Posted in A Level Teaching, Teaching Ideas

A Level Literature Ideas – #3: Mood Boards

Literature at A Level has traditionally been a very essay driven course; there are very few specifications which allow any element of creative writing, and even these are optional swap-ins for a potential second essay. This is a shame because students need to be able to appreciate the craft of the writer and have a deeply ingrained sense that someone sat down and wrote something for a reason. The specification I am teaching allows students to create a piece of original transformational writing. The idea is that they study one of their set texts, then write a ‘missing’ scene, chapter, monologue etc. Obviously this allows students to get under the skin of a particular character or idea, and to better appreciate the author’s style and craft because they are no longer just passively observing, they are actively creating.

This term, I asked my Y12 class to write a missing monologue for the character of the nanny in A Doll’s House. This is a woman we learn very little about, but who has a singular perspective on events and an intriguing history. She gave up her own children as a young woman, and has been witness to the oppressive family home of the Helmers. Their first drafts were two dimensional, and said all of the obvious things about having a ‘hard life’ as a woman, and being ‘nervous’ around the master. We all knew this wasn’t going to work without spicing things up and digging deeper. They all went away that week and created a mood board. I gave very vague instructions, told them to bring together a sort of collage of all the things which this character might come into contact with, love, fear and experience. I was expecting a couple of good ideas to come forward, but the response of my class was stunning.

The work they did has significantly deepened their level of understanding and sophistication in relation to this character, and the text itself. It occurs to me that a mood board would also be useful for analytical writing as a way to collect together images and ideas from the text for a more tactile exploration of the literature.

An alternative to making a physical mood board which is, I’ll admit, a little cut-and-stick heavy, would be making a digital version using something like Prezi. They could challenge themselves by making something like an auditory mood board, recording sounds, music, speech etc, related to the character.

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This student used Victorian wallpaper samples to back her board, and then found contemporary news articles about women who had been forced to abandon their children. She also focused on birds (a key theme in the play), and the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes is an original idea which will play a key part in her monologue.

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This student created an actual doll’s house with opening sides. He collected fabrics which the character would have used and worn; the nanny would have spent a lot of time making clothes for the children. He is going to use the sensory description of fabrics very heavily in his monologue.

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This student was very influenced by the text itself, taking a large number of lines, structures and images from the play which he will re-work.

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This student did a great deal of historical research into the life of a nanny, and looked at accounts of actual nannies from the period.

037This student collected images and examples of objects from the nanny’s life – there are 15 fabric swatches here, and picture of buttons, fastenings and other objects you would find in a nursery.

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Posted in A Level Teaching, Teaching Ideas

A Level Literature Ideas – #2: Essay Planning

The key to all good writing is shape; when to be broad and when to be narrow, when to charge ahead and when to circle back. In a previous post I described how a good essay introduction is like an upside triangle, or arrowhead pointing the reader to a strong argument. A successful essay must be launched by this ‘arrowhead’, then explore and circle around a range of ideas, while still sticking to a firm thread, or thesis. When I was an NQT, I developed the system below by drawing out the shape I wanted by hand. It has evolved into the resource you see below, and revolutionised the way I teach essay writing.

Essays are a difficult thing to teach, particularly at A Level, because they are so abstract. In an essay, you essentially take your reader by the hand and attempt to guide them through your ideas. For many 16-18 year olds, their ideas are still a little jumbled, and this can lead to confusion, repetition and a lack of solid coverage of requirements for the course.

I am a total essay geek – I love everything to do with academic and analytical writing. I get excited when my students write beautifully crafted essays, and they laugh at me for my enthusiasm; one of my Y12 Literature students recently said, ‘Miss, calm down,’ as I marked his final coursework draft. To me, the most effective (or beautiful…) essays do the following things:

1. Keep me interested!
Answer the question without being boring – this means interpreting the title or task in an interesting way, and following it through without being too predictable. A good introduction will ensure that the essay is well focused, but the key is finding more than just the obvious points.

2. Place analysis (currently AO2, but soon to change…) at the heart of every single paragraph or point made – this way, no points are made without being firmly rooted in exploration of the text itself…

3. Be simultaneously tentative AND dynamic in tone – it’s important to hedge and use words and phrases like “perhaps” and “this could suggest”. However, being overly tentative can be detrimental to a solid argument – I want my students to write with dynamism – to be strong in their assertions, while also acknowledging that there are other perspectives and interpretations out there.

