It’s a couple of years since I marked this AS-level paper, but I occasionally get asked for advice about how to handle the tricky first question (commentary on an unseen passage, usually of non-fictional prose). Since the exam is this week, I thought I’d post my standard advice about the question, in the hope that it might help someone:
The wider reading question on the exam paper is a difficult one, and to do well at it I think you need to know what the markers are looking for. Here are some pointers – some of which may seem obvious, but plenty of students miss out on high marks because they do not realise what is wanted.
The first thing to remember is that the examiner is expecting to read an essay, with an introduction, argument and conclusion. Too many students just put down rather random points about the passage, and stop when they have run out of ideas.
The best answers are from candidates who have thought about what makes the passage interesting. Almost always, the extract contains evidence of conflicting ideas and/or emotions (Maude Onions is glad that the war is over, but sad because of the reminders of destruction; Wilfred Owen is proud of his unit’s achievements, but aware of the cost of them; Sylvia Pankhurst is against the war, but as a feminist is glad to see women taking active roles and doing responsible war work; and so on). If you can identify this conflict in the first paragraph, you have got the makings of a good introduction. Mixed feelings are present in most WW1 literature. Most people in Britain felt that the War was worth fighting; all were aware of its cost. Almost all interesting WW1 writing tries to reconcile these contradictory feelings.
Later paragraphs can show how the writer explores his or her theme, with especial attention given to the language used, and what the language shows about the writer’s intentions, or feelings, or confusions. Is the vocabulary public or private, or a mixture? Maybe you can show how the writer mixes a military vocabulary with a more personal one. If there are metaphors or similes, explain why they are used, and what they suggest about the author’s thoughts and feelings. Look for exaggeration or (more usually in texts actually written during the War) understatement. If the extract is about battle, is the writer giving graphic descriptions of the horrors, or making light of them? What is the audience for this writing? (Is it a private letter or a public statement? Is the writer sparing the feelings of the person he or she is writing to? Or trying to persuade or impress the reader? In whatever case, identify the language that tells you this.)
As you do this, bring in comparisons with other texts. If possible, make points about the language. (‘The language in which the enemy is described is very different from that in Wilfred Owen’s “Strang Meeting”’; ‘The writer’s use of understatement is similar to that of the characters in “Journey’s End”; ‘The words used to describe the senior officer are respectful, and the tone is very different from that of Sassoon’s “The General” or the comic exaggerations of “Blackadder”’.)
Markers have to check that you have mentioned prose, poetry and drama, but do not expect full comparisons with all three. Make sure that you include at least one fairly full comparison.
Make sure that your comparisons are meaningful, and tell your reader something about the passage. Too often, weaker candidates see a word in the passage that reminds them of something else and point that out, but not in a way that shows understanding. I remember one candidate who wrote: ‘This passage mentions a ladder, and ladders are also referred to in “Blackadder”’. Not a useful comment. Whereas if he’d written ‘The ladders are a reminder that the soldiers will soon be going over the top, and mention of them therefore adds a note of disquiet,’ this would have been a relevant point to make.
In your conclusion come back to the conflicting feelings mentioned in the introduction, and summarise how you think the writer has resolved the contradiction, or failed to.
I hope that this is some use. Best of luck with the exam.