I’ve just had an email from a reader that I think demands that we all, as teachers and students, reflect on the type of examination that is upcoming, and the types of questions we are expected to answer in June. This site was originally launched to help students to study towards a now-dead English literature exam: the AQA English Literature A exam (2740). The Oxford Book of War Poetry was studied by answering one of a pair of questions in Section B of that exam. It cannot be said enough now that this exam is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late exam. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace… this is an ex-exam.

The new A-level exam,  AQA English Literature A (7712) demands a very different approach, and as the good Mrs. Loman so passionately declared (look it up), attention must be paid.

Here’s the lovely letter:

“I love this website, it’s such a great resource! I’m studying this A-level distance learning and haven’t found much else useful. I was wondering if you still believe the AQA key poem list to be the same? Also if you were ever willing to do so, I’d be especially interested to see your take on some Wilfred Owen or Cummings as these are my favourite! Thank you for this site!”

The old AQA key poem list can be found here on this site, and with its mention, my blood ran cold. For this list is not relevant to the new specification. And it strikes me that some of you may think that it still is. Or even that your teachers may be telling you that it still is. It isn’t, because the whole way in which you are going to be examined on the the Oxford Book of War Poetry has changed, and changed radically. Here’s the answer I gave:

“The A-level examination has changed in the past year and the AQA A-level is now a quite different beast. It is crucial you get to know the specification (the map or plan for the taught course) well enough to know what you should study or learn for the exam: so much more so if you’re doing this alone.

You can find the specification here.

The old specification examined the Oxford Book of War Poetry in Section B in a pair of questions dedicated to the Oxford Book of War Poetry alone. The crucial difference in the new specification is that the poems examined in the anthology are compared to a novel or drama [I should have mentioned to the student here that all these texts will be examined in an Open Book situation– that is, you can take a clean copy of these texts into the exam]. One of the three texts you study for ‘World War One and its Aftermath’ MUST be written post-2000. Therefore, at Southfields, we are reading Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’ in tandem with Stallworthy’s anthology.

The style of question we are moving towards answering with the OBWP and Barry’s novel is in Section B of the paper and will read like this:

‘Suffering in war comes in many different forms.’

Compare the significance of suffering in two other texts you have studied. Remember to include in your answer reference to how meanings are shaped in the texts you are comparing.

You must use one prose text written post-2000 and one poetry text in your response. [25 marks]

This is a question in which you are expected to have an understanding of the theme of suffering in Barry’s novel (the post-2000 text here) and a poem (which you choose) from the Stallworthy anthology. This sample question can be found here, in the AQA’s exemplary specimen paper for the new exam. The markscheme for the same specimen paper can be found hereHere is the AQA page for assessment resources. [Sorry, teachers, if I’ve just given away the secret of your January mock exam, but clarity for students comes first.]

What should be clear is that you, as a student, no longer have to know nearly every poem in the anthology as in previous years (or indeed follow the previous AQA key poem list at all) but instead should have an in-depth knowledge of certain key poems that are illustrative of the themes or concerns of first world war literature and, vitally, the novel or drama you are comparing it to.

In the specification, AQA states that “areas that can usefully be explored [in studying the First World War and its aftermath] include: imperialism and nationalism; recruitment and propaganda; life on the front line; responses on the home front; pacifism; generals and soldiers; slaughter; heroism; peace and memorials; writers in action and writers looking back; the political and social aftermath; different and changing attitudes to the conflict; impact on combatants, non-combatants and subsequent generations as well as its social, political, personal and literary legacies.” (p.16)

Learn and understand a great poem like Sassoon’s ‘The General’, for example, and you open up the potential to write about life on the front line, generals and soldiers, slaughter, heroism, different and changing attitudes to the conflict, and political, personal and literary legacies, to name a few aspects of the war. The clever selection of certain crucial poems will give you flexibility in your exam response. But you must ensure you study these poems in tandem with the prose or drama text you study, for you will be comparing the two in the exam in terms of theme or study area, as above.

Please be reminded again that if you are studying Stallworthy’s ‘Oxford Book of War Poetry’ for the A-level exam, you MUST ensure that one of your drama or prose texts is written post-2000, or disaster is certain.

I hope this helps.”

And indeed: I hope this helps.

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