Connecting and organising knowledge in English literature

Much has been written about the value of knowledge retrieval practice in English literature – it is impossible to think critically about a text until you know it very well. However, I think it is now time to also consider how this knowledge might be connected and organised. In other words, what kinds of mental representations – or schema –should our students be building? What shape should these take for individual texts? What shape should these take for the subject  as a whole? And how do we ensure the smooth transfer of this knowledge to the extended essay format which is favoured by summative examinations?

Each text is represented by a number of interwoven knowledge frameworks. These include:

  • knowledge of plot, events, character, setting – and associated inferences;
  • knowledge of the text’s thematic breadth and its ‘big ideas’;
  • knowledge of the writer’s methods and devices;
  • knowledge of contextual factors.

These frameworks also sit nicely with the AQA English literature assessment objectives.

One of our most important jobs is to help students to connect this knowledge in useful and creative ways. If they do not, then their essays become unbalanced. Too much isolated historical context, for example, leads to what my colleague Tod Brennan calls ‘context dumping’ – lots of historical events and facts, but no understanding of how all this has influenced the writer’s viewpoint. Similarly, too much emphasis on the ‘big ideas’ leads to vague, poorly evidenced essays, and too much focus on quotations and textual evidence can stand in the way of a genuine understanding of the writer’s overall purpose. Balance is everything.

It is often more helpful to think of ‘analysis’ as ‘connection’. The more fine-grained our textual knowledge, the more subtle the connections we can make. The more we practise making connections, the more original and interesting our analysis becomes. (We do not just make connections within a text of course – we also make implicit links with the wealth of general knowledge we already have.)

Put simply, whenever analysis is written on the page, some kind of connection must have happened in the mind.

If we were to simplify most sequences of lessons, they would probably look like this:

  1. Knowledge acquisition – reading the text, knowing the plot, learning quotations, understanding the context and ‘big ideas’ etc.
  2. Knowledge strengthening – exploring the whole text and connecting the main ideas.
  3. Knowledge application – writing an essay or completing a mock exam.

Often, too little time is spent on 2 and, as a result, students struggle to organise their knowledge appropriately. Consequently, they do not develop the kind of broad and conceptual knowledge that helps them to understand that a text is a construct – the product of a living, breathing, thinking human being rather than a lifeless paper thing to look at in an English lesson. 

When studying any text, we must constantly juggle between the big picture and the small picture, the main ideas and the small details – the zooming-in and the zooming-out, as David Didau has put it. We would probably prefer that our students always use bottom-up reasoning to come to a conclusion: Priestley makes the audience side with Sheila; Sheila listens to the Inspector’s socialist message; Sheila is a young woman; therefore, Priestley wanted the audience to believe that young women, like Sheila, hold the key to a socialist future. However, if we are realistic our students probably use top-down reasoning more often: Sir tells me Dickens was concerned about the plight of the poor in Victorian times; therefore, we are probably supposed to feel sympathy for the impoverished Cratchit family.

In the early stages of literary study (I would include GCSE in this) and with less-proficient students, this second kind of inference – or connection – should probably be encouraged, even if it feels a bit less authentic.

So what can we do to help our classes make more and better connections? In no particular order:

Break ‘big ideas’  and themes into smaller propositions. This way, students can explore the finer subtleties. Romeo and Juliet is a play about love could become:

  • Shakespeare explores the spiritual nature of true love;
  • Shakespeare highlights the damaging effect of unrequited love;
  • Shakespeare warns us about the dangers of breaking romantic social conventions;
  • Shakespeare shows that love causes violence.

Get students to ‘connect backwards’ from main propositions. This week, my colleague Emma Rose shared these statements about J.B. Priestley’s purpose in an An Inspector Calls and then asked her class to find supporting evidence from the text:

  • Capitalism leads to selfishness.
  • We need to look after one another.
  • The reason the rich were so powerful was because they relied on the working class to make them richer.
  • Women deserve an equal place in society.

You can see how students can link these statements to their existing textual and contextual knowledge.

Get students to ‘connect forwards’ towards big ideas. Give students sets of textual facts and see what conclusions they come up with. For greater discrimination, add a potentially contradictory statement too. For instance:

What does Priestley believe about the role of women in society?

  • Priestley showed that Eva Smith was willing to take a huge risk in being the ‘ring leader’ of the strike.
  • Sheila is willing to side with the Inspector over her parents.
  • Sheila recognises the humanity of working women – “they’re not cheap labour – they’re people.”
  • Mrs Birling is emotionally ‘cold’ and does not understand her own children.

Consider the big ideas that connect across more than one text. Rich vs poor; powerful vs powerless; man vs nature; gender discrimination; appearance vs reality; the physical world and the psychological world; old and young, etc.

Multiple links. Consider how one piece of textual evidence can be utilised in multiple ways. Take one quotation, for instance, and link it to every theme of a text.

Plan, plan, plan! The act of structuring and organising ideas is essential to effective essay writing. You can plan four essays in the time it takes to write one. Model the planning process and its implicit steps very carefully, and remember that full essays and mock exams – as Daisy Christodoulou argues – are not always the most effective means of assessment. The act of planning without your notes also provides effective retrieval practice.

Self-explanation. Consider also the way students can explore their understanding verbally. I prefer structured pair tasks that allow student to ‘speak like an essay’; once again, they can be far more efficient than writing a full essay as it allows for lots of connection-making in a short time span.

Think non-linear. Consider how slideshows, resources, worksheets and notes in students’ exercise books can be designed in ways that make connections easier. Visual-spatial organisers like mind-maps are very helpful.


Useful links:

Chris Curtis on why you should cover the extract when planning an answer to AQA English Literature Paper 1.

Mark Roberts’ brilliant warts-and-all advice on how to prepare students for exam questions.

5 thoughts on “Connecting and organising knowledge in English literature

  1. Very useful, especially with the Mark Roberts link. This year I’m going to try teaching from the model essays first. 3 per text will cover all eventualities and quotations.

  2. Pingback: Connecting and organising knowledge in English literature — Reflecting English – CLW Academy Educational Blog

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