Cracking open the egg – approaching the ‘unseen text’ without fear

Graham

11 Plus, 13 Plus, English, French & Politics

July 30th, 2021

Cracking open the egg – approaching the ‘unseen text’ without fear

In this blog, Graham, an experienced teacher and tutor, takes us through a unique approach to tackling 'unseen' texts for A-Level and GCSE English. You will see that six simple questions can crack open even the toughest of texts. Read on if you need help with unseen texts. Or if you like eggs


Unseen Texts in English: “Cracking open the egg”

Intro

The GCSE English Language examination and some A Level syllabuses present the candidate with a piece of nineteenth or twentieth text that they are unlikely to have seen before and asks them to comment on it, to analyse its effects on the reader and possible intentions of the writer.  This is known as ‘unseen’ text commentary or analysis.  

If you are the candidate, this may worry you a little.  After all, this is a piece of text you have never seen before, right?  From a writer you haven’t studied!  From the nineteenth century, even!  You might well be thinking – how on Earth do I begin?

The first thing to say is: be reassured.  You are already doing a useful thing if you have read this far.  You have read the first two paragraphs of a fairly long (and, I hope, interesting) text.  I hope you stay to the end.  Because one of the things that all students need to be accustomed to is reading substantial (that is to say, at least thirty lines) pieces of text.  The piece of text you will face in the examination will be between thirty and forty lines long.  This is important because, in our everyday lives of scrolling, it is easy not to see texts of such length very often.  You might not be in the habit of reading long newspaper articles, short stories or novels and most of the texts you see – on social media, for example, are very short.  

Starting Points

So, the first thing you can take away from this article (if you want to stop reading after this paragraph) is get in the habit of reading long texts.  There’s no way around this.  Nothing will prepare you better to comment on a long piece of text than getting familiar with reading such items.  You can read long texts on anything you like – they all have some value – but the most useful for the English Language examinations are newspaper articles which express an opinion or tell a story (like ‘The Long View’ in The Guardian, for example – other newspapers are available) or even short stories or novels themselves.  Literary texts such as short stories or novels use the same techniques of style as non-literary texts such as you find in newspapers or magazines.  But in literature you will tend to find such techniques of style used more often and, yes, with more skill.  If you think of non-literary texts as the fast-food restaurants of the English language, literary texts are where the Masterchefs work.  What you are reading now is a ‘fast-food’ text, by the way.  And, in case you were thinking of analysing it, see how my early use of the ‘food’ metaphor here is leading us to the eggs I promised you at the very beginning.  

To return to the advice at the beginning of the last paragraph, what does it mean ‘to get in the habit’ of doing something?  It means that the activity should become so familiar to you that there is nothing strange or unusual about it.  And how do you get in the habit?  Those who study such things suggest that you can usually acquire a new habit by doing something every day for about three weeks.  This is not exact (this is not a GCSE Maths or Science article, for heavens’ sake!)  but it gives you an idea that you need to do something repeatedly for a few weeks.  

So we get to the point of this article and the eggs.  Although you may spend a lot of time reading literary and non-literary texts, how do you get started when it comes to analysing them?  Here’s where I’ll try an extended (more elaborate) metaphor: although a text may seem like an egg from the outside – smooth, perfect and finished, with no way in – it will, of course, crack open just like an egg to reveal its golden treasures inside.  

Corny, perhaps.  But you might not forget this image, which is this writer’s intention.  To extend the metaphor still further, just as you can crack open an egg in lots of different ways, so there are many ways to crack open a text and expose it for analysis and examination.  

Six Key Questions

I like to get students to approach texts by asking the normal questions, as follows:

  1. Who?  What do we know about who wrote the text and who (the characters or people) who are in it?
  1. What?  What is being described here?  What is happening?  
  1. When?  When was the text written (this may be useful to know if we have some kind of background or contextual information)?  When are the events it describes taking place?  Historical period?  Season of the year?  Time of day?  
  1. Where?  Where are the events described in the text taking place?  Which region of the world or country?  What kind of environment is it?  Urban or rural?  
  1. Why?  You can interpret this question in several ways.  You might want to explore the writer’s intention but I would always say: be careful with this.  I’m no less guilty than other English teachers of trying to say what a writer’s intention is.  And sometimes it’s easy to think that’s what the examiners want you to write about.  But only a few moments’ reflection makes us realise that we’re never going to know this.  We’re certainly never going to know much about the intentions of a writer like Shakespeare or Dickens, both of whom have been dead for centuries.  In most cases (certainly the case for those two above), writers write to make money (Dickens succeeded in that; Shakespeare was also successful, though as a theatre manager than as a writer; he wrote plays for his actors to perform).  However true that may be, though, you can’t remind the examiners of the uncomfortable truth that Shakespeare, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and all the rest simply had to pay the bills and support themselves and their families. 

