Independent critical study: Texts across time
This resource provides guidance on the NEA requirements for A-level English Literature A, and should be read in conjunction with the NEA requirements set out in the specification. It develops and exemplifies the requirements, but is wholly consistent with them. Exemplar student responses accompany this guidance.
Texts across time is the non-exam assessment (NEA) component of our new A-level English Literature A specification. The specification is committed to the notion of autonomous personal reading and Texts across time provides students with the invaluable opportunity to work independently, follow their own interests and to develop their own ideas and meanings. To that end, few restrictions are placed on the student’s freedom to choose their own texts and shape their own task but the following requirements must be met:
- Students write a comparative critical study of two texts on a theme of their choice
- An appropriate academic bibliography must be included
- An academic form of referencing must be used
- The word count is 2,500 words (not including quotations or academic bibliography)
- The task must be worded so that it gives access to all five assessment objectives (AOs)
- One text must have been written pre-1900
- Two different authors must be studied
- Equal attention must be paid to each text
- A-level core set texts and chosen comparative set texts listed for study in either Love through the ages or in Texts in shared contexts cannot be used for NEA
- Texts in translation, that have been influential and significant in the development of literature in English, can be used
- Poetry texts must be as substantial as a novel or a play. A poetry text could be either one longer narrative poem or a single authored collection of shorter poems. A discrete Chaucer Tale would be suitable as a text for study, as would a poem such as The Rape of the Lock. If students are using a collection of short poems, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two poems to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection
- Single authored collections of short stories are permissible. If students are using a collection of short stories, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two stories to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection.
Managing the NEA
The introduction to NEA should provide students with a detailed review of the above requirements and guidance on what it means to work independently (e.g. productive research skills, effective time management). The point at which students begin their NEA preparation will depend on individual school and college decisions. Schools and colleges may aim to introduce the NEA in the first year of the course. An appropriate opportunity would be the six weeks which follow the completion of AS examinations but other opportunities will be available, especially where schools and colleges are not entering their students for AS.
Approaching the NEA
Schools and colleges will differ in how they approach NEA and this may be dependent upon whether:
- Students all choose individual texts and tasks for their NEA
- One text is taught to the whole cohort and the second text is individually chosen
- AS and A-level students are co-taught and an AS only prose text (The Mill on the Floss/The Rotters’ Club) is studied for NEA with the second text individually chosen.
These approaches are equally valid and take account of the different contexts in which schools and colleges will be working. What is important is that each approach recognises that a degree of autonomy in student text and task choice is required. Ideally a range of differentiated texts and tasks will be seen across a submission for this component. That said, students will choose their texts and shape their tasks with your support (and you will be supported by your NEA advisor) and the following offers you some guidance on how to help your students make these choices.
Advice on text choice
Connecting two texts on a common theme means choosing two texts which maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences. Whilst the only date requirement is that one text must be written pre-1900, the component title 'Texts across time' indicates that effective comparison and contrast occurs when the same theme is explored in two texts separated by a significant period of time; here the different contexts of production will inform the similarities and differences in approach taken by the writers to the chosen theme and students will have encountered this diachronic approach in component 1, Love through the ages. This is particularly pertinent if students choose two texts from the same genre (poetry, prose, drama). If, however, students are interested in writing about a theme within a clearly defined time period, it is advisable to consider how the study of texts from different genres will open up discussion of similarities and differences. Students will encounter this synchronic approach in component 2: Texts in shared contexts, and exemplar student response A is an excellent example of the successful connection of a prose and drama text, written within twenty five years of each other, from the Victorian period.
When supporting students with their choice of texts, therefore, the following guidance is useful:
- both texts should be of sufficient weight and of suitable ‘quality’ for A-level study; the set text lists for the examined components help to exemplify what is meant by a substantial text, particularly in relation to selecting an appropriate amount of poetry for a poetry ‘text’. Remember, however, that the A-level set texts cannot be used in NEA
- texts chosen for study must maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences
- texts must allow access to a range of critical views and interpretations, including over time, which students can evaluate and apply autonomously. Secondary sources, relevant to the texts, can include film and stage productions, books and articles; an example of an appropriate bibliography accompanies the exemplar student responses
- once texts are identified, which both address the student’s chosen theme, a more defined focus for the essay is needed; this may arise, for example, from similarities and differences in genre (poetry, prose, drama), type (e.g. gothic fiction), contexts (e.g. of production and reception), authorial method (e.g. narrative structure or point of view), theoretical perspective (e.g. feminism). Exemplar student response A is a good example of how the wider theme of the role of women in the nineteenth-century has been more clearly defined in the focus on two specific relationships and the inclusion of a clear viewpoint – that ‘the personal is political’ – for consideration.
