To what extent do you agree?

Dear Year 10,

Here is my answer to Q5 on the ‘Fun with a Stranger’ extract.

The writer encourages the reader to change their opinion of Miss Snell by the end of the story. To what extent do you agree?

The story is structured to change the reader’s mind about the character of Miss Snell. Firstly we hear about her before we see her as the class have been ‘warned about her’. This means that we, like the children, have certain expectations: she will be strict, draconian, old-fashioned, and not much fun.

Initially, the writer does nothing to challenge such views. Mrs Snell is described as ‘a woman with a man’s face’ which makes her seem harsh and aggressive (sorry, men) and as ‘strict’ and ‘humourless’. She gives ‘lectures’ and speaks in imperatives, making her appear ill-humoured and bossy. She even makes the ‘good girl’ burst into tears.

However, as the text progresses, we become aware of time passing: ‘Towards the end of autumn…’ and ‘Finally, it was the last week before the Christmas holiday’. Phrases such as this structure the text so as to indicate the changing of the seasons. As the seasons change, so do the children’s opinions of Miss Snell, and consequently, so do ours. Her ‘homely, shy smile’ hints at a warmth beneath the harsh exterior and when she tells them that she wants them to ‘have fun’ and has ‘made friends’ with them we feel that she is much more companionable than she appeared at first. We begin to change our minds. The loyalty displayed by the children makes it difficult to continue to dislike her: children, after all, are excellent judges of character. John Gerdhart’s defence of Miss Snell is particularly touching.

Finally then, as the text builds towards the end of the Christmas term, we are not sure whether or not Miss Snell will melt into a softer version of herself and allow the children a party. The writer hints that this is a day like any other, repeating the phrase ‘like any other morning’ and ‘like any other rainy day’. This, coupled with the setting of a grey, rainy day,  makes us feel that there will be nothing special about the last day of term and it is therefore a surprise not only to John Gerdhardt, but the reader too, when the door is ajar just enough to reveal the ‘neat little pile of red and white wrapped packages’ on Miss Snell’s desk. Pleasantly surprised, we notice that she has wrapped them in ‘white tissue paper’ which is delicate, and contrasts with her ‘man’s face’ at the beginning. She has thoughtfully wrapped and chosen them, with separate (if a little stereotyped!) presents for the girls and boys, and this might remind us of her treating them as individuals earlier on in the passage. There is no party, but she is clearly, as John thinks, ‘human after all’.

At the end of the passage we feel that our opinion of her has definitely changed. She is no longer the stereotype that we feared to meet at the beginning, but instead thoughtful and caring. Ultimately, she has become human.


What do you think and feel?

Dear Year 11,

Here is an example of how to answer the ‘What are your thoughts and feelings?’ questions in the Component 2 exam.

What do you think and feel about Mr. Heritage writing to Mr. Halmer instead of Henry? (10)

I think that Henry would expect a reply from his father, which makes me feel sympathy for him.  In his letter he says ‘I hope, my dear Father, you will write me a Letter as soon as you receive this’. The tone of voice is somewhat desperate; the phrase ‘as soon as’ creates a sense of urgency. Presumably, Henry will not be receiving a letter from his father ‘as soon as’ he receives it, as he will be waiting for a reply from Mr. Halmer before responding. We also know however, from Henry’s letter, that Mr. Halmer is a trusted friend of the family: ‘or write to my good Friend Mr. Halmer, who is very kind to me’. This makes me feel that Mr. Heritage’s decision to write to Mr. Halmer is a thoughtful one; he has chosen someone that Henry trusts and respects and makes this point at the end of his letter: ‘I know you have been very kind to the Boys.’  He could, after all, have written to the school directly. Instead he chooses someone that Henry trusts and likes, and conveniently lives close to the school and knows it well. In this respect, I feel his decision is a sensible one.

I also feel that Mr. Heritage’s concern and love for his children is clear from his letter. He says ‘We all have a great desire to see [Henry]’. The word ‘great’ intensifies his emotion here. Similarly, his comment that ‘George is a great favourite with us all’ implies affection for the ‘other’ brother. And his concern for George’s welfare is clear in his comment that he is ‘not so able to endure ill treatment as Henry’.

Year 11: ‘How does the writer…?’

Hello Year 11,

Here is a sample answer to the question we had a go at today in class:

How does the writer convince us that he was not very academic or good at school work?

The writer also uses humour, describing his grades as a ‘line of Pac-Men doing the Conga’. The simile is a very light-hearted way of suggesting that he got a series of G grades, but the humour is convincing; we do not feel that he is exaggerating the truth, but that he has a clear view of what the situation was. Similarly, his tone of voice is convincing; even when describing painful memories of ‘chilly emptiness’ he remains he isn’t particularly upset or emotional. He seems detached and objective, which emphasises his certainty and makes us feel that we have no need to doubt him.

