AQA English Language Paper 1 Reading
Peer Marking with a Teacher
This week I've been working with my good old pal: Alex Cold. As a slight variation on the modelling I've always used in a classroom setting, I've been writing exam answers under timed conditions at the same time as my pupil, before we compare the two.
During last week's session, we both answered the language and structure questions and I left my student with mark schemes and a range of answers rewarded a range of marks; she independently assessed her own work, justifying marks and bands. Despite it being the first time she has used the mark scheme, her inferences were astute, and I agreed with all of her marks.
Perhaps more interestingly, I also asked her to compare her responses to mine; this lead to a really interesting conversation where I was able to 'myth-bust'. Some of the differences she noticed between our responses were actually things that would have had no impact on the mark awarded, i.e. the devices we focused our responses on. Some, however, illustrated perfectly the differences between band 3 and 4 answers, and she now is able to clearly articulate what she needs to do in order to improve her responses.
What's the wider context of this teaching?
Within this sequence of learning, she has completed mock exams; we've spent a lesson on each allowing me to give detailed feedback; now we are revisiting Q2-4 in Paper 1, working simultaneously before analysing outcomes; next, she will independently attempt the same questions from a different paper and I will mark these next week; and finally, we will repeat this process with paper 2.
Exam paper: insert here - will add QP when found!
My answers written in timed conditions, below. The planning is in italics; the writing in [ ] was where I slightly ran over time on the question, which will be made up elsewhere.
Q2 Alex Cold/
Adjectives - personification - roaring, furious
Helplessness - imagery - still tangled, lay listening, waiting, sensation of being adrift in a boat
‘images’ combined with ‘pictured’ - all an illusion?
Throughout the extract, the writer uses language to present the storm as having a scary, immobilising effect on Alex, making him feel overpowered and helpless.
The writer uses listing combined with violent verbs to emphasise how aggressive the storm in, for example: ‘wind lashing the trees, rain on the rooftop, and thunder.’ Ordinarily, use of a triple emphasises the most significant item by placing it at the end of the list. We already know that the wind was ‘lashing’ the trees - an action which has connotations of violent punishments using a whip, and expected but erratic and extremely painful movements. This could signify that the storm is making Alex feel uncomfortable, or some form of pain, akin to that which he felt in his nightmare, and later on in his waking life. The ‘rain on the rooftop’ uses a little alliteration and the repeated ‘r’ sound has a reasonably soft sound suggesting that the rain is regular in its rhythm. Perhaps it is listen second as it brings the storm closer to Alex, and therefore the symbol of the storm is more closely related to Alex’s inner turmoil. Finally, the thunder is mentioned: we all know that thunder comes with lightning - it is highly erratic - the noise becomes more frequent as the storm becomes closer. The connotations of thunder alone are enough to help the reader to imagine that Alex is afraid and, more importantly, unable to control what is happening around him.
Furthermore, the wild power of the storm is contrasted with Alex’s complete lack of power. We are told that he ‘lay listening’, was ‘still tangled’, ‘waited’ and had the ‘sensation of being adrift in a boat’. These images are littered throughout the extract, to ensure that the reader is continually reminded of just how helpless Alex is in this situation. All of the verbs used in these phrases are passive - Alex is unable to do anything active to calm the storm or his fear. The fact that he ‘lay waiting’ suggests that he was immobilised by this fear, and that he could do nothing to change it, hence why he was in, perhaps the most inactive position there is. The idea of him being ‘still tangled’ in the images from his nightmare emphasise [… that his emotions and understanding are heavily confused. This reinforces him immaturity and age, when the reality of his mum’s health is later revealed to the reader: Alex perhaps doesn’t fully understand the situation or his emotions in response to it, but nonetheless feels the situation keenly. By reminding us of how young Alex is, the reader is able to sympathise with his seemingly childlike fear. Finally, by describing Alex as having the ‘sensation of being adrift in a boat’, the image of him being utterly out of control is yet again emphasised. To be ‘adrift’ you would have no paddle and no means of moving the boat in your desired direction to reach a specified location - Alex has to wait out both the storm and his mother’s illness, whilst knowing he has absolutely no skill to impact the outcome. ]
Q3 Alex Cold/
Overall, this extract is structured to enable the reader to understand how chaotic Alex’s life and emotions are at this time.
