GCSE Secondary Secondary English

Secondary English – Unseen Poetry approach

Once, Twice, Three Times a Commentary

I don’t know about you but I am finding preparing my GCSE students for the unseen poetry exam question rather problematic. Even the best students seem to be technique spotting, at best, and are having trouble at pulling their ideas together. However, never fear! I have just been given a brilliant tip for tackling unseen commentaries. It was actually aimed at students on the International Baccalaureate course but I see no reason why it shouldn’t work for GCSE students too.

The trick is to get them reading the text not one, not two but three times. The first time they read, students should make notes on their general impression, ignoring any specific techniques. The students should then draw a line under their notes and read the text a second time. This time they should focus on the details, writing notes about the language, structure, layout and the effects created. After they have done this, the students should read the text for a third time. On this reading, they should re-read for a holistic view of the text, thinking about how they can group and organise their points, e.g. by narrative voice, setting, theme etc.

The best ideas are always the simple ones and I think this is going to revolutionary for my students. What I like about it is that it slows them down, forcing them to read the poem in different ways. It allows them to consider the poem in a general way, so that when they unpack the poet’s methods they have an understanding of how they link with the meaning of the poem. The third reading is a great way of re-enforcing to them that they need to consider how the techniques work together to create meaning in the text.

Hopefully now, when my students start writing about unseen poems, they will have a clearer idea of how to structure their response. After all, they may have the opportunity for three readings of the poem, in the exam, but they certainly won’t have time to write three essays!

Naomi Hursthouse
Advance Skills Teacher 
Steyning Grammar School

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