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On learning quotations for exams.

There has been a lot of traffic on Twitter recently around this topic. The new GCSE exams are requiring students to sit closed-book exams in all elements of English Literature and there is understandable concern from teachers that the children may not be being prepared sufficiently for this task.

So, before my ha’pen’orth of advice as to some strategies, my cards on the table:
I like closed book exams. I sat them as a child and have taught them at A level, IB and IGCSE for many years. I have never understood why the old CIE Literature IGCSE was closed for one paper and yet open for the modern drama paper – it seems unnecessarily confusing.
Yes, learning quotations is potentially arduous and may result in a large amount of unnecessary material being consumed and committed to memory, but there is a purpose. It seems that a student who has committed elements of the text to memory – who really ‘knows’ the text – is better placed to respond to the unexpected in an examination. Not only that, but the time wasted leafing through the text in search of the perfect quotation is significant in examinations which give only around 45 minutes to assimilate, plan and write a response. There is also a significant risk that students will give scant weight to revision of the texts involved, on the grounds that they can look up the necessary material in the examination.
That said, I see no reason not to give the text of a poem read as a disparate group of poems in an anthology – there is little to be gained from memorisation of all 16 or 20 poems and the responses need to focus on poetic techniques rather than on memorisation. Whole texts are different and need to be addressed from the outset with the aim of embedding knowledge of the text as habit. Moreover, since most poems are relatively short, regular reading and discussing will embed quotations in the long term memory, aided by any rhythmic or rhyme=pattern which can be discerned.

So, that said, how do I try to help my students with the task of ‘learning quotations’.

1: Avoid the ‘this is hard’ approach. It is worth recalling that a quotation my simply be a single word. Often open book exams result in two or three lines of a poem or a play being cited with the focus being on a single word in the second line. Students do not need to quote at extreme length and should be aiming for neatly embedded quotations which can be further discussed. They are not being tested on their recall per se, but the inferences about writers’ craft which they make from their chosen quotation. Keep it short and keep it simple.
2: Start early. Habitual retention of quotations can be made into regular practice in KS3 quite easily.
3: From KS3 be explicit about the regular use of quotations in discussion and all oral activity. Use questions to reinforce the students’ ability to recall and deploy quotations in all aspects of lesson time. When a student paraphrases in an oral response, offer the question back and require a quotation- as in the exam, this need not always be word perfect if a longer phrase, but should be discussed with the key word shared around the room.
4: Build confidence with unfamiliar language. I try to use Shakespeare’s language in my questioning and discussion – the more the language is heard and utilised, the easier it becomes to recall at a later date. The same is particularly true of Chaucer (at A level currently) where I find students struggle to recall accurately the spellings of Middle English. Here there needs to be a mixture of aural and visual stimuli.
5: Regular low-stakes testing of recall can be built into lessons – starters and paired activities are good for this.
6: Whilst I can offer a list of ‘key quotations’, I tend not to do so. I believe that students will recall with greater ease those quotations they ‘find’ for themselves. The fact that certain quotations will have received greater ‘air-time’ in class than others can help to ensure that the ‘key quotations’ are learned, but others will be remembered because the students themselves have ‘discovered’ them.
7: All quotations must have a purpose – simple memorisation is not enough. Consider the ‘key quotation’ ‘…it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’ much beloved of students reading TKAM. This is often used, and often misses a key point because the first half of the quotation has been ignored – ‘shoot all the bluejays you want’. It can be very useful to use both ends of this little balanced phrase if only to note that society is far from a kind and gentle place, even in Atticus’ ideal world. Another example would be the wanton use of “To be or not to be” without the succeeding lines in which Hamlet engages in exploration of the actual alternatives on offer, focusing on the idea of one choice being ‘nobler’ than another. The essay becomes much deeper and more interesting as soon as one expands the selection.
Whatever is chosen, the focus of the writing must be to explain why the quotation has been chosen to illustrate the specific point being made.
8: To aid more than simple memorisations, I encourage students to buddy-up for revision:
a) Top Trumps. When my children were young I used to loathe top trumps with a passion – it all seemed so futile, to sit down and get roundly trounced on my knowledge of Tall Buildings because my sons had played so often that the material had become second nature. I use this to suggest a good use of cue cards. On one side the Quotation, on the other a list of bullet point comments – speaker and interlocutors, place in the text, contexts, thematic links, and other potential character references. The game is played in pairs with the responder needing to hit the bullet points in whatever focus the questioner requires. This can lead to a further development, that the responder needs to list all the material on side 2 AND to add further material. When played alone, the quotation is displayed and the player writes a list of bullets to compare with the flip side. Memorisation for exam use should not be simply about chanting quotations without context.
b) The stakes can be raised on the game above by playing slaps or a variant. As before the quotation is displayed before the pair take it in turns to present alternate contextualisations and elaborations. The one who falls silent first receives a ‘slap’ or similar non-physical forfeit.
c) Larger groups can play classroom cricket…
9: It is vital that students do not confuse reading with revision. Revision needs to be pro-active and I am keen to clarify that simply reading will add little to one’s long term memory, and therefore one’s ‘knowledge’ of a text. I encourage this technique: read a pre-determined section of text with a focus in mind form the outset. For example, read Much Ado About Nothing Act 1.1 with a focus of noting references to status. As they read, I want them to make notes – jotting down every thing which sparks their interest whether a quotation or a comment about the text itself. At the end of the reading, there must be engagement with the notes. These should be read through and turned into more useful and focused notes on that scene – filled out and given some explanation. IN doing this, the material will hopefully be retained in the long term memory and the student will have more ammunition on which to call in the exam.
10: Utilise your windows and other ‘dead’ areas. get the students to create window displays based around use of quotations – not just lists, but little contextual discussions if possible. The more these are seen and used in discussion, the more natural it becomes to utilise the material thereon.

I am sure that many of you will have developed these and other techniques far beyond the level of this post! Good luck to you all.

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