If students are struggling to identify a thematic topic area of interest to them, or texts for study, the specification offers suggestions of themes (page 20) and, as at least one of the texts must have been written pre-1900, of pre-1900 texts (pages 21-22). This is by no means an exhaustive list and it should be emphasised that students are free to develop their own interests from their independent reading. The exemplar NEA responses, however, show how these suggestions might be taken as a starting point and then developed with a more clearly defined focus. Other such combinations to consider as a starting point might include:
- representations of men in Vanity Fair and A Doll’s House
- the gothic in Northanger Abbey and Keats’ poems (‘Lamia’, 'Isabella or The Pot of Basil’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’)
- representations of social class and culture in Middlemarch and She Stoops to Conquer
- satire and dystopia in Frankenstein and The School for Scandal
- representations of women in The Yellow Wallpaper and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’
Clearly the texts mentioned may be interchangeable with other texts suggested in the specification or indeed with the student’s own choice of texts (which may include one post-1900 text); the broad themes will undoubtedly be interchangeable with others and will need to be refined to identify a more clearly defined comparative focus. What these suggestions provide, therefore, is a way for students to begin thinking about the NEA and student autonomy should always be encouraged.
Advice on task choice
We encourage schools and colleges to check individual students’ essay titles with their AQA NEA adviser before students embark on their research, especially where there may be some uncertainty about the appropriateness of texts or the approach being taken.
What is clear, given that the NEA assesses all five assessment objectives (AOs), is that the task must allow access to them all. Students should be familiar with this concept by the time they approach the NEA as all AOs are tested in all questions in the examined components 1 and 2. Exemplar student response A is a good example of how access to all AOs is enabled by the task and the moderator commentary explains how the AOs have been addressed by the student. It is worth considering how key terms in the task wording enable different AOs to be accessed:
Compare and contrast the ways in which Elizabeth Gaskell and Henrik Ibsen present the relationships between Margaret Hale and John Thornton in North and South (1854-55) and Nora and Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House (1879).
Examine the view that in both texts, ‘the personal is political’.
AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.
The use of the command words ‘compare and contrast’ invites the student to organise her response around relevant similarities and differences in the presentation of relationships in the chosen texts. In doing so, she will express her ideas using appropriate terminology.
AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.
The key word ‘present’ explicitly invites the student to write about the different genres of her chosen texts and, together with ‘the ways in which’, signals the need to discuss a range of authorial methods involved.
AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
The focus on specific relationships and on the concept of ‘the personal as political’ engages with how literary representations thereof can reflect social, cultural and historical aspects of the time period in which these texts were written.
AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.
The command words ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ instruct the student to make connections between the texts in terms of subject matter and authorial method.
AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.
The directive to ‘examine’ a clear viewpoint - that ‘the personal is political’ - signals the need to debate this given opinion and so to engage with multiple readings and interpretations.
Advice on writing the essay
Having completed the study of their chosen texts, researched secondary sources and devised an appropriate task, students will need guidance on how to pull their ideas together into a coherent response. Here again, exemplar student response A offers an excellent example of how to structure a sophisticated argument and the moderator commentary explains how this student achieves this. Some key points to note are:
- this is a connective task and so students should be prepared to make connections between their texts in terms of similarity and difference throughout the response; students should make the connections they wish to explore from a range including authorial method, context, genre and critical theory
- contexts and critical views should not be bolted on but instead should be woven through the response, evaluated as a way of reading the primary texts and then used as a stepping-stone into the development of an interesting and persuasive personal overview
- well-selected, concise quotations should be embedded and adapted to the student’s own syntax and required meaning
- a bibliography and academic referencing are required to indicate the secondary sources used by the student during the writing of their essay. AQA does not insist on a particular form of referencing but following the example given in the exemplar student responses would be appropriate.
