AQA A: ‘AS’ Contextual Exam Question 1

AQA Specification A. Unit 1 . Section A Question 1.  Texts in Context.

In this question, Assessment Objective 4 accounts for an enormous 27 out of the 45 marks.  It is therefore worth concentrating on its requirements!  I am going to paraphrase the exam board’s descriptors for AO4.  You are being asked to:

(a) show an understanding of the relationships and connections between the extract they provide and the other texts you have studied.

(b) comment on the significance of these relationships and connections, with regard to the time when they were written or to a modern reader now.

There are three study Options and your teacher wil have chosen one of the following:

  • Option A: Victorian Literature (LTA 1A)
  • Option B: World War One Literature (LTA 1B)
  • Option C: The Struggle for Identity in Modern Literature.

Whichever option, the best way to tackle the exam extract is to annotate where it deals with any of the ‘six key areas’ of the option.  I shall deal with Option B: World War One, which has the following areas:

    • The realities of war
    • ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’
    • Patriotism
    • Politics
    • Physical/mental/spiritual consequences
    • The role of women and the Home Front

Below, I have annotated the Option B World War One Literature extract from the June 2011 exam paper, in red capitals, and continue afterwards with the means of approaching the essay itself:

The Question:

The following extract is taken from War Letters to a Wife by Lt.-Col. Rowland Feilding (1871–1945) published in 1929. In this extract Feilding describes the life of soldiers in the trenches and compares their attitudes with some of those on the Home Front.

How does the writer present his thoughts and feelings about World War One?  How far is the extract similar to and different from your wider reading in the literature of World War One?  You should consider the writers’ choices of form, structure and language. (45 marks)

The Extract:

I can never express in writing what I feel about the men in the trenches; and nobody who has not seen them can ever understand.  According to the present routine, we stay in the front line eight days and nights; then go out for the same period.  Each company spends four days and four nights in the fire-trench before being relieved.  [REALITIES] The men are practically without rest.  They are wet through most of the time.  They are shelled and trench-mortared. [ PHYSICAL & REALITIES]  They may not be hit, but they are kept in a perpetual state of unrest and strain [MENTAL CONSEQUENCES] .

They work all night and every night, and a good part of each day, digging and filling sandbags, and repairing the breaches in the breastworks; that is, when they are not on sentry. [REALITIES]   The temperature is icy.  They have not even a blanket.  The last two days it has been snowing.  They cannot move more than a few feet from their posts; therefore, except when they are actually digging, [REALITIES] they cannot keep themselves warm by exercise; and, when they try to sleep, they freeze. [PHYSICAL CONSEQUENCE]  At present, they are getting a tablespoon of rum to console them [MENTAL CONSEQUENCE], once in three days.

 Think of these things, and compare them with what are considered serious hardships in normal life!  Yet these men play their part uncomplainingly.  That is to say, they never complain seriously. [MENTAL CONSEQUENCE]   Freezing, or snowing, or drenching rain; always smothered with mud [REALITIES];  you may ask any one of them, any moment of the day or night, “Are you cold?” or “Are you wet?”—and you will get but one answer.  The Irishman will reply—always with a smile—“Not too cold, sir,” or “Not too wet, sir.” [MENTAL CONSEQUENCE]   It makes me feel sick. [PHYSICAL CONSEQUENCE] 

It makes me think I never want to see the British Isles again so long as the war lasts. It makes one feel ashamed for those Irishmen, [MENTAL CONSEQUENCE] and also of those fellow-countrymen of our own, earning huge wages, yet for ever clamouring for more; striking, or threatening to strike [HOME FRONT]; while the country is engaged upon this murderous struggle REALITY].  Why, we ask here, has not the whole nation, civil as well as military, been conscripted? [POLITICAL] 

The curious thing is that all seem so much more contented here than the people at home.  The poor Tommy, shivering in the trenches, is happier than the beast who makes capital out of the war. Everybody laughs at everything, here.  It is the only way [MENTAL CONSEQUENCE] …

 from War Letters to a Wife by Lt.-Col. Rowland Feilding


Of course, in an exam room, you may find it difficult to remember the ‘key areas’.  To overcome this, a mnemonic is best.  For the World War One option, I came up with: Water SHRIMPPS, but I’m sure you could come up with something better.

    • Women
    • Spiritual
    • Home
    • Realities
    • Inhumanity
    • Mental
    • Physical
    • Patriotic
    • Political

In practice, I wouldn’t write out these ‘key area’ words in full.  I recommend simply putting the mnemonic letters in the left hand margin.


Now we have labelled the text we can approach the essay in a logical manner, by dealing with the areas in an order that suits us.  Do note that if you deal with the ‘key areas’ of the extract, you will also be dealing with the question’s focus, which is always ‘thoughts and feelings’.


