Lessons from the 2019 A-Levels


We’ve been on quite the hiatus, haven’t we! It’s been two intense years with my first cohort of Lit students and with both papers over, there’s now time to gather our thoughts, sleep a little and think about next steps. Without Google Classroom, I’ll settle for the equivalent of ranting at a white wall. You, future JC2 Lit student or future me might find this and the next Paper 3-focused post useful in the lead-up to the 2020 or even 2021 A-Levels, so here’s hoping this is useful.

Unseen But Not Unpredictable?

“Thank you sir tan”, reads one of our students’ comments! Billy Colllins’ ‘Introduction to Poetry’ is a personal favourite of mine and Mr Ian Tan’s. In his words, “I knew it would come out one day due to their penchant for setting ars poetica poems”. This seems a fair assertion: the 2018 A-Level paper, as well as the Specimen Paper released way back in 2011 (for the 2013-2017 syllabus), were based on the creative process of writing a poem.

The question prompt ‘education‘ and selection of poems demands that we pay attention to the role of readers in navigating the poem (quite literally in Collins’ poem) to both understand and appreciate it on their own terms. No government censorship or sanitised readings by ‘experts’, or insistence on a unidimensional ‘confession’ from the poem.

The other question on ‘time‘ presented, for me, a rather obscure poem ‘By Air to Germany’ paired with ‘Time Difference’, the mandatory ‘Singapore poem’. The closing lines of both seem to link the concept of time to distance and separation between people: defined in these terms, we might find similarities with previous questions on loss (2018), different generations’ perceptions of each other (Specimen), care (2017), separation (2016), passing of time (2015), married love (2014) and childhood separation (2013). In particular, there are echoes of the specimen and 2015 with their consideration of familial relationships and time.

While really abstract topics like ‘time’ may appear, it is useful to note that the poems themselves still revolve around universal human experiences of love, emotions, growing old, connecting with others et al.

The topics ‘education’ and ‘time’ however, were not immediately obvious or prominent in the poems themselves. I’m inclined towards dismissing this as bad question setting, but there is merit to setting ‘awkward topics‘ and preparing students to deal with them.

Unexpected PBQ Topics, Non-Key Extracts 

We could say the same for PBQ selection and setting. The episodes/scenes for Pride and Prejudice and Measure for Measure, along with several other texts (e.g. The Great Gatsby), were not particularly crucial or prominent in the respective texts. Here are what some of our students had to say:

I think sieving out the evidence was not as intuitive as it was with other practices. Also i wish we had more practice with non-key scenes like these because it was harder to pick out points relating to the key themes / see its immediate relevance in the plot.

The idea prompt was pretty standard, but the passage was not as prominent as other scenes in Measure to discuss about morality.

There was some difficulty in linking the passage to the theme they specified and come up with points from there.

The 2018 A-Level PBQ for Pride and Prejudice was relatively ‘kind’ to the hardworking student who would have studied and close-analysed Chapter 36 to death. I have always believed that ‘the most important scene’ in any text would never be set as a PBQ, and the hypothesis is true as far as I know. If the 2019 paper were a teacher, then practising more ‘unexpected PBQs’ or ‘non-key scenes’ is the lesson learnt. I shall wait patiently for you, Lydia Bennet (P&P) and Lucio (MM)!

A tricky key word of social tensions but pretty manageable upon breaking down and linking to familiar concerns of manners, expectations and gender roles 🙂

I felt relatively prepared for this question since morality was a familiar topic that has been addressed substantially in Paper 1 lectures and tutorials!

Had a little bit of trouble linking Claudio’s speech/metaphors to ideas on morality. Maybe it could help if in lectures we did lectures around specific characters and the ideas/themes that we can best associate them with

Student sentiment on the topic or question prompt was, as for the unseen, mixed. ‘Social tensions’ was clearly awkward – the reader would easily grasp the tensions between the seemingly proud Darcy and the sycophantically intrusive Miss Bingley, but ‘social tensions’ invites a range of other interpretations that students might associate with General Paper or History. The lesson for students would be, as the above comment highlights, to always link the topic to what you have studied – one can indeed assess Darcy and Miss Bingley’s dialogue in relation to social manners and conventions.

