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.


How to get Better Marks in English

Work on your spelling. Go through your work and try to identify spellings you get wrong frequently. For example, you may get confused with ‘their’ and ‘there’ or get plural spellings wrong. Log on to for a range of strategies to help you learn spellings you find difficult. Practise.




Work on your punctuation. Again, go through your work and identify any errors that have been highlighted by your teacher. Common errors include using too many commas and not enough full stops; forgetting to use apostrophes to show possession or missing letters; using semi-colons incorrectly; putting apostrophes in random places wherever there’s an s, and forgetting to put the titles of poems/plays/stories in ‘inverted commas’. Practise.


Work on your vocabulary. Again, go through your work and see if you can identify words you tend to use all the time. Use a thesaurus to find alternatives or synonyms of these words. Practise using them in your work. Practise.

Read things. Try to find a good example of whatever it is you are writing. If it’s an essay, find a good essay. If it’s a leaflet, or a letter, or a magazine article, find a good leaflet, letter or magazine article. Try to look at a few of each. You should start to see words and phrases that are used frequently. Copy these down and learn them. Next time you have to write whatever-it-is, try to use them. Practise.



Don’t use more words than you need to! The best way to do this is to practise summarising texts. Read a magazine article that’s around 500 words and try to summarise it in 100. Or an article of 750 words in 200, and so on. This will force you to become more selective in both your reading, and your writing. Practise.

How to Write an Essay

This post uses a sample essay on To Kill a Mockingbird to guide you step by step through the process of writing an essay. Follow the 8 steps below and essays will become a walk in the park.


1. Write the essay title at the top of the page (2 minutes)
(This sounds obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many people forget to do it.) Why not underline it with a ruler, just for good measure? It’s always good to start off on the right foot.

What do you learn about the character of Calpurnia in chapter 12?


2. Plan your answer (10-15 minutes)
Quotations can be very helpful when it comes to planning. Collect quotations from chapter 12 relating to Calpurnia. You can use them to get ideas about what to put in your essay. But don’t just go through them one by one in the order they happen to be in. Think about it. You want to put them into different groups, so that your essay isn’t jumping around all over the place. It will make it much easier if you spend some time doing this before you start writing. So spend 10 – 15 minutes putting them into groups. Use the headings below. They will be the different sections of your essay.
• Quotations about Calpurnia’s life in the past.
• Quotations about Calpurnia’s life now.
• Quotations that show Calpurnia’s relationship with Scout and Jem.
• Quotations that show Calpurnia’s personality.
(You can’t do this quickly. Once you start thinking about it, you’ll realise that there are lots of different ways of grouping the quotations. Don’t worry – just spend a bit of time on it.)


3. Write an introduction (5-10 minutes)
In your introduction, it’s a good idea to give the reader an idea of what the essay is going to be about. The problem is, you don’t want to give too much away. So keep it short, and explain very simply what happens in chapter 12, and whereabouts in the novel it is. You could also write a sentence about who Calpurnia is, but you should keep this very general for the moment.


4. Make a point (2 minutes)
This is going to much easier because of your plan. Look at the first heading– Calpurnia’s life in the past. You could just copy it out, a bit like a subheading:

Calpurnia’s life in the past.

But it’s much better if you can turn it into a sentence. Something like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb.

You should always start the different sections of your essay like this. It helps the reader keep track of where you are. (It helps you, too.)


5. Use a quotation (or reference) to back up your point (3 minutes)
Now then. You could just whack it in, like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb: ‘”I’ve spent all my days working for the Finches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.” (p. 138)

But it’s much better if you can introduce it. Something like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb. On the way home from church, she tells Jem and Scout: ‘”I’ve spent all my days working for the Finches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.” (p. 138)


6. Pick out words or phrases from the quotation and say something about them (5 minutes)
This is the bit that most people find the most difficult. Don’t worry – it’ll get easier the more you do it. If you’re not sure which words to pick out, try some out and see if you can think of anything to say. Something like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb. On the way home from church, she tells Jem and Scout: ‘”I’ve spent all my days working for the Finches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.” (p. 138) The phrase ‘all my days’ tells us that Calpurnia has spent her whole life working for Atticus and his ancestors – perhaps she even grew up working for them. It would not have been uncommon for servants to spend their whole lives working for the same family. Calpurnia must have grown up with Atticus, and probably knows him better than anyone. She would also have known Scout’s mother. We realise just how much a part of the family she is.


7. Repeat numbers 4 – 6 until you have reached the end of your plan (30 – 40 minutes)


8. Write a conclusion (10 minutes)

A bit like the introduction, there is no need for this to be very long. Don’t include any quotations. Don’t just repeat everything you’ve said. You want to answer the question, as plainly and simply as you can, with one big answer. Using the words from the title will help. Something like this:

In chapter 12, we learn a number of things about Calpurnia that we didn’t know previously. All of these give us a greater sense of who she is as a person – her personality, her past and her present. It is interesting that Harper Lee waits this long (almost half the novel). Perhaps it is because Scout is the narrator – and it is not until she begins to grow up that she really begins to see Calpurnia for who she is. Until now, she has viewed Calpurnia as the cook, and little more. But now she begins to realise that she has a history – a unique personality, and so do we.



Mrs Dubose and the Camelias

This sounds like the name of a band.
It’s not (I don’t think…) it’s a reference to chapter 11 of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the antaganistic, crumbly old Mrs Dubose from down the road forces poor Jem to read Ivanhoe (and such like) to her as she dribbles her way through the sticky Maycomb afternoons.

Once you get into Part 2 of the novel, when the trial of Tom Robinson begins to dominate the narrative, you’ll forget all about the funny little goings-on of Part 1. The rabid Tim Johnson, lolloping his way down the road, the summer games with Dill and adventures into the Radley territory and, indeed, Mrs. Dubose and her camelias… these will all seem like minor, insignificant happenings, in comparison with the drama of Tom Robinson’s trial.

So let’s pause before we embark on the heady adventures of Part 2, to reflect on why Part 1 is so important. Because it is, actually.

The themes that are explored in these little stories are exactly those that Harper Lee will explore in the rest of the book. The prejudice against Boo Radley that we see in Part 1 will re-emerge as the prejudice against Tom Robinson (and Mayella Ewell) in Part 2. The empathy that Atticus tells Scout is so important in Part 1 (‘You never really know a person… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’) is the same empathy required of Jem as he learns more about the trial in Part 2. The courage of Mrs. Dubose in Part 1 is the same courage required of Atticus as he defends Tom Robinson in Part 2. It’s all very clever, you see.

Have a look at this:

Mrs Dubose - themes

It shows some of the themes prevalent in chapter 11.

Re-read chapter 11, and make notes on moments where one of the themes seems to be important.

Use your notes, and the diagram, to answer the following essay question:

How does Harper Lee use the story of Mrs Dubose in chapter 11 to explore some of the novel’s key themes?

Due: Monday 14th October