I have been teaching the essay planning structure below for years and, on the whole, it has helped students to understand the need for a strong internal structure. I call it ‘The Solar System’ because of the shape, but some students call it a wagon wheel or tortoise shell. I would like to apologise in advance to any science types out there who will undoubtedly be offended my terribly simplistic and inaccurate use of the solar metaphor…


This shape puts the introduction in the centre (or ‘core’) from which all the paragraphs spread out like beams or rays.


(you will notice that the introduction uses the DDR model which I outlined in a previous post…)

As you see, each paragraph (or ‘beam’) is separated into three sections.

Section 1 is for AO1 – topic/point and quotations:


Section 2 is for AO2 – analysis of language, forma and structure:


Section 3 is for AO3 and AO4 – textual linking, alternative/critical viewpoints, context:


The spaces in between the sections can be used to write linking words and phrases. If you use the border space to summarise each paragraph in a few words, this can then become notes for your conclusion.

The finished product looks like this:


This can be used or adapted for any kind of analytical writing. Because it is so detailed a plan, I often ask my students to complete one of these for homework when I don’t want them to write the full essay – a completed ‘Solar’ plan shows me exactly what they would include in their essay, and how they would structure it.

n.b. I am still using the resource I drew by hand and have not created a digital version of this shape. If anyone fancies using it and makes one, please send to me!

Posted in A Level Teaching, Teaching Ideas

A Level Literature Ideas – #1: Writing Introductions

Introductions and conclusions always seem like quite abstract things, threatening to book end an essay with vague statements and ‘summing up’. However, done right, an introduction serves as the perfect vanguard of a well crafted argument.

There are tons of different ways to teach introduction writing, but the most successful in my experience is ‘Discuss, Define, Refine’ (DDR). Here is a brief outline:

Discuss: Introduce the key terms of the question, showing that you are fully aware of the given theme/issue/area. Often constitutes a simple re-wording of the question. e.g. “Madness is a topic which clearly fascinates writers across all of literature.”

Define: Define the key terms in the question, showing that you appreciate a range of ways to interpret the topic. e.g. “‘Madness’ could refer to a range of human emotion and conditions, such as the brief madness caused by grief, the intoxicating madness of love, or the tragic madness of severe mental illness.”

Refine: State clearly how YOU are interpreting the question/terms for this particular essay, bringing the question to your specific text(s). Ensure that the final sentence of the introduction firmly establishes your key argument. e.g. “Perhaps the most significant presentation of madness in literature is that of King Lear as he succumbs to old age, confusion, anger and dementia, destroying his family and, for a time, losing his humanity. In Lear, Shakespeare presents a king who loses his mind, his country and his children; this is not a play about greed or evil, but about a frail and vulnerable man in the throes of mental instability.”

This structure effectively ensures that students begin with a very wide concept, and then narrow this concept down to their own specific argument. I use an upside-down triangle to show my students how this works:

Intro Slide

The other very pleasing thing about the triangle shape is that we could see it as an arrow, literally pointing towards the rest of the essay…

line of argument slide

The resource below is a writing frame using the triangle/chevron shape, which students can use to plan their introduction. The shape is really helpful in emphasising the fact that students have to start in general terms, and gradually become more specific, ending in a final, very clear, narrow focus for their argument.




Introduction Template

The finished introduction is here:

“How do writers present male dominance in Victorian literature? Consider one prose and one drama text.

Male dominance pervades Victorian literature in everything from plot to setting to characterization. The writing community itself was almost all male, with only a handful of notable female writers to create any sense of balance. Male dominance could refer to depictions of powerful men and domestic hierarchies which were typical of the period. It could also refer to the way in which masculinity and misogyny are ingrained in the very fabric of novels, plays and poetry.  The most potent example of male dominance in these texts is the very real and oppressive way in which characters such as Torvald Helmer and Lord Henry control and manipulate those around them. These writers present their male oppressors as villains who exemplify all that is wrong in a male dominated society.”

I’d be really interested to hear other A Level intro structures you have used or developed @FunkyPedagogy

My next post on the A Level Literature Ideas series will be on essay planning…