Preparing Year 9 for GCSE: demystifying Dickens

27 Jun 2017

are you ready

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”

Benjamin Franklin

There is nothing worse than ending a year feeling like you haven’t managed to “win over” a group. Last year my Year 9 group strolled out of our final lesson and I felt that deflated tug. A troublesome group, they tested me in every single aspect: behaviour management, planning, relationships – the whole cocktail. Many a night was spent tossing and turning about how to approach lessons and individual students. It was my first year in a new school and I found the transition much harder than I imagined, particularly having been much more “established” in my previous school. While it wasn’t a complete disaster (although some lessons certainly were!), there was still a nagging sense as the year reached its close that I hadn’t cracked it with them.

At the time it was difficult, but looking back I learned a huge amount from it. This year one of my aims has been to positively learn from this experience and try to sharpen lots of aspects of my Year 9 teaching. Luckily two lower ability Year 9 groups sprung up on my timetable at the start of the year. While there is still much to do and much to build on, there have been a range of positive steps forward this year.

Yet as we reach the close of the year I still worry that they are going to struggle with the demands of GCSE. We are finishing the term with a nineteenth century fiction unit, looking to combine language question skills with confidence in tackling more challenging literature. Among other extracts, we have had “ape like fury” adventures with ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, looking at how Hyde is presented in two extracts from the novel: Hyde Extracts.

We are now reaching the end of three weeks or so of exploring Dickens. These students will be studying ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the start of GCSE, so the idea here is that the fear factor around Dickensian language is slightly reduced. Instead at the end of this unit they will hopefully have more positive associations with Dickens. We have also done a series of ‘Victhomian’ research tasks (who would have thought the remarkably dull surname Thom would have so much literary potential?!). This helps to build a conception of Victorian society for them, which they will have to link ‘A Christmas Carol’ to at GCSE. We have looked at the following:

  1. How Dickens builds fear between Pip and Magwitch in ‘Great Expectations’ and the presentation of Miss Havisham: Great Expectations extracts
  2. How the formidable Mr Creakle is presented in ‘David Copperfield’: David Copperfield extract. We then compared him with Mr Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’, using a similar lesson to the one I describe in this post. This led into some interesting comparisons about draconian teachers!
  3.  Last week we explored ‘Oliver’ looking at the classic extract, “Please sir can I have some more?” Oliver
  4. This week we are spending a couple of lessons on Scrooge, building up some interest in the novel for the start of GCSE.

To say they have been doing Oliver style begging for more Dickens would be a slight overstatement, but I think there has been a degree of interest and engagement in this Dickensian character led lucky dip. We have done lots of acting out scenes and combining clips from film versions to generate interest. Each section has been combined with some research tasks into Victorian society: on education, poverty, homelessness etc.

Yet when we reached ‘Oliver’ last week I had one of those rather depressing marking moments. Marking is never euphoric at the best of times, but a close examination of the range of ten mark questions we had been practising: what impression do you have of characters/ how does Dickens build tension etc, were all rather vague and waffly. Students were obsessed with noting techniques and explaining how the reader responds to characters. They also really struggled to cover a range of points in the time available.

Then a couple of splendid posts arrived in the Twittersphere to solve all of my educational fretting: Chris Curtis’ delightfully entitled ‘Turning the Indicators on’ and Dave Grimmett’s ‘The Problem with Techniques’. Often due to the maze of information and posts on Twitter it can be easy to forgot how much value it can have in the classroom and for students. I will often read something then it will vanish into the internet wasteland, without doing the important part of translating it into teaching practice. So I decided to use these posts in relation to the Oliver extract with Year 9. Chris Curtis asks the following pertinent questions in his post:

What if we utilised indicative content more in lessons? What if it was a regular part of the teaching? What if we are more transparent about the range of ideas a student could provide for a question?

The purpose of this is to encourage students to improve their ability to make a range of points when looking at texts. It all comes back to modelling and encouraging them to look at the text in more detail. It is also hugely empowering from a teacher’s point of view, meaning that we can guide and direct students to particular elements of texts. As good old Winston Churchill often said: “preparation is, if not the key to being a genius, then at least the key to sounding like a genius.” We are able to sculpt questioning and prompting much more efficiently if we are armed with the range of points the class can make.