Once you have planned the essay, the introduction is easy – its purpose is simply to orientate your readers towards the direction that you intend to take.  In effect, this may be a summary of your ‘topic sentences’ which will start each paragraph.


For the first part of our essay, we might feel, from the annotations, that there is plenty to say about the ‘realities of war’ so we can make that the first area to address with a clear POINT to start the paragraph e.g.

Rowland Feilding presents the realities of life at the Front for soldiers in the trenches.

By starting in this way, the point is a ‘topic sentence’ which ‘signposts’ the content of the paragraph; it deals with the question, orientates us to the specific ‘key area’ and keeps us on track.  Let’s continue … I have put in brackets, again in red, good features of essay-writing technique…

Although this is a personal letter [form] to his wife, he writes rather formally and factually [analysis of language] when he describes the ‘routine’ of days on and days off.  The significance of this is only appreciated when we read that ‘The men are practically without rest.’ [quote embedded in the sentence]  This short sentence [language use: writing style] is followed by another, which hyperbolically [literary term] reveals that their whole bodies [analysis of the metaphor] are metaphorically [language: literary term] ‘wet through’ .

Notice how useful it is to condense quotation with analysis and literary terminology.  So much time is saved.  Let us say that you now look at the other physical hardships that the soldiers endure, such as the freezing conditions, no blankets and the mud.  Make sure you continue to analyse the form, language and structure, when the opportunities arise.

The moment has come to compare/contrast with something(s) that you remember from your other texts – again making sure that you analyse when you can.  Try to deal with the significance of the comparison/contrast before moving on to the detail of the next ‘key area’, which you feel is a feature of the exam extract.  Here, for instance, you might find that you can now naturally bring in the mental consequences.

The conclusion should not be one which goes over the ground which has already been covered.  Ideally, you will have a sudden spark of understanding which has arisen as a result of writing the essay – something you had not appreciated about the thoughts and feelings, when you started it.  Having such moments makes the whole business of essay-writing worthwhile.  If you are stuck, a very good second best is to consider which of the thoughts and feelings have had the most impact on you.  Approaching the conclusion in this way can give it a very personal, final flourish and this is the only time when you can use ‘I’ in an essay.


4 thoughts on “AQA A: ‘AS’ Contextual Exam Question 1

  1. This is honestly so helpful! Could you possibly give me an idea of key areas to look for in Option C – Struggle for identity?


  2. Thank you so much for writing this! My teachers have been excellent in teaching analytical skills etc however they haven’t really been clear on giving a sort of ‘formula’ for answering the question- which has been unhelpful for me as I need structure to fit my ideas into! I wish I’d come across this blog earlier.
    Would you recommend using this sort of structure when answering section B? (but obviously when comparing/contrasting you use poems from your chosen anthology)


    • Lorna

      Thank you for your positive feedback.

      The key to structuring section B answers lies in the first part of the question, which is always: ‘How far …?’ or ‘To what extent …?’. The essay is a debate or argument in which you take points and evaluate them with view to reaching a reasoned conclusion. Always make sure you quote and analyse – do not have any paragraphs without!

      There is no best structure but one which is relatively easy to apply is (1) Introduction (2) Counter-argument (3) your own viewpoint with critical evaluation of counterargument and promotion of your own (5) Conclusion. See below for more detail.

      The key to a good essay is careful planning. Do not start writing before you have the line of your argument clear in your head. I might spend 10 (15 abs max) minutes planning, remembering quotes etc before writing like hell.

      (1) The introduction should very briefly cover the main areas of the essay’s content. It’s purpose is simply to orientate the reader to where you are taking him/her – nothing more, it’s a courtesy.

      (2) The counter-argument: Start with a point of view which is not your own or not your own fully, perhaps with a sentence such as ‘some people may feel that …’ or ‘A characteristic feature of X’s writing is ….’ Then quote, analyse and explore etc as usual. Only comment positively, at this point.

      (3) In this section of the essay, which should be a number of paragraphs, you should put forward your own refined viewpoint and ‘slamdunk’ with powerful supporting evidence and analysis. You might start e.g. ‘There are, however, more issues to consider …’ In passing, you can point out some weaknesses with the counterargument in (2) e.g. its ‘limiting nature’ it being a distortion of the complete picture. You might discuss how the question’s feature/aspect is important but not wholly so. Doing this shows you can evaluate and leads you smoothly onto (4).

      (4) The conclusion will ideally be what you have gained in understanding by exploring the texts in this way.

      Important: The question will always deal with a particular topic/aspect of writing e.g. a poet’s use of voices, make sure you deal with that aspect very thoroughly even if you lead on to argue that this not the most compelling aspect of his/her writing. Also, note that AO4 (context) is not assessed in Section B.

      If you want have a look at the mark scheme for the 2014 AS paper, try

      Good luck

      English Tutor Bournemouth


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