Grammar for Unseen Poetry

Over the last few years of teaching, my understanding and application of ‘sentence starters’ has altered dramatically. Formerly, I saw them as a way to get students started on a piece of writing, to support someone through an extended response, or as a crutch to for students to fall back on.

Whilst sentence starters can obviously still fulfil these functions, I now am far more likely to use them with students in order for students to encourage them to think a certain way about a text. I have little doubt that forcing students to apply certain grammatical structures can also force them to think in more complex and interesting ways.

Having recently read The Writing Revolution, I am all the more convinced that forcing students to think more about how they write, can aid the quality and clarity of thinking about what they are writing about.* Not only does this apply to creative writing tasks and answering specific questions in English language exams (as in this excellent post here) it may equally apply to tackling English Literature responses.

What I want to share in this post is my approach to modelling students thinking and writing for the Unseen poetry element of their English Literature GCSE exam.

To try and work out what sort of sentences I need to model to students, I began by rereading several of the responses of our students from the past two years that we had purchased back after the exams. In particular, I focussed on the grammar adopted by students who excelled in the exam.

We do the AQA specification for English Literature. For the long unseen poetry response, worth 24 marks, the top two levels of the mark scheme state:

Level 6: Convincing, critical analysis and exploration (21-24 marks)

Level 5:Thoughtful, developed consideration (17-20 marks)

When my students managed to achieve these marks, their responses tended to:

  • Have a sense of the poem as a whole, exploring contrasts and changes.
  • Focus on the tone, mood and atmosphere and how this developed throughout the poem.
  • Show the ability to dwell on evidence, using tentative language to explore possible meanings and alternative interpretations.
  • Interpret the poem personally as a conscious construct – moving beyond ideas in the poem to more abstract ideas e.g. ageing as a general concept rather than ageing in the given poem.

Interestingly, what these students didn’t do was try to comment on every line, or even every stanza. They also favoured comments on abstract ideas and feelings rather than linguistic devices or analysis.

As a result of reading these responses, I collected some of the key phrases I felt that enabled and aided their thinking and added a few for good measure. These have formed the basis of lots of my teaching of unseen poetry this year as well as an Easter revision session aimed at accessing the top levels of the mark scheme.

It isn’t a checklist for students to work through to complete an essay, though perhaps could be adapted to fulfil this function. What I hope, is that it will not only allow students to write better poetry responses, but force students to think about unseen poetry in interesting ways.

  1. What is established?  (Phrases to use when considering the mood of the opening lines or stanza)
  • Adverbs: Quickly, abruptly, immediately, instantly, directly
  • VerbsIntroduces, establishes, creates, begins

[The writer (Adverb+Verb+ Mood/tone/idea)]

e.g   The writer quickly establishes a sense of…  The writer immediately introduces….the idea of

  1. What changes? (Phrases to consider key contrasts, shifts or moments in the poem)
  • Despite the earlier sense of…
  • As the poem progresses…
  • A contrast is introduced…
  • The previous sense of ….. is developed / contradicted
  1. What remains?  (Phrases to consider themes or feelings which persist)
  • From start to finish…
  • Throughout…
  • Verbs: persists, remains, continues, endures
  1. What do I think? (Tentative language: Dwell on evidence & explore possible interpretations)
  • Modal verbs: Could, may, might
  • Adverbs: Perhaps, potentially almost,
  • Verbs: Implying, suggesting, hinting, revealing

[The writer (Modal Verb+ Verb)]       e.g. The writer could be implying…

[Adverb + ‘the writer’ + verb]             e.g. Perhaps, the writer is revealing…

  1. What is the message? (Focussing on the poem as a conscious construct)

Using either ‘the writer’ or the writer’s surname as the subject of the sentence, followed by:

  • _______ forces us to consider…
  • _______ causes us to reflect on…
  • _______ almost contradicts / goes against typical ideas of…
  • _______ pushes the reader to…
  • _______ makes us question…

If you’d like these as a word document, I’ve put them together here:

Grammar for Unseen Poetry

I would also recommend the following posts on unseen poetry:

*If you’re not convinced, David Didau’s work on ‘slow writing’ and Chris Curtis’ excellent ‘exam hacks’ blogs are fantastic for exploring the relationship between writing and thinking.


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