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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[IMPORTANT CORRECTION, January 4th 2016: THIS AQA KEY POEM LIST WAS ONLY RELEVANT TO THE ENGLISH LITERATURE A SPECIFICATION (2701) THAT ENDED IN JULY 2015. THOSE STUDYING THE CURRENT ENGLISH LITERATURE A SPECIFICATION (7712) ARE ADVISED TO IGNORE THIS LIST AS OBSOLETE.]

Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham,
I wonder to myself– will life ever be sane again?

[IMPORTANT CORRECTION: 9th May 2012]

In the post below, this blog originally stated (on 5th May) that ONLY the AQA Key Poems listed below could be selected for the ‘Remind yourself of the poem(s)…’ question in part 1b of the exam. 

This is NOT the case. ANY poem may be examined from the anthology WWI selection. To be clear: AQA have only ever chosen poems from this Key Poems list for their January and Summer examinations. This is NOT, however, a matter of policy for the board. To repeat: ANY poem may be examined from the anthology WWI selection. 

The full clarification from AQA is as follows: 

“To be clear, when the key poems lists were originally disseminated, it was with the clear statement that they were intended as a guidance document for teachers to offer a ‘likely starting point’ when approaching the set texts. Students are expected to have read the whole text. [My emboldening here].

I’m sure you will appreciate that we cannot state that the named poem question will come from this list, despite the fact that it has done so to date.”

Apologies, then, to all of you for disseminating the wrong information about this list of Key Poems. 

I have now corrected the article below. You would still be wise to use the list below strategically when revising: after all, if they’re ‘Key Poems’, and in the past every poem-based question in 1b has come from this list, you would presume that the poems on this list are likely to come up in the exam– wouldn’t you?

[ENDS: ORIGINAL ARTICLE BEGINS WITH CORRECTIONS]

Exam time draws near for students studying the AQA English Literature Specification A exam. Panic is in the air: the faces may change, but it’s the same story every year. There’s panic from the students who skived all year, who now know they need a miracle to get that ‘C’. There’s panic amongst the students who’ve worked hard all year and really want to make the right choices in revising for the exam. There is even– whisper it– sometimes panic amongst teachers, who worry whether they’ve prepared their students as best they can. Let’s face it, exam time is stressful for nearly everyone. As a sixth form tutor as well as an A-level teacher, I see the effects all around me: the most rational people get snappy, and lack sleep, or haven’t seen the sun in weeks, and indulge in over-eating, or fall into under-eating… there’s avoidance, confrontation, aggression, exhaustion. And that’s just the teachers. (boom-TISH!)

Anyway, this post is in answer to concerns expressed by one Move Him Into The Sun reader who is fearful that their teacher hasn’t taught them every poem from the WWI selection in the Stallworthy anthology. I think there’s probably a good reason for this, and the information I supply here in answer might help iron out a few creased brows for other students too.

Here’s one big worry for those sitting the exam. In part 1b, students are typically given the option of choosing a thematic question or a question centred on one or two poems (in both, of course, you have to bring in your wider reading). This latter question often begins, “Remind yourself of the poem(s)…’. A big worry with the exam is that, should you for whatever reason have missed reading a poem, that this poem will come up as a question, and you’ll have to fall back on the thematic question to show off what you do know.

This is when narrowing down the poems that you must revise becomes a big help for students. Now, the AQA board supplied teachers with a list of key poems from the Oxford Book of War Poetry when they set out the specification (though it is almost impossible to find this list online– a flaw that AQA should amend quickly, if they truly believe, as they say they do, that transparency with students about assessment is the key to success).

What this means for you is that, crucially, not all the WWI poems in the Stallworthy anthology will be the subject of a question in part 1b. All the poems in Stallworthy’s selection will be rewarded in marking, so if you’ve studied all the poems for the exam, don’t fret, you haven’t wasted your time. [This is an AQA expectation.] Only select Key Poems, however, will form the basis of an essay question. [Any poem may be selected for examination– nonetheless the poems examined thus far have all come from this Key Poems list.] These are the Key Poems given to me by AQA:

Men Who March Away; In the Time of the Breaking of Nations; Peace; The Dead; The Soldier; The Volunteer; Into Battle; In Flanders Fields; ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’; ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’; Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; An Irish Airman foresees his death; ‘They’; The Hero; the Rear-Guard; The General; Glory of Women; Rain; As the Team’s Head Brass; To His Love; Ballad of the Three Spectres; The Silent One; On Receiving News of the War; August 1914; Break of Day in the Trenches; Dead Man’s Dump; Returning, We Hear the Larks; Anthem for Doomed Youth; Dulce et Decorum Est; Exposure; Insensibility; The Send-Off; Futility; Strange Meeting; Sergeant-Major Money; The Zonnebeke Road; Winter Warfare; ‘my sweet old etcetera’; ‘next to of course god america i’; For The Fallen; from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley; Triumphal March; Elegy in a Country Churchyard; Epitaphs of War; Subalterns; Rouen; MCMXIV; The Great War; Six Dead Men.

To state again, you will be able to use the other WWI poems in the anthology in question 1b, and these will be rewarded; but only the poems above can be [have historically been] the subject of one of those ‘Remind yourself of…’ questions.

