5 ways to say something meaningful in analysis

“’The end is nigh!’ This tells us that the summer is nearly over.” It does, but you haven’t told me why it has been said in that way or what effect that is having on the text at this moment! This made up example exemplifies many comments I encountered marking Macbeth essays last term; students who thought they were analysing language but were actually offering a modern translation of the quotation.

One key indicator that the end of the summer holidays is rapidly approaching is that a teacher support group I’m a member of on Facebook (‘AQA 9-1 GCSE English Lang & Lit’ – I would highly recommend joining if you are not already a member) has burst back into life in the last week. One post asking for ideas for higher level activities reminded me of the Macbeth essays and the result of them: one of my most successful year 10 strategies last year which I have been meaning to blog about since.

I had a mixed ability class with students ranging from level 3 to level 8 targets. They had responded well to Macbeth (taught heavily with the aid of Lego character diagrams) and we seemed to have got over the typical language hurdles (“I thought we were doing English Miss; this isn’t English!”). In short pieces of analysis, where we were using quotations we’d analysed as a class, they seemed confident in writing about the effects of the language used. However, when we came to what was to be the final piece, many struggled with what to say about the quotations they selected; the lower end ‘translated’ and the upper end made some comments on connotation but often at a very simple level; they seemed unable to extend in the way they could for Lord of the Flies or the poems. In preparing their ROW (reflect on work) lesson I started to think about whether there was a ‘checklist’ of ways you could approach analysing a quotation so that students weren’t stuck on translation or simple connotation.

In the very much tried and tested method of re-writing something with several alterations to show an increased level of skill, I produced the attached sheet. Rather than just exemplify how to explore connotation at a deeper level, I wanted to give students some ‘go-tos’ that they could turn to if they couldn’t do that and which would produce a more sophisticated outcome than tenuous third and fourth connotations by hitting different parts of the mark scheme. The methods; connotation, character traits, context, text links and patterns offer students a pick and mix way of saying something meaningful with the added advantage that if all five were appropriate for a single quotation, they would end up with a paragraph hitting top level descriptors.

None of this is rocket science but in application their marks did rocket. I set the class a task based on Macbeth and Macduff’s final encounter. Their essays went up by an average of 4  marks. 1 in 3 of the class jumped from below 10 to above it and interestingly, the group it seemed to help most were those who originally scored between 7 and 10 marks who went up 8 marks on average.  I was able to leave them (I am starting at a new school after the summer holidays) with the confidence that they can write well on Macbeth and five ways to say something meaningful as a strategy for their next attempt.

“’The end is nigh!’ This tells us that Miss equates the end of the summer holidays with the end of the world! It reveals Miss’s love of the summer holidays and is typical of her hyperbolic sense of humour. Perhaps there is a glimmer of fear as well as humour in the statement as she is preparing to start a new job away from everything that is familiar.

How to extend analysis

Avoid ‘translating’ a quote

“Like the poor cat i’ the adage” is Lady Macbeth comparing Macbeth to a cat who wants a fish from a pond but doesn’t want to get its paws wet.

Avoid identifying a method but not commenting on its effect

Lady Macbeth uses a simile, ““Like the poor cat i’ the adage,” to compare Macbeth’s reluctance to kill Duncan in order to become king to a cat who wants a fish but won’t get its paws wet.

Identifying a method and commenting on effect – good

Lady Macbeth uses a simile, ““Like the poor cat i’ the adage,” to compare Macbeth’s reluctance to kill Duncan in order to become king to a cat who wants a fish but won’t get its paws wet. The image belittles Macbeth, making him seem weak (“poor”).

Identifying a method, commenting on effect and linking it to character traits

Lady Macbeth uses a simile, ““Like the poor cat i’ the adage,” to compare Macbeth’s reluctance to kill Duncan in order to become king to a cat who wants a fish but won’t get its paws wet. The image belittles Macbeth, making him seem weak (“poor”), a stark contrast to his early presentation as a brave soldier. This is the first time in the play we see Lady Macbeth’s aggressive manipulation of Macbeth.

Identifying a method, commenting on effect, linking it to character traits and adding context

Lady Macbeth uses a simile, ““Like the poor cat i’ the adage,” to compare Macbeth’s reluctance to kill Duncan in order to become king to a cat who wants a fish but won’t get its paws wet. The image belittles Macbeth, making him seem weak (“poor”), a stark contrast to his early presentation as a brave soldier. This is the first time in the play we see Lady Macbeth’s aggressive manipulation of Macbeth and it reminds us that she is not typical of women of the time.

Identifying a method, commenting on effect, linking it to character traits, adding context and linking back in the play

Lady Macbeth uses a simile, ““Like the poor cat i’ the adage,” to compare Macbeth’s reluctance to kill Duncan in order to become king to a cat who wants a fish but won’t get its paws wet. The image belittles Macbeth, making him seem weak (“poor”), a stark contrast to his early presentation as a brave soldier. This is the first time in the play we see Lady Macbeth’s aggressive manipulation of Macbeth and it reminds us of her earlier demand “unsex me” – she is beginning to display the masculine qualities she wanted.

Identifying a method, commenting on effect, linking it to character traits, adding context, linking back in the play and identifying a pattern of language in the extract

Lady Macbeth uses a simile, ““Like the poor cat i’ the adage,” to compare Macbeth’s reluctance to kill Duncan in order to become king to a cat who wants a fish but won’t get its paws wet. The image belittles Macbeth, making him seem weak (“poor”), a stark contrast to his early presentation as a brave soldier. This is the culmination of her speech which uses a semantic field of cowardice: “pale”, “afeard” and “coward” are all directed at Macbeth in an effort to get him to change his mind. This is the first time in the play we see Lady Macbeth’s aggressive manipulation of Macbeth and it reminds us of her earlier demand “unsex me” – she is beginning to display the masculine qualities she wanted.

Please feel free to share any approaches that are helping your students to extend their analysis  – we’d love to read about them. If you would like the above ideas as a student worksheet please e-mail us at resources@creativeenglish.co.uk

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