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Teacher Guide to GCSE English Language and Literature: How to Deal with Context Effectively

Chris Barcock | Friday June 20, 2014

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What It Is: And What It Isn’t

Each of the four English Examination Boards make clear their ‘take’ on context which starts life in the DfE curriculum order of 2013: under the heading ‘reading comprehension and reading critically’ there are the following bullet points:

  • literal and inferential comprehension: understand a word, phrase or sentence in context
  • critical reading: identify the theme and distinguish between themes; support a point of view by referring to evidence in the text; using understanding of writers’ social, historical and cultural contexts to inform evaluation…of the text.

So we have context in its generally understood sense: ‘parts that precede and follow a word or passage and fix its precise meaning’ (OED) in other words its place in the scheme of things: and in the sense it has come to have in literary rubrics, ‘circumstances’. As described here by ‘social, cultural, historical’.

It is the latter which is actually examined and is mainly the subject of this guide but at the same time it is important to remember a former, more general sense of the word which is a if not the critical part of reading, deciphering and responding to texts, especially unseen texts.

The golden rule is never to forget that we are dealing, always, with ways of responding to literary texts. There is no call for knowledge or information that is outside the text itself. Far too many candidates seem to believe that bolting on a paragraph here about the alleged history of any given period or a paragraph there about the writer’s early life will gain credit and can be a substitute for unremitting focus on the words on the page.

To take a straightforward example, consider this passage from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (copyright author, reproduced for educational purposes).

At that moment a young man came into the bunk house; a thin young man with a brown face, with brown eyes and a head of tightly curled hair. He...


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