted to approach the question:

Overall the impression of Mr Gradgrind created by Dickens is that he has an archaic and inflexible view of education.  This impression is initially generated through dialogue: “Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts.” Dickens uses repetition of “facts” to emphasise his hard and joyless method of education. This is further embodied by the imperative and short sentence: “Stick to the facts, Sir,” which further embodies his insistence on compliance and rote learning.

We talked about the focus on authorial technique, evidence and a  brief explanation. I then put this off, popped up some sentence openings to give them some direction then set them off for around fifteen minutes. Here is one response:


Now there is some issues here with spelling and clarity (and indeed, the arbitrary section about his name!) but in terms of moving beyond the superficial she employs: “dictatorial, one dimensional, product of Victorian society, archaic, antiquated, pragmatic, patronising, compassion, self-entitled” in her evaluation of how Dickens generates an impression of him. She is also focussed on method and appears to have grasped how Dickens has crafted his writing to enable this impression.

What I now need to do is move away from this structured approach and encourage more independence. Primarily they need to read lots and lots and we need to ensure that we are having lots of evaluative discussion in lessons about how writers are constructing characters and ideas. The walking juxtaposition, therefore, of Gradgrind’s terrified “little vessels” response: ‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’ Thanks for reading, now for a weekend of thirty Year 11’s, a Northumberland castle and lots and lots of revision! Deep breath.




Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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