How to Approach an unseen Poem: a step-by step guide


This page deals with how to approach a GCSE poetry unseen, using the AQA legacy paper GCSE May 2012 paper 2, which was on ‘Children in Wartime’ by Isobel Trilling.

TIP:  As always, the first thing to do is read the question – and read it before you read the poem because in an exam you cannot afford the luxury of first ‘experiencing’ the poem before you know where your focus should be.   You must concentrate on the question because you only have limited time to get something down on paper.  In this case the question is:

How does this poet present the ways children are affected by war?  

All questions on poetry ask you to do two things: (1) look at the content, i.e. one specific aspect of what the poem about; and (2) look at how the poet presents his/her ideas.

Now the poem …

Children In Wartime

Sirens ripped open
the warm silk of sleep;
we ricocheted to the shelter
moated by streets
that ran with darkness.
People said it was a storm,
but flak*
had not the right sound
for rain;
thunder left such huge craters
of silence,
we knew this was no giant
playing bowls.
And later,
when I saw the jaw of glass,
where once had hung
my window spun with stars;
it seemed the sky
lay broken on my floor.
*flak: anti aircraft fire 

by Isobel Thrilling

So, here is the question broken into parts (2) How does this poet present (1) the ways children are affected by war?  

TIP: Do not think about (2) yet.

TIP: First look at (1) the content.  Here  it is ‘the ways children are affected by war’.  Each of these different ways will be a Paragraph Starting Point (P).  Each of your paragraphs will always answer the question, with something about the way children are affected by war.

TIP: Read the poem and break it down into the different sections (sometimes verses) that deal with the different ways children are affected by war and give each ‘section’ an overall summarising phrase/Point.  Do this now.

There is no ‘wrong’ about your choice of summarising phrase/Point (P) as long as you have the evidence for your view.  When you have finished click here to see if you have marked up the poem as I have done.

TIP:  Start each paragraph with a summarising phrase/Point (P).  This is your lead sentence for each new paragraph.  So you answer the question at the start each paragraph.

TIP: Do not write an introductory paragraph if you tend to waffle.  If you can be very disciplined and quick, orientate your reader by listing the Points you intend to cover in a single sentence … but there is no need to do this at GCSE.

Now it’s time to write the rest of the paragraph

TIP:  Support each Point (P) with a quote or example.  This is the Evidence (E) for your Point (P) being a good one.  This alone will take you to Grade 4.

Now for (2): The other part of the question (‘how the author presents’).  Let us say that you have made this Point (P): The children are affected because their sleep is broken.  Now you introduce a quote/example, which is Evidence (E) to support your view.

TIP:  In the model below a couple of quotes are used (‘ripped’ and ‘soft silk’) but one would be enough Evidence (E).

Once you have the Evidence (E), you can discuss how the author presents that Evidence (E) to give it greater impact.  This is Analysis (A).

TIP:  Notice how the Analysis (A) can be inserted as you go along.  This is a much quicker way of getting your thoughts down on paper.  So now you have the structure of a PEA paragraph .(Also called PEE PQA etc)

TIP: Put a PEA in every para.


War affects children’s lives by breaking their sleep .  The noise of the sirens metaphorically tears the material of sleep.  The sibilant alliteration of ‘soft silk’ draws attention to the peacefulness of children’s sleep and makes its sudden loss seem more sudden and disorientating.

Why is this such a good paragraph?  Well. look at my comments in red ….

War affects children’s lives by breaking their sleep [Point (P)].  The noise of the sirens metaphorically tears the material [use of literary term and Analysis (A) showing understanding of the link between ‘ripped’ and ‘silk’ Evidence (E)] of sleep.  The sibilant alliteration [Literary term] of ‘soft silk’ [Evidence (E) embedded within the sentence] draws attention to the peacefulness [Explanation/Analysis (A) of effect of language] of children’s sleep and makes its sudden loss seem more sudden and disorientating [Explanation and further Analysis (A) of significance].

Do the the remaining sections and finally …

TIP:  conclude with a short sentence that considers your overall reaction to the way that children are affected or the poet’s overall perspective about the ways children are affected by war.

This last part of your essay is what makes it all worthwhile because it is your chance to give a personal response.  It stops the exam being just a simple regurgitation.  This is for you: it’s what you get out of the whole process.   Also examiners love to read what you really think about the poem as a result of your analysis.  Some teachers say you must never use ‘I’ in a literary essay but an essay’s conclusion is that one place where you truly can say ‘I’.  In this particular essay, a student might begin the conclusion with: ‘I found the most alarming part of this poem is the children’s disorientating trauma …’  Note: giving a personal perspective should still answer the specific question!


2 thoughts on “GCSE UNSEEN Poetry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s