The students had the question: How does Dickens encourage us to feel sympathy for Oliver and the boys? We explored the question and looked at a range of words to connect with sympathy: empathy, pity, compassion etc.

The extract was printed on an A3 sheet and students had to initially read through in pairs and write down at the bottom of the extract a range of points they would make in relation to evidence. The timer and the mission to find at least ten gave it a competitive element. Controversially, I said I didn’t want them to identify any techniques, it was more about content. They gasped in shock, having become obsessed with technique hunting over the past few weeks. After some feedback and discussion I cunningly revealed, in Blue Peter style, my list of points:

  1. “large stone hall”: cold unwelcoming
  2. “bowls never wanted washing” illustrates profound hunger
  3. “performed this operation” no pleasure in the eating, cold and clinical.
  4. “sucking their fingers most assiduously,” desperation to get every ounce of food, “assiduously” conveys determination.
  5. “tortures of slow starvation”, prolonged suffering.
  6. “Voracious and wild with hunger”, animalistic nature of the boys.
  7. “desperate with hunger, reckless with misery”, emotive, conveys the depth of dejection.
  8. “Please sir, I want some more”, polite, fearful – builds empathy.
  9. “Fat, healthy man” clear juxtaposition to the starving boys.
  10. “Aimed a blow at Oliver’s head”, violence, over reaction that builds sympathy.

All very helpful. Now to Dave Grimmett’s post. In the opening of his post Dave states:

I am an English Language examiner this year, and have been for many years for Eduqas,  as well as an English teacher for 12 years, and it is quite clear that across the ability range, across schools, a tiny minority of students are able to analyse techniques effectively. Most invariably get themselves into a huge mess in their desperation to use them, as they substitute focusing on sharp analysis of the quote’s meaning/effect for waffley, laboured technique spotting.

“Huge mess?” “Waffly?” – he clearly had done a book review of my Year 9 class. The purpose of his post is to look at how to substitute the obsession with techniques with exploring how meaning and effect is generated in texts. It looks at how to sharpen analysis and move away from obsession with relating to reader responses.

With the class, I linked to the marking I had completed and we introduced ‘wafflobia” into our discussions – a profound condition I informed them I have generated due to their extensive waffle style responses. I showed them an example of a “wafflobia” paragraph in response to their question and we looked at how it could be developed.

I explained how I wanted them to speed up with their focus on meaning and effect. I showed this example of an opening and we compared it to our waffle paragraph:

Dickens opening description builds sympathy: “large stone hall”, implying the room is cold and unwelcoming. The fact that “the bowls never wanted washing” makes us empathetic as it shows the profound hunger the boys experience. The description of them “sucking their fingers” further build sympathy at the extent of their hunger, the verb “sucking” conveying their desperation.

Then they went off to write with the following help points (taken directly from Dave’s post) on the PowerPoint:

  1. The line…
  2. Dickens uses…
  3. Another way Dickens builds sympathy…

I could circulate and grunt “wafflobia” at them if they lost focus on the question. At the end they ticked off how many points/quotations they covered from the text.This is not to say we are abandoning techniques completely – but instead we are re-evaluating how to respond to texts clearly.

There are times when the edutwitter world can be rather overwhelming, fully living up to the famous Dickensian opening: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Yet these two posts were a delightful reminder on the wonderful positives: it can provide an inspiring and helpful glimpse into other people’s classrooms and practice, a glimpse that can have transferable impact on young people.

Thanks for reading, other Year 9 posts this year (clearly I need some new topics!)

Teaching Year 9 narrative writing through ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’. 

Teaching Year 9 ‘The Tempest’ 

Teaching Year 9  Poetry 

Teaching Year 9 Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’. 

Two Year 9 posts on using strategies from Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison’s ‘Making Every Lesson count:’ improving writing and reading skills, and this post on marking for impact. 


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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