Hopefully, this little bit of information will help the more strategically-minded among you plan for the exam– and set to rest some who are worried that they haven’t been taught the whole anthology. [My greatest regret here is that while I hoped to bring some clarity to the examination and reduce anxiety amongst all you who are sitting the exam next week, I fear I may have muddied the waters and raised nervousness amongst some of you. To be clear: this list of poems remains a good guide to the poems that the AQA prefer to examine candidates on. It is so good, in fact, that it has had a 100% hit-rate so far. It is simply that I cannot categorically say that the poem(s) in 1b you are asked to write on will come from this list. But let’s say this: it’s highly likely.]

Good luck– and don’t waste the Bank Holiday weekend! Find time for revision- and rest.

So, there we have it. Another year’s summer examination over. What did you think of the exam this year?

I’m so-so on it. I think it’s hard to deny that question 1a was excellent; a letter from Lt. Colonel Rowland Fielding to his wife expressing his affection for his trench comrades, and alienation from the folks at home. If you couldn’t answer this question and link it to your wider reading, you really had no right to be in the examination at all.

Question 1b, however, was much more tricky and debatable as a test offering.

If you studied the Stallworthy anthology, you were offered a two choices. The first question asked candidates, ‘How far would you agree that the poems by women in this selection present significantly different views from those written by men?’. This is a nice but problematic question, given that there are only two poems written by women in the entire selection of sixty-eight poems. If a candidate doesn’t know at least one of these poems, he or she is, to put it frankly, stuffed. If they do, the world is their oyster. It’s a massive shame, I think, that the examiners decided to examine a fundamental question about gendered perspectives on the war through what are undoubtedly peripheral poems in the selection. Better to test on Sassoon’s ‘Glory of Women’ and allow the better candidates to reach out to ‘Subalterns’ and ‘Rouen’.

The second option in Question 1b was based on Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, asking students to contrast attitudes in the poem to those elsewhere in the selection. Now, in terms of commenting on form, structure and language, this is great selection. The eulogising of Gregory’s death, along Yeats’ attribution to Gregory a higher impulse than patriotism, makes this a good poem to compare to other poems that indulge in either. Yeats’ later ‘Reprisals’ can be referenced and contrasted. Moreover, in his editorial choices, Yeats also links directly to Owen and the whole question of the viability of war poetry. On the surface of things, this seems a cracking selection.

Yet I think there is a problem with this question too. Our group spent just under two weeks studying Yeats and the five poems in the selection; more than enough time, you might think, to get to grip with his poems. Yet the profoundly important Irish context makes these poems difficult and daunting for students already getting to grips with the massive historical challenge that is the European theatre of the First World War.

Difficult is fine, of course. Accessible is another. The problem with question 1b in this exam, I think, is its accessibility to A-level students studying First World War poetry through the Stallworthy anthology. When viewed in combination, the questions selected should have allowed all students to display their knowledge, at the high and low ends. And when viewed in combination, I think it is hard to argue that that Question 1b allowed students to do this.

Was this was a fair examination, then? I’m not sure. In some ways I think that this was a good exam that was unnecessarily obscure in at least one of its questions for section 1b. Personally I’m tired of the needless obscurity that examiners seem to habitually indulge in: but I’m not sure that this is a prime example of this habit since this exam began three years ago.

I’m going to throw this question out to others– to you, the students who sat it.

As if the revision wasn't going bad enough, suddenly a flock of angry owls, led by a cat having a stroke, attacked the hapless student.

So it’s the night before your big exam.

Or it is if you’re sitting your AQA AS English Literature examination tomorrow. There are a lot of you out there for whom Monday is your big day– at any rate, the viewing figures for this site have gone through the roof. Move Him Into The Sun hit a remarkable milestone today: over 25,000 hits in this, its first year. We’ve had over 1,000 hits today alone. That’s a lot of people revising! It can’t just be the members of my fabulous class at Southfields.

So doubtless you’re a little nervous. Perhaps even anxious. Or desperate. Or terrified!

All these responses are natural. I guess you’ll know in your heart of hearts whether you’ve put in the hours throughout the year. If you have, try not to worry. Even if the exam tomorrow is an absolute nightmare, you’ll still find a way to show off your knowledge. If the question you’re asked isn’t perfect, first, take a breath. Don’t panic. Remember how interlinked so many aspects of the war are, and contemplate how you can link what you do know to what you’ve been asked. You’ll find a way. Remember, too, that the person marking your paper isn’t a monster. They’re looking to reward you for what you write. So after that initial sinking feeling, don’t freeze.

Some of you will know that you could have, should have worked harder. We’ve all been there. Well, the first thing to say is that, even if everything goes terribly tomorrow, you’ll have the chance to resit again in 8 months: that’s a lot of time to work to make things better. Some of you will be kicking yourselves because you’ll have only discovered what a fascinating subject you’re doing as you desperately try to catch up. Well, if that’s the case, you’ve learnt something precious– and who knows? Perhaps the exam will ask you about those things you do know well. Optimism is as good as pessimism at this point.

What will come up tomorrow? Who knows. You can only make educated guesses at this kind of thing. If I were setting the exam, I’d say that we were overdue for something on Sassoon or Brooke– something related to patriotism and protest. I’m also waiting for Isaac Rosenberg to crop up sometime– his ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is such a richly associative poem, of such quality, that I’m sure we’ll see it feature one year in question 1b.

But I’m useless at predicting these things. Honestly. Don’t let me panic you: historically, I’ve had a 0% hitrate at this kind of guessing game. At the end of the day, it’s preparation that counts, not soothsaying.

So, one last piece of advice: get to bed nice and early tonight, and when you get up tomorrow, have a nice, big breakfast before getting to school in plenty of time. Rest your brain and body before the test ahead!

Good luck. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow.

(especially you, Southfields students!)