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The challenges of teaching A Level English

Teaching strategies   Cambridge IGCSECambridge International A LevelEnglish

When I took up teaching Cambridge International AS & A Level English six years ago, I knew it was going to be a challenge. I had already taught Cambridge IGCSE but I still had a lot of work to do to familiarise myself with the new syllabus I was teaching.

The challenges

When moving from Cambridge IGCSE to Cambridge International A Level, both teachers and students have to make a transition from reading and writing to an in-depth understanding of written materials. There is a shift in focus from content to language. One of my main considerations was how to deliver the course to children who had English as their second or even their third language. I had to think carefully about the fact that they may not be able to ‘feel’ the language in the same way as their native English-speaking counterparts.

From my experience, all students start with paraphrasing what they’ve learnt, rather than evaluating and commenting on the text. Some of you may have had similar experiences. The difference between paraphrasing and commenting needs to be understood before a student attempts a fully-fledged commentary on a given passage. To help with this, I usually give students a lesson on genre, tone and features of language before introducing them to a written passage for commentary.

How can we help students learn?

Over the last few years I have found that giving as many examples as possible is the most effective way to channel students’ thinking into commenting rather than paraphrasing. Simply telling a student that they need to comment rather than paraphrase is not enough. Over time, I started to use different phrases to help get the message to sink in. From ‘paraphrasing’ and ‘commenting’ I jumped to ‘meaning’ and ‘implied meaning’ or ‘intention’ and then to ‘explanation’ and ‘effect’. I supported this with examples of sentences and short paragraphs that students could comment on.

My favourite example sentence was (and still is): ‘The wind was a beast, destroying everything in its way.’ I would write this sentence on the white board and ask students to attempt commenting on its style and language. After receiving several comments, I would ask the students to compare them and highlight the sentences which focus on the effects of language. The sentences that were not highlighted would be considered to be a reproduction of the idea i.e. paraphrasing. I followed this up with three examples of my own, one or two of which may be a reproduction of the idea. I would then ask the students to choose the sentence that best highlights the effects, rather than the ideas. By teaching in this way, my students began to get a better understanding of what the question was really asking of them, and what they would need to do to have a chance of achieving the top grades.

The results

I would be lying if I said that studying English has not been challenging for my students. However, I have noticed that through consistent effort, most of them are capable of understanding what is required of them. A wonderful lesson in both persistence and resilience!

The syllabus makes them stop, think and analyse the language of every novel, article or even a simple brochure. In the past, my students used to whizz past the chapters in a novel to find out what happens to the hero or how the suspense may be broken – a pure focus on content. Now, they are more conscious of those descriptive details that give form and shape the characters. They are also more aware of the narrative prowess of the author, enabling them to visualise moments of suspense. All of this has helped them to focus on the language of what they’re reading as well as the content.

What are your experiences of teaching Cambridge International A Level English to non-native speakers? How do you help your students to comment and not simply paraphrase?

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