Firstly, we are told about Alex’s nightmare. A big, black bird has broken through the window and flown off with his mum. Without any context, we don’t immediately understand the symbolism of this nightmare, however we are already inducted into the atmosphere of fear and violence that pervades the entire extract. By starting with the nightmare, the reader is able to develop sympathy for the protagonist, Alex. This needs to be established immediately, as the later scene in the kitchen would not necessarily endear us to Alex’s character if we didn’t have this introduction to his chaotic emotional state.
Next, the focus shifts to the storm outside. It is directly connected to Alex’s nightmare as it ‘awakened him’, and therefore is ‘tangled up’ in the fear that Alex felt in the nightmare. This enables the reader to feel even more sympathy for Alex as we start to realise that this fear is inescapable. Additionally, a shift has been made from Alex’s inner thoughts, the the external. This emphasises that Alex is surrounded by fear and violence, both internally in his thoughts and dreams, and externally in the form of the ‘lashing wind’.
The extract then moves to the kitchen. This scene starts off more calmly than the previous two and the tone shifts to one of disappointment and boredom. We learn that Alex’s dad is also struggling at the moment, and that the children are discontent with his efforts to replicate what their mother would ordinarily do for the family, however this additional layer of emotion is not openly shared. There is then a short burst of dialogue in this section which enables us to see the different ways each of the family members is struggling with grief. The violence and anger from the earlier scenes is now embodied through Alex’s speech, as we see that the direct reference to the real fearful issue - his mother’s illness - cause the anger to erupt from him: he can no longer contain it in his subconscious.
Finally, the extract shifts back to prose; we are given an insight into Alex reminiscing about the way things used to be when his mother was well, and contrasting them rather starkly with the situation now she is ‘wasting away’. The mood finally steels into a deep grief and sadness, although is is still maintained that Alex is angry at his mother, father, and the world in general, yet again highlighting his inability to control the chaotic situation and ensuing emotions.
The quick shifts between different scenarios is essential in emphasising just how erratic Alex’s emotions and feelings are, and enabling the reader to deeply sympathise with a young boy who is struggling to understand and temper his emotions in the face of such a difficult situation.
Q4 Alex Cold/
Plan: he seems grumpy - ‘not in the mood to applaud his father’s efforts’ - tone seemingly sarcastic? Becoming scathing.
Next - aggressive/snappy/rude/short tempered - the dialogue allows his anger to come out
Alex ‘rushed’ as did his emotions. Triple - unsure where to direct his anger. ‘Alex was angry with his father, his sisters, life in general – even with his mother for getting sick.’
Focus shifts to food - completely off topic. Emblematic of the chaos of Alex’s emotions. Distraction.
Finally, juxtaposition of how mother was when well, and how she is now - imagery blends her art with her health and appearance.
Overall, I agree that Alex is struggling with his mother’s illness, as symbolised through his chaotic emotions, however this difficulty is not limited to the second part of the extract. Perhaps the writer has made Alex’s emotional state in relation to his mother a key focus in the opening of the text in order to effect sympathy for the protagonist from the reader. Additionally, this exploration of his multitude of emotional states in such a short amount of time is essential in characterising Alex and establishing him as the protagonist.
Firstly, in lines 16-19, our third person narrator shares a biased description of their father’s pancake cooking skills. Whilst the narrator is not Alex, the tone is of one who is in conspiracy with him, and who understands the working of his mind. The repetition of the word ‘not’ subtly assists in instilling a negative mood in this scene. Additionally, the idea that ‘they pretended to eat them’ but whenever father was not looking, they would ‘spit them out’ could be seen as symbolising their attitude to their mother’s illness: they pretend to cope, but in reality they struggle to stomach the situation. In fact, perhaps this is what the father does. The verb ‘spit’ has slightly aggressive connotations and is a sharp sounding word due to the sibilant start and the harsh, clipped ’t’ sound at the end; this is suggestive of Alex being sarcastic and scathing in tone, directing his anger at his mother’s illness toward his father - stereotypically the person who ought to protect and look after the entire family, but has failed to do so - and the inanimate pancakes. Furthermore, this mini scene highlights that fact that no one in the family is communicating; they are instead all suffering in silence, whether it be the terrible food, the fraught relationships, or the feelings relating to mother.