Supervising and authenticating students' work
The role and responsibilities of the teacher in supervising and authenticating students’ work are set out in Section 6.1 of the specification. It is worthwhile emphasising that the teacher must confirm that each essay submitted is the work of the individual student. The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) document Instructions for conducting coursework provides further guidance about the level of support and guidance that is appropriate for teachers to provide to students. In accordance with JCQ guidance, the following support would not be acceptable:
- having reviewed the candidate’s work, giving detailed advice and suggestions as to how the work may be improved in order to meet the assessment criteria
- giving detailed indications of errors or omissions which leave the candidate no opportunity for individual initiative
- giving advice on specific improvements needed to meet the assessment criteria
- providing writing frames specific to the task (e.g. outlines, paragraph headings or section headings)
- intervening personally to improve the presentation or content of the work.
The role and responsibilities of teachers in submitting marks are set out in Section 6.6 of the specification. Please note that a mark out of 50 is required. This means that the mark you award against the assessment criteria, which will be out of 25, needs to be doubled when entering on the Candidate record form, before submitting marks to AQA.
How do I write a comparative essay for English?
Comparative essays can be quite daunting. It’s difficult to achieve a balance between texts and to know where to start comparing them – sometimes they can be completely different after all. At A-level I had to write a comparative essay on Webster’s The White Devil and Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, which are completely different genres. Yet any differences or similarities you can pick up on. So I would definitely talk about the fact that these are different genres. The White Devil is a play so how would it be performed when it was published/now and how would this make a difference? Would we have sympathy with Flamineo because he talks directly to the audience? More sympathy than we might have for Satan in Paradise Lost?
Comparative essays raise a lot of questions about the texts and it’s difficult to know how you can include these in a sophisticated argument.
DON’T PANIC however.
Sometimes it’s a good thing when texts are so different because ‘comparative’ doesn’t JUST mean ‘what do they do the same?’ although you can address this but also ‘what do they do differently?’ You could look at how themes such as love or war are treated differently i.e. through different stylistic choices or how the writers have different responses to them (perhaps due to their differing contexts). You could use a quote by a critic and see how it applies to one text and not to another.
It’s also important to remember to meet all the criteria for an exam/coursework essay. For example, OCR A level English asks you to meet certain A0s or objectives in your work, so you have to spend a certain amount of time in your essay looking at the context of both texts and then in language analysis AS WELL AS in comparison between the texts. The best thing to do is use the context or language to support/argue with a comparison. So if you are talking about Flamineo compared to Satan you can discuss why the language of both texts makes the two similar/different (the adjectives used to describe them, the settings they’re found in) and why the writers might have presented them differently (Satan is a Biblical character, one who many contemporary readers would have instantly seen as evil – even if a modern audience don’t - whereas Flamineo is a more ambiguous character).
Using an example I’m going to talk you through how to answer an essay question which requires comparison between texts:
Choose a question. See how it applies to one text and then to another through making mindmaps/notes. I chose “ ‘In order to gain liberation women must use their feminine qualities or get rid of them’. Discuss with reference to the three texts you have studied.” and I would use the question with Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (a collection of short stories) and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Therefore I started off by thinking about the position of women in all three texts: in Duffy’s the women seem strong and the fact that she’s chosen historical figures and is rewriting their stories is important, whilst in Carter’s the women seem powerful and the rewriting of fairytales to change views of women is also important and in Shakespeare’s play women such as Beatrice are presented as highly intelligent and witty, but other characters such as Hero are virtually silent throughout the play and therefore seem problematic.
First pick apart the question ( when you actually go to write your essay you can acknowledge that you have done so in your introduction). What is a ‘feminine quality’? What do the writers see as feminine qualities? Duffy and Carter were writing as part of Second and Third Wave Feminism so for them a ‘feminine quality’ would have differed hugely from what Shakespeare thought of as a ‘feminine quality’. For them, ‘feminine qualities’ are often constructs of men, not “true” qualities really.
Examiners like it if you can show you have really thought about the question itself and whether the question itself is worth arguing with. Here you can also show your awareness of the different contexts the writers have: Shakespeare was writing in a century in which women were expected to conform to certain ideals and were seen as mothers, wives, daughters, not the heroes and powerful figures that people Carter and Duffy’s work.
However you must be careful not to lump any writers together – although Carter and Duffy seem to have similar views, make sure you signal that they are different writers with different aims.