Rayner uses emotive language to convince us of his past failures. Words such as ‘dread’ and ‘humiliation’ are suggestive of the intense emotions that he felt as a child when unable to complete the homework tasks set. They make it seem as if he really struggled with his school work, and that his efforts were very much below the standards of his peers, and therefore humiliating.

The journalist also uses triplication in the list of three memories, which lends a certain truth to his writing. Even though these are, indeed, memories (and distant ones from years ago, at that), the effect of listing three of them makes them seem factual. Structurally, this long sentence is then followed by a short one: ‘The fact is that I was not especially academic.’ This makes Rayner sound certain; he presents his opinion as fact.

When describing his attempt to complete his son’s maths homework, the writer comments: ‘This I used to be able to do. Or at least I think I used to be able to do this.’ This is interesting, because it suggests that his memory is not perfect. It is an admission of his humanity which, rather than suggesting that we should doubt his memory of the past, only confirms that he is flawed, like everyone else, and that in all probability he was never any good at maths at all.

A3: ‘What impression…’

Hello Year 10.

Here is a sample answer to the question we looked at this morning:

What impression do you get of Miss Snell in lines 7-22 of ‘Fun with a Stranger’?

I get the impression that Miss. Snell is a traditional, old-fashioned woman. She is ‘probably sixty’ and ‘seemed to smell of pencil shavings and chalk dust’. This makes her seem musty and old. It also gives us the impression that teaching is a big part of her life and has perhaps taken over her identity.

I get the impression that Miss. Snell is quite a harsh teacher. Her eyes are ‘sharp’ and when she speaks it is a ‘snap’. These words make us feel that she has edges – she isn’t soft. She speaks using commands: ‘Don’t mumble’ and ‘Stand up’ which give the impression of an authoritative, perhaps dictatorial figure and her tirades at the pupils are described as ‘lectures’ which emphasise her authority.

She is also highly perceptive; I feel as if she has eyes in the back of her head. They are ‘sharp’ and she ‘almost always’ catches pupils who are talking in class.

This also gives us the impression that Miss. Snell is experienced as a teacher. She4 is used to working with children and has her own idiom for teaching: ‘Proper Supplies’.

She also uses a lot of questions in her speech: ‘Is it…?’ ‘Have you…?’ which makes it seem as if she is interrogating her pupils. We get the impression that she is strict and intimidating. She certainly doesn’t seem much fun. The word ‘humourless’ suggests she never sees the lighter side of life and the word ‘determined’ implies that she will not let others do so either.

Finally, she ‘seemed to have no favourites, and ‘picked on’ one of the good girls. This makes her seem unfair and heartless, or perhaps even gives the impression that she is a bit of a bully. However, it could also imply that she is fair, which creates a slightly more positive impression of her.



Dulce et Decorum Est

Here is an exam response to this magnificent poem by Wilfred Owen. It is for part a) only, which is:

In this poem Owen explores ideas about war. Write about the ways in which Owen presents war in this poem. 

This poem is one of the most powerful and well-known poems of the First World War. Written during Owen’s time at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, it is a passionate and bitter reflection on the horrors of trench warfare. It was at Craiglockhart that Owen met Sassoon, whose poems also convey a passionate anti-war sentiment. Unlike the poets before them, the poems of Owen, Sassoon and others such as Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg are written by soldiers with first-hand experience of trench warfare and its horrors. Consequently, they have little time for the romanticised propaganda of their predecessors. War, Owen suggests, is not noble or glorious at all. Quite the opposite: it is a crime against humanity. The poem ends with a chilling indictment to readers to acknowledge this; anyone who suggests that to die for one’s country is ‘noble’ or fitting is nothing short of a liar.

The first stanza sets the scene: soldiers march towards their ‘distant rest’ away from the ‘flares’ of the front line. Owen uses similes to describe them; they are ‘like old beggars’ and ‘[cough] like hags’, suggesting that these men, once young and full of life, now resemble the elderly and decrepit. The imagery is designed to shock; yet it only becomes more disturbing as the poem progresses. For beggars and hags may not be the most attractive of folk, but they are at least human, as is the soldier in the gas attack in the second stanza: ‘like a man in fire or lime’ (my emphasis). In the final stanza, however, the similes no longer describe that which is human. As the gas begins to take effect and we witness the slow and agonising death of the ill-fated soldier, his face is ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’. This is the face of a gargoyle, a demon, a twisted contortion of the human face, no longer recognisable as the soldier that once was. The hags and beggars of the opening lines seem healthy in comparison. The destructive effect of the gas is captured in two final similes: ‘obscene as cancer’ and ‘bitter as the cud of vile incurable sores’. Both serve to emphasise Owen’s message: War is a poison, toxic to those who ingest it. Its effects are those of a terminal disease, causing only suffering and ending only in death. His anger can be heard in the harsh plosives: ‘bitter as the cud‘ and his disgust rings out in the sibilance of ‘obscene as cancer’.