The topic of ‘ideas about morality‘ for Measure for Measure was familiar given the essay questions and lectures devoted to the topic. Despite his role in the plot, Claudio is ultimately a minor or supporting character. The passage can be understood to present two distinct ideas on morality – human nature and its propensity to act with ‘too much liberty’ (in relation to his sexual relations with Julietta), and the morally dubious reasons for Angelo’s application of the law. In this light, the question is fair as it raises concerns of Claudio and Angelo’s moral actions – with the note that Angelo himself is not present and we hear Claudio’s interpretation of Angelo – which are debated for much of the play. So while the concern or idea is ‘obvious’, the actual passage may not be the most obvious. Angelo’s morality is called into question by Lucio, the Duke, Isabella and of course, by Angelo’s misdeeds from Act 2 onwards.

The Curious Recurrence of Questions

‘Spotting’ questions is something I try to do each year, in a safe maybe even beneficial imitation of a compulsive gambler. I was rather confident in mid-Term 3 that the focus of the Pride and Prejudice essay question would be concern or idea-based (e.g. social manners) given that the previous year had given us a character-based question centred on minor characters. The specimen paper question was based on money and marriage, so something like social manners or appearances seemed to be in order. Lo and behold:

  • Discuss the significance in the novel as a whole of Austen’s presentation of the relationship between Charlotte and Mr Collins. (2018 A-Level P1 Q5a)
  • Discuss Austen’s portrayal of the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet in the novel. (2019 A-Level P1 Q5a)

The same ‘trigger’ or ‘base’ recurred, disproving the assumption that topics would vary (e.g. main character > concern > minor character > method). Looking further back, this recurrence held true for the essay questions set for Austen’s Mansfield Park: Fanny’s centrality to the novel, Edmund being ‘admirable’, Mrs Norris’s role are character-based questions appeared between 2017 and 2015 while the significance of ‘Lover’s Vow’ and Fanny’s point of view are method-based questions surfacing in 2014 and 2013 respectively. The essay questions set for The Age of Innocence, a text I previously taught, were all idea-based (2013-17).

Casting our eyes to Measure for Measure, we saw how the topic itself can recur with some changes. The Duke’s disguise as Friar Lodowick, under scutiny in the 2018 PBQ, would be an important point of discussion for the 2019 essay question (on top of his moral and judicial responsibilities).

  • Write a critical commentary on the following passage (from Act 3 Scene 2), relating it to the effects of disguise, here and elsewhere in the play. (2018 A-Level P1 Q7b)
  • “The Duke is hiding from himself.” In the light of this comment, discuss Shakespeare’s dramatic portrayal of the Duke. (2019 A-Level P1 Q7a)

Recalling The Age of Innocence once more, the topic of the 2015 essay question borrowed much from the specimen paper question as well.

  • ‘This is a novel in which nothing is private.’ How far do you find this a helpful comment on social life in The Age of Innocence? (2012 Specimen P1)
  • ‘The novel is about being watched.’ How far do you agree with this comment on The Age of Innocence? (2015 A-Level P1)


Practice Has Its Merits

What is the lesson then, you ask? Well, there is no harm in doing more of the same question trigger or topic.

The same holds especially true for Paper 3 Section C, which features only essay questions. Just as intriguingly, the concept of ‘facing the truth’ in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (linked to George’s violent treatment of Martha and equally violent ‘murder’ of the son-myth) could be re-applied to the 2019 question on ‘attacks on the mind and self’.

  • ‘Albee presents facing the truth as an assault on the mind and the self.’ How far do you agree with this view of the play? (2018 A-Level P3)
  • In relation to ideas about the mind and self, discuss the dramatic presentation of aggression and violence in the play. (2019 EJC JC2 Prelim P3)
  • Consider some of the ways in which attacks on the mind and self are dramatically presented in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2019 A-Level P3)

Correspondingly, the specimen paper question on role-playing and performances and the 2018 question on the use of past narratives bears similarities to the 2019 question on illusions about themselves. The content for ‘past questions’ can be adapted to answer these ‘new questions’; diversity or range of topics does not appear to be a major factor in question-setting at the A-Levels.

  • ‘George and Martha are shown to play roles to avoid confronting their real selves.’ How far do you agree? (2016 Specimen P3)
  • Consider Albee’s dramatic presentation of characters’ illusions about themselves in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2019 A-Level P3)

In my next post, I will be commenting more specifically about 2019 Paper 3 and possible approaches to answering the typically ‘broad and general’ questions in the topic paper. Till then!

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