Do you dread the ‘Unseen Poetry’ part of your exams?
Fear not! Our KS4 English teacher, Anna, shares 6 steps to smash unseen poetry… without the stress! She pulls on her experience as an English teacher and what she was trained to look for as a GCSE Examiner for the AQA and EdExcel boards.
What is Unseen Poetry?
You are given one or two poems (depending on the exam board). The expectation is to be able to produce an analysis of them right there and then – no lessons, no preparation, no pretty revision cards to cram from the night before.
Sounds atrocious I know…however, this part of the exam is actually your time to shine; let’s look at how you can build your confidence. Trust me!
They are not Trying to Catch you out!
Firstly, you need to take heart that the mark scheme for this section is all about rewarding what you can do, not what you know.
The emphasis is on looking for those independent interpretations.
This means that there are no marks for knowledge of social and historical context here; it is purely a stand-alone text.
The reason for this is that when marking an exam answer from the set texts (those plays/novels/poems taught in class), an examiner will find themselves reading the same interpretations for the same quotations over and over again. This is, of course, unavoidable to a certain degree – you go into class expecting to learn the answers right?
Right-ish, except that English and English Literature are, in fact, skills-based subjects.
It is about knowing how to tackle any text you’re presented with more than memorising exactly what to say about particular lines from a play.
Please, don’t take this as a “get out free card” for knowing your set texts – that knowledge brings power to your answers.
The truth is: you do know what you are doing and you can be successful in this section. It is about proving you have mastered English skills just like demonstrating in PE or constructing in DT.
Journey Through a Poem
There are some simple steps I always give when tackling an unseen poem. These tips can be applied to any and every poem you wish to analyse.
We’ve included them as a free printable at the end. So that if, like me, you love pretty, colourful revision cards to cram from the night before, then you can have this!
These steps should appeal to those of you who lack confidence in this area but also, for those of you pushing for the top grades.
Use the steps as starting blocks for your own analysis.
My steps are accompanied with example annotations of the poem Autumn by Alan Bold. In the 2017 exam for AQA this was the unseen poem.
How to Ace an Unseen Poetry Exam
Step 1 –Start with the question
Your exam task will have a keyword in it. This keyword is a clue and will tell you where all of your ideas should be focused. It will stop you from looking at everything and help you zone in to choose quotations.
E.g. How does the poet present the effects of the season of autumn?
The question makes it clear that you are to only look for evidence about the effects of autumn.
Not what it looks like or anything to do with the other seasons – just the effects of autumn.
Use a highlighter and ensure you make the key idea stand out. Know what you are looking for.
Step 2 – Check the title
A clever little hack! It can allow you to analyse language, set out an argument and answer the question – all potentially from a single word!
Make brief notes surrounding the title that link with the exam question– these could be associations like colours, places, people or feelings.
Step 3 – Read the poem
Make sure you ‘active read’ the poem.
Active Reading: Participate in thoughts and ideas as you read. Use your pens or highlighters to identify words/phrases as you go that link to the ideas you came up with for the title and answer the question. Don’t just stare blankly at the words on the page the first time you read the poem. My underlining in blue shows this.
Highlighting should be an easy way of identifying a theme (an idea that is present throughout the whole text) or a semantic field (a group of words that are linked by a theme).
Or perhaps it will just simply help you decipher what the poem is about.
Common exam themes: ‘growing up’ or ‘love’ or ‘friendship’.
The exam boards are pretty good at picking poems with themes that most people know about. I doubt very much you will find an unseen poem about complex philosophical theory!
Remember – the examiner is looking for your interpretation on the ideas you see in the poem, not you being able to tell them exactly what this poem is all about.
The old saying is pretty true here: there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. Just ensure your ideas are rooted in the language of the poem.
For those aiming for the top, by identifying ideas that link with those in the title, you are beginning to form an argument. This conceptualised thinking will set your answer apart from others.
You could phrase it in your answer as such: “…this idea in the title indicates to us that the theme of change is going to be important here, this is then supported by …..”
Step 4 – Analyse language and structure
When planning your answer you should choose a few devices in the poem that stand out to you. You wont be able to write about everything in the time limit, so choose those that I call ‘juicy’ quotes – short examples that you can squeeze lots of ideas out of.
I have made a few notes in red here. As I wouldn’t have time to write about all of them, I would choose those that allow me to link to the themes and write the most. Which would you write about?
Here you will see that I have made what looks like a lot of notes.
That’s because I am an English teacher and I can’t contain myself when it comes to poetry!
But honestly, as long as you have a couple of examples to write about then you will be absolutely fine. Even if they are just single words that create vivid imagery in your head – that is absolutely fine!
Don’t get hung up on looking for metaphors and personification etc. Sometimes it may be obvious and sometimes it may not.
The examiner is looking for you to understand that the writer makes choices and why they might have made those choices, not your knowledge of literary terminology.
Step 5 – Include a structural point
This image shows my brief note about a structural point. Again, don’t get stuck by looking for just anything to say about structure. Make sure it adds to your analysis (which in this case I think it does).
There’s nothing worse than: “the writer has used a rhyme scheme to add effect.”
If you don’t know what the effect is then don’t worry about including it. You can still get great marks without!
Some examples of valid structural points:
- look for sentence length that reflects the mood or atmosphere – short and sharp to show pain or long and complex to show longevity
- look for a rhyme scheme that is broken towards the end to reflect the breakdown of a relationship
- rhythm that is constant throughout to reflect control and continuity.
You will find loads I promise but always make sure it has a meaning for the reader.
Step 6 – Writer’s message
This can be an area of unseen poetry that students often feel like they can’t tackle – how on earth are we meant to know what a poet was thinking when they wrote the poem?
The way forward is not to overthink it. If you’ve picked up on a theme or central idea you’ve picked up on the message.
It is just a case of wording it in a way that makes the leap from the writer to the reader.
If it is about love look for a positive or negative view:
- is the poet trying to teach us about the positive side of love?
- Do they want to warn us about the negative side?
If it is about friendship:
- do we see a strong or a weak example?
- Do they want us to value our friends or
- perhaps not rely on them as much as we do?
Look for the clues and think about what the poet might want us to take away from their work.
Top tip: always use modal verbs: ‘the writer could/might/may/perhaps of wanted to teach us about…’ By doing this you show you are thinking and considering not just blindly assuming. For top levels, it also allows you to offer alternative interpretations: ‘however, it could also suggest that…”.
Unseen Poetry does not have to be all that intimidating. It really is your chance to shine during your English GCSEs. Focus on telling the examiner what you think the poem means rather than rewriting what it’s about.
We put this method to the test with one of our students:
One of our English tutors used these steps for answering questions of Unseen Poetry with a student.
“The student missed the theme and the main message in the first read through. It was when we started breaking down how to approach a poem that they really began to make connections and look at the words being used. In the end, he was able to confidently answer the question and provide evidence for his response. With practise, I have no doubt he’ll thrive in unseen poetry questions at GCSE level.”
GCSE Unseen Poetry Resources:
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Meet Our Windsor based GCSE English Tutor
Anna is an experienced secondary English Teacher based in Windsor. She has taught in a wide range of schools up to GCSE level. She is also an Examiner and Senior Examiner for the Edexel and AQA exam boards. She is passionate about her subject and loves finding ways of helping students access the worlds within literature on both a 1:1 and classroom level.
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