Kirsty Rogerson is an RQT at the Deanery High School & Sixth form in Wigan. She teaches KS3-KS5 (A Level English Language) with responsibility for KS3 curriculum and loves it! She has recently been promoted to Assistant Head of Department. She can be found on Twitter @kirstreadss

Current perspective

I’m exceedingly passionate about lessons being ‘knowledge-rich’ – emphasising the very simple, yet brilliant, concept that our students need to know ‘stuff’ and we are the ones who know that ‘stuff’. So, we try to teach it in the best possible way.

This concept is more prevalent than ever following the release of the GCSE English examiner report. The report highlighted many important aspects of the exam, however there are three areas that have captured my, and many other teachers’, attention in particular.

Firstly, there’s the praise for responses that avoided any kind of ‘formulaic’ structure: ‘It is worth mentioning that examiners continue to report that pre-prepared structures and sentence starters often seem to hinder students’ expression of their views’. This was certainly a long time coming.

Secondly, there was the focus on students devising a strong thesis statement contributing to students responding to the question effectively, and lastly the acknowledgement of the large scope of knowledge needed in order to be successful in these exams.

Without making this into a blog about the examiner reports, it is worth noting that there is a large move toward a wider breadth and depth of knowledge acquisition and retention in English. I noted the following observation on Twitter:

As a teacher of A level English Language, I am very aware of discussion being paramount to student success. I’m not just talking about verbal discussion within the classroom, but effective discussion through essay writing (with analysis and criticality threaded through.) With that in mind, I’ve been working on these ‘Big Questions’ in order to put them into practice with my groups from September.

Where do the ‘big questions’ come from?

A ‘big question’ is simply a question which isn’t particularly specific for a reason. It’s big because its main purpose is to encompass a number of interpretations and texts which contribute to an ever-growing, fluid discussion.

Personally, I find the hardest part is devising the ‘big question’. It is almost like writing the conclusion to an essay before you even know what you’re writing about, so it makes sense to focus on a few texts at the early stage of devising a ‘big question’.

Similarly, I also felt I needed some kind of stimulus based on the thematic side of the question. Once I had an extensive list of common themes in literature, my mind began to spark.

Creating the ‘big question’

As I looked through the list of themes, I was instantly drawn to two parallel themes: ‘facing darkness’ and ‘facing reality’. I thought, brilliant! This covers texts on both literature paper 1 and paper 2. Let’s get cracking.

Step 1. Create the question.

Is facing darkness easier than facing reality?

Now, this is where it got even more exciting because I was slowly forming a ‘map’ of connections between texts which all respond to this same ‘big question’. Below is the process of how this happened.

Step 2. Outline a few pieces of guidance

  1. Define key terms and decide on how to interpret the question (multiple ways to create fluidity in argument)
  2. What do we mean by ‘facing’? is this less or more than being active with darkness/reality?
  3. Decide on at least 5 broad examples of texts which encompass/link to this idea of facing darkness/reality
  4. Create sub-points linking to each text – Far more successful if subpoints interweave with others.

Step 3. Choose the 5 texts (at least)



Step 4 & 5. Decide on the sub-categories for each text in isolation before making connections. This is where the breadth and depth of knowledge is crucial. Ensure all sub-categories are in keeping with the ‘big question’. Finally, make your connections across the texts!

Hopefully, through the colour coding, the connections between texts are clear. In terms of cognitive impact, this activity is highly stimulating and requires a heavy amount of understanding across texts.

Now, I know that the GCSE exams will never expect students to discuss Banquo’s speculation about the witches in the same essay response as an analysis of ‘Kamikaze’. Nevertheless, this activity will still be highly beneficial for retention and deep learning. At this scale, it may only be useful for a class who have good knowledge across the texts – but you could easily create far smaller versions of it. I plan to experiment with it using the Power and Conflict poetry due to the comparative nature of the topic.

Next steps

It was really nice to see this interest in ‘big questions’ transform into such a large-scale activity and resource. I aim to experiment with smaller versions along with topics across key stages.

The resources mentioned are all available on LitDrive.

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