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Teaching guide: textual intervention, writing about society

This guide supports teachers preparing for A-level Component 2 'Writing about society'. This is assessed in Paper 2 'Exploring conflict' (Section A).

This involves a re-creative writing task and draws heavily on the work of Rob Pope and his book Textual Intervention (1995, Routledge).

Three important concepts

Pope’s pedagogy argues that students learn best when they are deliberately engaged in re-balancing aspects of the original text (the base text) so as to draw attention to why language choices were originally made. It builds on three important and interrelated concepts.

  1. Language is a system from which users make choices at the exclusion of alternative ones.
  2. All language choices that writers make are a type of design, which means that each choice is a significant one.
  3. Intervening in a base text to create a new text offers students ways of exploring both their own writing and that of the original author.

Students think about the 'what if' and 'why' when they intervene in a base text

In intervening, a student is asked to think about the ‘what if’ and the ‘why’, for example:

  1. what if agency was postponed or deleted in a passive construction?
  2. what if a series of verb processes were reified through nominalisation? What if direct speech were presented as free indirect speech?
  3. what if a different aspect of a character’s actions/speech/history were foregrounded and given attention?
  4. what if a monologue became a dialogue or a dialogue a monologue?
  5. what if the text was presented from an alternative point of view, or for a different purpose or audience? In what circumstances would someone make these decisions? Why would they do so? What would happen if the context(s) of production and reception changed?

The re-casting task

Textual intervention work can take place at various levels: at the micro-levels of orthography, lexis, grammar, and semantics; and at the macro-levels of text organisation, discourse, and genre.

On this task, students are rewarded for showing in their writing and in their subsequent commentary that they recognise the importance of specific language choices and how these choices may give rise to certain interpretative effects.

Examples of interventionist work can include ‘translating’ into a different form or text type or taking a specific episode in a text that isn’t fully developed and developing that at the expense of what is currently there. However, for this specification students should be particularly focused on reconfiguring events in the base text from a different point of view. This might be the point of view of either:

  • an included participant (a character explicitly mentioned in the base text)
  • an excluded participant (a character not explicitly mentioned but whose existence can be assumed).

For example in the Into the Wild extract referenced in the sample A-level Paper 2 students might be asked to recast the events from the perspective of the included participant Gallien (as in the sample question) or an excluded participant such as another driver on the road out of Fairbanks who might have seen Alex.

When writing from a different point of view students should be taught to develop potential centres from which such alternative points of view can be presented, and consider how the ‘world’ of the text would be reconfigured to project a version of reality from this different centre. They might think about:

  • making changes to explicit markers of point of view such as type of narrator, manipulation of individual speech patterns, the use of modality, presentation of speech and thought (moving from narrator to character driven modes)
  • how the same series of events would be portrayed through another perspective; what would be emphasised and what would be downplayed or omitted from the base text
  • how they would show shifts in narrative time and place, for example an account written some time after the events in the base text, and in a different location.

Students should draw on their knowledge of the character (if appropriate) from their reading of the base text when developing a point of view so as to be consistent with the parameters of the fictional world of the base text. This would mean maintaining some consistency, for example, with how a character speaks or looks. Clearly, this may not be possible when the point of view is from an excluded participant. In this instance, however, students should be faithful to how other characters might be represented as speaking and acting.

Students are not required to recast the base text into a different genre and do not need to be taught or learn different genres on this unit. The question will always ask students to write ‘an account’ and students should use their learning from other areas of the specification (most obviously on narrative structure and point of view) to inform their writing. A useful starting point would be to encourage students to reflect on their learning from Imagined Worlds (point of view, representation of character, representation of speech and thought and so on) as a way of making writing decisions of their own. Students are able to shape their own writing in any way, and using any narrative strategies they wish (dialogue, 1st and/or third person perspectives, implication, description) so as to reconfigure the narrative events from a different perspective.

The commentary

An important part of textual intervention work is the reflective commentary in which students explore their own work and evaluate their use of specific language choices that they consciously made at the expense of others. In doing this, they should also be able to reflect on the base text and the original author’s own position as a text designer.

For example, why does Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) make the choices that he does in presenting characters, scenes and events? What might he want to achieve? In answering these questions, students should be taught to draw connections between their own decisions as a writer and that of the original author so as to enrich their understanding both of the base text and of themselves as conscious shapers and manipulators of language for effect.

Reading for teachers

  • Pope R, Textual Intervention, Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies , 1995, Routledge, Oxon
  • Chapter 16 ‘Imagined worlds’ and Chapter 18 ‘ Writing about society’ in Giovanelli M, Macrae A, Titjen F, and Cushing I, AQA English Language and Literature , 2015, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Student responses with examiner commentary are available for Paper 2 Section A 'Writing about society'. Visit aqa.org.uk/7707 and select 'assess', then look for the file Paper 2 Section A (AS): Student responses with examiner commentary

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