Alex’s anger is quickly coaxed out from his younger sister’s question of ‘When’s Momma going to get better?’ There are only 6 spoken exchanges between the family, highlighting their lack of communication in light of this turbulent time, and also indicating how alone Alex may be in trying to overcome his own emotional struggle. Clearly, his younger sister is far more innocent in terms of her understanding of the situation, as she seems assured that their mum will get better, and she casually asks whilst ‘trying to spear a rubbery pancake’. She does not even feel the need to give the question her full attention, and the use of ‘when’ indicates that she is certain her mother will get better. Alex replies with a short, sharp statement: ‘Shut up, Nicole’. Whilst this could insinuate that he is being rude to her and does not have time for her, it could also be suggestive of the fact that he cannot bear to talk about this conversation openly, and would prefer not to talk aloud about it as that makes it feel more real. He could be trying to protect his sister’s innocence about the matter by not having an open discussion, and protecting her from seeing him and his father break down. Unsurprisingly, his rude tone causes the very short exchange to escalate quickly, with Alex insulting his sisters in a bid to silence them: ‘You two are just kids. You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ He continues to use short sentences, which would be expected of someone in a state of heightened emotion, as it is difficult to formulate complex ideas when you are overcome with emotion. Also, he has used an exclamatory, implying that the pitch of his voice has risen whilst saying this, which could indicate tears are coming and he is trying to stop them. Their father quells the escalation quickly, giving Alex the opportunity to escape the situation by ‘rush[ing]’ out of the kitchen, just as his emotions appeared to be ‘rush[ing]’ out of him moments before. It is no surprise that by trying to avoid his sadness and worry, he is making himself and his family feel worse.
Briefly, we gain a little more insight into Alex through the use of a triple: 'Alex was angry with his father, his sisters, life in general – even with his mother for getting sick.’ Alex’s anger seems to be a displacement of his fear, and the use of the triple suggests he is desperately trying to find someone to blame his anger on, as at least then he will have a place to direct these overwhelming feelings. His father seems the first logical place to aim his anger, then his sisters - who were actually responsible for bringing his emotions to the fore - and then the, perhaps more accurate, ‘life in general’. This final vague reference hints at Alex’s awareness that he cannot realistically blame anyone or anything for this illness and that which has followed as a result. Interestingly, the use of a hyphen before the confession ‘even with his mother’, comes across as guilt that Alex could direct any anger towards someone who is clearly suffering so well. Nonetheless, this implies that he is still a child, and still feels that his mother should be there to protect him at all times. Rather than lament the lack of protection and maternal care, he allows to blame to land with her. Additionally, this list of people and things he is angry with emphasises just how chaotic his emotional state is - he cannot even focus his emotions on one thing amongst this turbulence.
Whilst the aforementioned triple stops at Alex blaming his mother, there is a paragraph break, intimating Alex’s rising sadness as he takes a moment to actually directly think of her and her illness. The next paragraph then shows his coping mechanism of avoidance, as the topic - seemingly randomly - returns to food. The idea that ‘everyone missed the balanced diet of normal times’, is a thinly veiled reference to everybody missing the mother, replicating Alex’s thinly veiled attempt to distract himself from sadness by talking about food.
Finally, we are given a detailed juxtaposition which describes how different the mother was when at home, to now. The descriptions of her tend to meld with the descriptions of her artwork, leaving us finally with an image of ‘her sunken eyes were circled with shadows’ and ‘her oil paints dried in their tubes’ perhaps symbolising the tubes of a hospital ward containing dried fluids. At this conclusion of the extract, Alex seems to finally give in to his sadness and a direct focus on his mother’s illness. The longer sentences of this prose, and the return to prose itself, suggest Alex has returned to a calmer mood of sad reflection.
Overall, the turbulent structure of the extract emulates Alex’s turbulent emotions, emphasising that, yes, he really does struggle with his mother’s illness.