In fact, if you look closely at what examiners actually want (always a good idea to do that – they hold our futures in their hands!), they don’t want you to play mind games with living or non-living writers and guess their intentions.  The examiners only want you to argue, with evidence, as to what might be or have been those intentions.  For example, a journalist writing an article about the environment is likely to have the intention of persuading you that we should take more care of it.  A fiction writer producing a horror story is likely to have the intention of shocking you.  And so on.  Shakespeare wanted people to keep coming to his theatre, rather than the bear-baiting pit next door.  Dickens wanted people to keep lining up at railway station bookstores to buy the next instalment of his novel. 

This takes us to the last question we should apply to our egg/text as we ‘crack it open’:

  1. How?  How is the writer producing her/his effects?  And, most interestingly of all, how is the effect on me?  This is probably the part that students have most difficulty with: how do I know if the feelings I have when I read a text are the ‘right’ ones?  Above all, what do I do (and what do I say?) when the text produces no feelings in me whatsoever?  

The answer to the first question is that any emotional response to a text is valid, provided you can explain and justify it with evidence that you find there.  The answer to the second question is that it may help to take yourself out of the picture when writing about text.  This means that instead of writing ‘When I read this text, I feel…’ write ‘in approaching this text, the reader may feel…”.  The second choice of phrase has the advantages of a) sounding more formal and authoritative and b) allowing you to talk about feelings without having to pretend that you have experienced them yourself.  Notice also that I have put in the modifying verb ‘may’ which allows for the possibility of doubt.  This is a perfectly reasonable way to cover yourself when you are making a statement that you are not sure about.  

Application

If you find that all this has made sense up to now, let us try applying the egg-cracking/six questions method to just one sentence, a tiny piece of literary text.  This is the opening of the novel 1984 by George Orwell.  You would be given that information on an examination paper.  You would also probably be told when the work was published.  You would not be expected to know who George Orwell is but, if you do, that is obviously an advantage.  

It was a bright cold day in April and clocks were striking thirteen. 

Six Questions:

  1. Who?  No character has yet appeared so we must wonder who the narrator is.  The narrator seems to be ‘all-seeing’ (omniscient) as she/he is aware of what all the clocks are doing. 
  1. What? What is going on here?  It is surprising that the clocks are striking thirteen.  Clocks usually only go up to twelve.  All the clocks are doing this so perhaps we are in a strange new world.  The fact that the key surprising word is delayed until the very end of the sentence suggests that this will be a story of surprises, or even shocks.  
  1. When?  If we are told the date of the work’s publication (in this case, 1949), we will immediately see that, when the work was written, it was about the future.  This will give us further answers to Question 2. If not, the word ‘April’ tells us that it is some time in Spring in the Northern Hemisphere and ‘thirteen’ suggests it is early afternoon.  If we wanted to go further, we could also note that the month of April with its associations of Spring might invoke notions of hope.  A very well-read student might also note that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’  both begin in April. As a professional writer, Orwell was certainly familiar with both works.  
  1. Where?  We are given no information as to where this text is set.  We know it is a world where clocks are used and clocks which strike.  We do not encounter many striking clocks in 2021 so this is an unfamiliar world to us.  The fact that the clocks are striking thirteen suggests a world that has an additional dimension of unfamiliarity.  
  1. Why?  What are the writer’s possible intentions here? As with the beginning of any story, the writer seeks to intrigue us so that we will continue reading.  He may achieve this effect with some readers (see how I am distancing my account from what I might feel about the text) with two small shocks built into the first sentence.  First, there is, perhaps, a dissonance or discord between the juxtaposed adjectives ‘bright’ and ‘cold’.  We expect ‘bright and warm’ or ‘dull and cold’ perhaps.  There is an even more striking surprise at the very end with the revelation that the clocks strike ‘thirteen’.  The word ‘thirteen’ may have an additional shock value as it is traditionally (in Britain, at least) associated with bad luck. 
  1. How?  I have addressed many of the ways in which Orwell achieves his effects in the answer to the question above.  We may often find it hard to separate answers to what we think a writer’s intentions might have been and how her or his work affects us.  This is an inevitable part of literary analysis.  

I hope this example of how you can apply the ‘egg-cracking’ questions to even a short piece of text can show you a way to get started.  As you can see, there should be plenty to say about even a short piece of text, if you ask the right questions.  

Final Thoughts

Just as there are many ways to crack open your egg, then, there are many ways to start work on an ‘unseen’ text.  This is just one of them.  Now that you have read to the very end, I trust you have found it useful.  Please do get in touch if you would like some further ideas.  Meanwhile, although there are lots of books that will give you ideas on how to approach the analysis of text (that is to say, other sources are available), the one I recommend is:

Break, Blow, Burn’ by Camille Paglia (Vintage, 2007)

With all that said, I’m off to make lunch.  Omelette, of course.

GCSE English tutors


More about Graham

Graham qualified as a teacher in English in 1987, and now works as a tutor with Owl Tutors.

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