The GCSE comparative essay: non-fiction texts

This page provides useful lesson resource material and guidane on how to approach and write a ‘compare’ essay .  The source material is no longer available but schools may still have copies of the paper: Understanding non-fiction texts.
The material is based on the AQA Legacy GCSE English Language Unit 1 Question 4.  

Question 4 in the January 2012  exam was:.

Referring to Source 3, ‘Ferry across the Lake’ and either Source 1 or Source 2, you are going to compare the two texts, one of which you have chosen.  Compare the ways in which language is used for effect in the two texts.  Give some examples and analyse the effects.

In any English Language exam, you are asked: to identify how  language is being used; to quote and give examples; and to analyse either the author’s purpose (or, if you like,  the effect on the reader).

First to identify the author’s main purpose:

IMPORTANT NOTE on 1-3 below: Be flexible – texts will be!   It is therefore possible that you might have e.g a mainly an informally written factual piece, which has some opinion and a little description.

1. Is the author’s purpose to provide information(facts) or give an opinion (or both)?

For information (facts) : you might find examples of:

        • Statistics, numbers, dates, times
        • The author’s own examples and quotes
          • Quoting an expert (which often poses as fact!)
          • Reported Speech
          • Dialogue
        • Technical Language (suggesting expertise)

For opinion, there might be:

        • anecdotes
        • first person pronouns
        • unsubstantiated claims
        • hyperbole
        • commands(imperative verb form),
        • challenging rhetorical questions
        • generalisations
        • asides

2. Is the author’s purpose descriptive?  You might find:

      • Lively, vivid language and/or use of adjectives
      • Use of the five senses: touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste
      • Symbols
      • Similes
      • Personification
      • Metaphor
      • Active verbs

3. For both 1 and 2, you might also find examples the author’s tone e.g. in  formal, humorous or informal ways:.

For Formal, you might find:

        • Standard English grammar
        • Impersonal tone
        • emotive language (i.e. encouraging an emotional response)
        • Passive mood verb forms
        • the use of ‘one’ e.g. ‘one might say …’

For humorous:

        • irony
        • mockery
        • mimicry

For informal:

        • Colloquial language (i.e. everyday spoken language) and writing to represented how words are spoken
        • Slang
        • Dialect vocabulary and grammar
        • Elision
        • Personal comments/observations
        • Emotive language (can appear here as well as under ‘formal’ above)
        • First person pronouns
4. Linguistic Devices:
There are a number of additional ‘how’ techniques that authors use to guide their readers in the ‘right’ direction.  The following often appear in discourse (i.e. a speech, report, newspaper article etc):
    • Language and structural elements:
      • Repetition, triple phrasing, use of a list
      • Contrast, antithesis, juxtaposition, bathos
      • Language directed at a particular type of reader e.g. young people
    • Language at Sentence Level:
      • Sentence structures: compound sentences, complex sentences, simple sentences and the non-sentence
      • Sentence types: exclamation, rhetorical question, statement
    • Language at word and phrase level:
      • alliteration, onomatopœia, pun, double-meaning, oxymoron

NOTE on 4: It is not enough to spot these devices, the examiner wants to know whether you have appreciated the  effect of any feature on you, the reader.

Let us return to how an essay might develop.  I have written a sample paragraph for this old paper.  The paragraph is not a GCSE student’s but it might usefully serve as a model.  You might ask students to annotate the point, evidence,expanation/analysis:

The purpose of article 1 is to  inform the reader about the water problems in the UK.  Geoffrey Lean starts by showing that we automatically assume water shortage is only a problem to desert nations, with the metaphor that the reader’s mind might ‘ fly” there.  The speed of flight is used to demonstrate how we automatically view Britain in terms of the fertile adjective ‘green’ . This is further supported by the quote from Shakespeare which repeats the word ‘rain’ to give a sense of unending wetness; the humorous image of always being a soaked is conveyed in the informal metaphor of us being a ‘soggy nation’.    This is all described with view to surprise us with the actual truth, which is an ironic contrast.   We are given sobering facts, such as parts of Britain having less rain than the Mediterranean, and predictive reports that we will even have water-rationing by the specific date of 2015.  Figures about future costs rising to £25 Billion are alarming – particularly because they are in a Government report which one might think is reliable.   In this passage, factual language is therefore used to expose our mistaken beliefs.  The facts and evidence are used to give us the ‘true’ picture, as the author sees it.

I have annotated the same paragraph, in red, so that students can see what an examiner might note:

The purpose of article 1 is to  inform [author’s purpose] the reader about the water problems in the UK.  Geoffrey Lean starts by showing that we automatically assume [reader becomes aware of his/her preconceptions] water shortage is only a problem to desert nations, with the metaphor [terminology] that the reader’s mind might ‘ fly” [embedded quote] there.  The speed of flight [analysis of ‘fly’] is used to demonstrate how we automatically view [effect on reader]  Britain in terms of the fertile adjective [accurate terminology] ‘green’ [embedded quote].  This is further supported by the quote [author’s evidence noted] from Shakespeare which repeats [structure/vocabulary feature] the word ‘rain’ [embedded quote] to give a sense of unending wetness [effect on reader explained]; the humorous [author’s tone] image of always being a soaked [effect on reader] is conveyed in the informal [writing style] metaphor [terminology] of us being a ‘soggy nation’ [embedded quote].    This is all described with view to surprise us [effect on reader] with the actual truth, which is an ironic [author’s tone] contrast [author’s writing structure].   We are given sobering [effect on reader] facts [author’s evidence], such as parts of Britain having less rain than the Mediterranean [author’s factual example noted],and predictive reports [author’s evidence] that we will even [effect on reader] have water-rationing by the specific date [predicted fact] of 2015.  Figures about future costs rising to £25 Billion [predicted ‘fact’] are alarming [effect on reader] – particularly because they are in a Government report [the high quality of author’s evidence is understood] which one might think is reliable [effect on reader].  In this passage, factual language is therefore used to expose our mistaken beliefs [appreciation of author’s purpose].  The facts and evidence are used to give us the ‘true’ picture [effect on reader], as the author sees it [understands that the author’s purpose is subjective].

To continue with the essay: it is now  time to compare and contrast this with the description and the factual language in the other text and show how they create different effects on the reader.  Note to students: You often are not being asked to compare/contrast the content,but you must always compare/contrast the language.  

When discussing each text’s effects on the reader, in the old question 4 essay, studnets had to compare/contrast with the second text.  A helpful way to improve your skills is to learn to use comparative words and phrases, such as: ‘unlike’; ‘in contrast’; ‘by way of contrast’; ‘different from’, ‘more evident in’  etc.

I hope you get the idea!

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