I would look at motherhood in all three texts since it is a significant theme throughout – and could be called a ‘feminine quality’ as it is usually. It is quite a good idea to choose a theme that runs through all the different texts but then look at how it is presented differently. So, whilst in Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and Duffy’s ‘Thetis’ or ‘Queen Herod’ the mothers are hugely powerful (which you can show through in depth language analysis) which reflects the writers stances as feminists (bring in some context here), the mother in Much Ado About Nothing goes unmentioned. Instead women are vulnerable to men’s attacks, as when Hero is viciously humiliated and condemned by her father and fiancée. Women are therefore seemingly passive and submissive in Shakespeare’s texts, when they are strong and active in those of Duffy and Carter.
But it is worth always COMPLICATING your argument and being able to show that you have thought of all sides of the argument. Hero might be ‘passive’ in Much Ado About Nothing, but Beatrice is a completely different story (and whilst we’re on the theme of mothers, in some productions Antonio is played by a woman so there is some kind of mother figure, even if still ineffectual which is important). You could find instances where the language she/Shakespeare uses shows her power and intelligence.
In these instances she seems just as powerful as the women in Carter and Duffy’s work. Now bring in context once more: However, is this a good thing in Shakespeare’s view? Is Beatrice dangerous BECAUSE of her intelligence and is that why she has to be safely married off? In the two modern, female writers’ work the women don’t always even marry - their sexuality isn’t dangerous but empowering.
Integrate at least two texts into each paragraph – don’t do one paragraph on one text and then another on the other text so that it reads as para 1) Carter para 2) Duffy para 3) Shakespeare. This will force you to compare the two.
So if you’re struggling to find differences between Carter and Duffy for instance or another two very similar writers, to the point where your essay doesn’t seem to be advancing in terms of argument (this is a danger of only talking about similarities), talking about the differences between how the two have treated the same fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood, in ‘Little Red Cap’ and ‘Wolf Alice’ for example, could raise interesting issues.
It doesn’t have to be as specific as this – Duffy and Carter are really good for comparison and you might not have texts that have such a strong link (the fairytale). However you can always choose a theme that crosses both texts and stick to this. For instance, when comparing Paradise Lost and The White Devil, which don’t seem very similar at all, you could find similarities in the way the theme of corruption is treated and yet COMPLICATE your argument by finding differences underlying this (perhaps due to context as The White Devil is based in a courtly setting whereas Paradise Lost speaks of religious corruption – although it reflects the corruption in the government Milton had worked under).
You can also look at the specifics of the marking scheme: to achieve a good mark in A03 you must be able to compare the three texts, but you are also awarded marks from A03 for bringing in critics. So if you talk about Duffy’s work and then use a quote from a critic (or just an idea, you don’t have to quote them exactly especially in an exam), you would get marks. Therefore, don’t worry too much about constantly comparing the texts. Try always to link them, but if you’re struggling on a certain point or you want to show a difference between them, perhaps bring in a critics argument. This shows that you have read widely about the texts and can show specialist knowledge and it allows you to focus on the detail of a text.
This seems like a lot of information and you might be wondering how you could structure an essay that has to include all of this. But really, a good essay structure that you use all the time can be applied to a comparative essay too. So if you normally write 1) an intro 2) paras agreeing with the question 3) paras arguing against the question 4) a conclusion this could work here as well. Or you can find a new structure. The important thing is that you simply have to include more than one text in each paragraph. This is tricky but it’s supposed to be – and if you can achieve it you’ll get high marks.
So your essay might go something like this (you might have to split up paragraphs because obviously you’ll have a lot to say about each text but make sure you mention at least two authors in each para):
Para 1: Explore how Carter, Duffy and Shakespeare present mothers – women using their feminine qualities, which supports the question.
Para 2: Do any of the characters rid themselves of feminine qualities within these works? What are feminine qualities? You could talk about Beatrice compared to Little Red Cap and The Bloody Chamber – each possesses a violence not usually attributed to women. So does this argue against the question?
Para 3: Do the texts really show women either ‘using’ or discarding their ‘feminine qualities’? Or are they using their intelligence and sexuality, two qualities never previously seen as ‘feminine’, to gain real liberation? Argue that the question itself needs adapting.
Conclusion: Whereas Carter and Duffy show a new version of femininity as a kind of power, subverting old ideas about “feminine qualities”, this power is seen as dangerous in Much Ado About Nothing as Beatrice, the only powerful female figure in the play, is ultimately silenced by the power men possess over her and her complicity in this.