Verbs play a key part in the poem. Owen uses them, firstly, to show the passing of time. In the first stanza, they are construed in the past tense: ‘cursed‘, ‘turned‘, ‘marched‘ and ‘limped‘ depicting the slow and painful process of the soldiers’ journey. During the attack, they shift to the present continuous: ‘fumbling / Fitting‘, ‘yelling‘, ‘stumbling‘ ‘flound’ring‘ and ‘drowning‘. This contributes to the sense of immediacy and action that dominates the second stanza (and is the result of the frequent caesura and fragmented speech there). Secondly, they create an atmosphere of emergency and panic. The verbs appeal to the sense of sound: we hear the ‘yelling’ and then in the third stanza, the ‘choking’. The sounds become less commonplace (the coughing and trudging of the opening stanza) and more peculiar, until the final verb, the ‘gargling’ of the man’s lungs. (The filling of the lungs during a gas attack had the same effect as when a person drowns.) The effect is cumulative; there is a sense of rapid degeneration as the soldier, and we who watch him, descend into hell.

Adjectives and adverbs also deserve our attention. Owen uses these to create the surreal atmosphere of a nightmare. There is a dreamlike quality to the gas shells that fall ‘softly’ as the men march ‘asleep’. This is further emphasised during the attack in the second stanza: the scene is ‘dim’ and ‘ misty’ and everything is bathed in a light that is ‘thick’ and ‘green’. The effect is one of hazy confusion (it is no wonder the helmets, or gas masks, are ‘clumsy’) and this, juxtaposed with the emergency and and panic created by the syntax, has a distorting effect on the poem. It, like that which it describes, feels wrong, perverted, unreal.

This dreamlike atmosphere is significant in two ways. Firstly, it is the repeated dreams (nightmares?) of the attack that haunt Owen in the days (months? years?) to come, and ‘smother’ him with the conviction that war is an abomination. Secondly, it distances us from the horror of the action. Whilst the use of tense creates the sense that the action is unfolding right before our eyes, and is horrific and graphic, it is perhaps too horrific for us to digest. We cannot stomach the reality of such horrors, and it is only fitting that we should in some way fail to comprehend this scene. In this context, the poem’s final message:

…you would not tell

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori

is a wake-up call. This is the truth, and it has a clarity that rings clear and loud in contrast to the chaos and confusion of previous stanzas. Owen leaves behind his unreal vision to let his message resound: the propaganda is a lie. War is an abomination, and to die in it is not noble. It is the stuff of nightmares.





Elements of Crime Writing: Reading List

Hi all.

I’m in the process of putting together a reading list for the ‘Elements of Crime Writing’ exam. As with any literary genre, the list of recommended reading could go on and on. We are not suggesting that you read everything on this list. That would be ridiculous. We are, however, advising you to familiarise yourself with at least one text from each section (not including your set text, obviously). Know what it is about. Dip into it. If you particularly like it, read more. Gradually, you should build up an increasingly detailed and comprehensive understanding of the different types of crime writing that make up this very varied and wide-ranging genre.

Happy half term reading!

Classical Literature

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

Aristophanes, Lysistrata

Old English and Medieval Quest Narratives


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Namely, those of the Pardoner, Miller, Reeve and Wife of Bath)

Early Crime Narratives

The Newgate Calendar

Renaissance Tragedy

Shakespeare, Othello, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet


Milton, Paradise Lost

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner*

George Crabbe, Peter Grimes

Robert Browning, My Last Duchess, The Laboratory, Porphyria’s Lover

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol


Henry Fielding, Jonathan Wild

Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders

William Godwin, Caleb Williams

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Romance of the Forest

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Emile Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Charles Reade, It is Never too Late to Mend

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, The Moonstone

Mrs Henry Wood, East Lynne

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd

Bram Stoker, Dracula

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes series

G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown series

Modern Drama

August Strindberg, Miss Julie

Ibsen, Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House

George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan, Major Barbara

J B Priestley, An Inspector Calls

Sean O’Casey, Juno and the Paycock, The Shadow of a Gunman

Brian Friel, Translations

The 20th Century and Beyond

Ian McEwan, The Innocent, Saturday, Amsterdam, Atonement*

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor

Paul Auster, City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room

Brian Moore, Lies of Silence

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock*

Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News?

* set text for 2017 examination

One of my personal faves.