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This is a textbook designed primarily to assist students with Unit 2 or Unit 5 of the AQA GCSE English Literature specification. These two units focus on poetry; Unit 2 is assessed by means of an exam, and Unit 5 by Controlled Assessment. The book is aimed at students who are capable of raising their level of achievement from a grade B to a grade A, and then up to an A*.
Following an introduction, the book is divided into six chapters. The first four of these concentrate on the poems that feature in the AQA Anthology. Chapter 5 deals with Section B of the exam, in which students have to respond to an unseen poem. The final chapter gives a practice exam paper as well as mark schemes and explanations.
Chapter 1 covers the first section of the AQA Anthology, which is entitled "Character and Voice". There are fifteen poems in this section, ranging from Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" to contemporary works such as Simon Armitage's "Clown Punk". Chapter 2 deals with the second section, "Place". Again there are fifteen poems, and they span a time period from William Blake's "London" to Gillian Clarke's "Cold Knap Lake". "Conflict" is the theme for the poems focused on in Chapter 3. The fifteen featured works range from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" to the more modern "Hawk Roosting" by Ted Hughes. Chapter 4 concerns the fourth and final section of the AQA Anthology on "Relationships". William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 116" is the oldest poem here, whereas an example of a more modern one is "Hour" by Carol Ann Duffy. All four sections also include works by poets from other cultures, such as Imtiaz Dharker, John Agard and Grace Nichols.
Each of the first four chapters of "Working With The Anthology: Achieve an A*" is structured in a similar way. The first page gives a brief overview of the relevant assessment objectives, a list of the poems and poets, and a summary of what is covered in the chapter. The next two pages ask the student to read through the poems quickly and then look for links between any of them. A useful table advises looking at the subject, beginning and ending, length, rhyme, rhythm, language and imagery with a little information on what each of these involves. The author suggests displaying the links on paper either through a written method or by means of pictures or symbols.
Following this, author Tony Childs devotes one page to each of the poems. He asks a series of questions to encourage students to respond to the poem focused on, and then picks out one or two particularly significant words or phrases to explore. He does not give answers to the questions, but any student hoping to achieve an A* would obviously need to think for themselves. He does give two exam questions in which students have to compare the poem with another in the same section from the point of view of ideas and themes or writers' devices. For one of these exam questions he gives an extract from a sample answer. My only reservation here is that these extracts are quite brief and some students might be tempted to memorise them and regurgitate them in an exam. Where necessary, Childs includes a glossary of unusual words in the poems and occasional brief notes on context.
Each of the first four chapters ends with an eight-page section that relates the poems to the assessment objectives and then gives activities on comparing the poems. Once again, a number of sample answers are included along with comments by an examiner. Childs also gives a few pointers on reading exam questions, planning, writing the answer and editing.
Chapter 5 focuses on the unseen poem that students have to respond to in Section B of the exam. The author gives a list of what students should look for while reading the poem, with a brief description of each point. He then takes the poem "In Mrs Tilscher's Class" by Carol Ann Duffy as an example of an unseen poem and offers possible answers for each of the points previously listed. The following page shows an annotated version of the poem. Two complete sample answers to a question on the poem are given, once again with comments by an examiner. Chapter 5 ends with questions on two more unseen poems, "The Jaguar" by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath's "Mirror". The text of both poems appears in full, but there are no sample answers.
A sample higher tier exam paper is given in the sixth and final chapter of the book. The unseen poem in Section B is "The Poacher" by R.S. Thomas. Childs gives the mark schemes for both Section A and Section B of the exam. He also provides enlightenment by explaining what some of the words in the mark schemes mean, such as "sustained response", "evaluative" and "identification of effects".
The book ends with a Glossary of Poetic Devices, where the author defines useful terms such as assonance, enjambment and iambic pentameter. For almost all of the terms Childs also cites an example of the device in one of the featured poems.
Over the past few years I have made very good use of Tony Childs' "Revise the English and English Literature Anthology" as a private tutor. That particular book was based on the syllabus that was examined for the last time in May 2011. It is interesting to see how Childs' book for the new syllabus, taught since September 2010, compares with it. "Working with the Anthology: Achieve an A*" is in a larger format and features an illustration for each of the individual poems, which is at least encouraging for visual learners. The book for the old syllabus has no pictures other than a tiny black-and-white photograph of each poet. It does, however, give more questions to encourage exploration of each poem, and these questions are often broken down into several bullet points.
"Working with the Anthology: Achieve an A*" gives a good deal more practice in comparing the poems, which is exactly what students have to do in the exam. The previous book merely gave one detailed plan for a response to a question on poems by Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke, John Clare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Most of the students I have worked with were studying poems by Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, so there was very little in the book that helped them with comparisons. The old book gave no sample answers at all, so this is a new feature in "Working with the Anthology: Achieve an A*" that students are finding particularly useful.
This is obviously a book for students who are capable of thinking for themselves and who are aiming to achieve the top grade in English Literature. Childs has published a similar study guide for students aiming for a Grade C which I have not yet had the chance to see. There is of course no absolute guarantee that anyone using "Working with the Anthology: Achieve an A*" will actually be awarded an A*, but it definitely shows how it could be done. On the whole I do feel that it is an improvement on Childs' study guide for the old syllabus. It is worth mentioning that Tony Childs is a highly experienced examiner himself, and that the AQA exam board has approved the content and level of the book.
AQA Working With The Anthology: Achieve an A*
Paperback, 144 pages
Price £11.25 (Amazon £8.64)