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Starved of actual exam content - but not a total washout
on 14 September 2013
At the time I write this (September 2013) I imagine the vast majority of purchasers will be fellow teachers, or possibly anxious pupils and their parents. Therefore I am writing this review to let these groups know what to expect from this book (and what not to expect.)
The book begins with a few short pages of extremely generic advice about general study skills and the English exam in particular. It includes such jewels as "read the passage carefully", "read the question", and "use quotations in your essays". Worryingly, the book specifically advises pupils that they must use quotations in their poetry and drama essays - making no mention of prose. Pupils - please continue to use quotations in your essays on short stories and novels.
The book then continues with the SQA specimen paper that has been live on the SQA's website for some months. The 'Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation' paper (hereafter called Close Reading, because that's what it is) is about JK Rowling and the nature of fame. The Critical Reading paper includes questions on texts that are not on the set text list. Pupils and parents reading this review or using this book should be aware that the SQA wrote this specimen paper some time ago, and that the real exam will have questions on the texts that appear in the set text list. The book does not make this clear, and this could be confusing and worrying for pupils and parents.
The three model papers which follow are more useful, but still not perfect. The Close Reading papers are adapted from Intermediate 2 past papers (experienced teachers will recognise the texts. The first is about superstition and how it can help or hinder us; the second is about the 'gr8 db8' about texting; the third is about how Dickens became the hero of Soweto.) However, the questions have been rewritten in the National 5 style.
In the Critical Reading papers there are a variety of essay questions (two choices for each section, as seen in the specimen paper.) However, I imagine like most teachers buying this book, I especially wanted to see the section of the paper dealing with the set texts. Here, I was disappointed.
The three model papers do not contain questions on all the set text options. What seems to have been done is that one extract and set of questions has been prepared for each choice and then these have been split up between the three model papers. I will now outline the choices in each of these papers:
Model Paper 1 - Sailmaker; The Cone Gatherers; Away in a Manger by Anne Donovan; Anne Hathaway by Carol Ann Duffy.
Model Paper 2 - Tally's Blood; Kidnapped; In Church by Iain Crichton Smith; Visiting Hour by Norman MacCaig.
Model Paper 3 - Bold Girls; The Testament of Gideon Mack; Lucozade by Jackie Kay; Trio by Edwin Morgan.
As you can see, unless you were to teach every set text on the list (three plays, three novels, twelve short stories, about twenty four poems), these model papers could worry you. They seem to imply that it would be possible that your pupils might not be able to answer anything in the exam. For example, I am teaching my class the Anne Donovan short stories and the Edwin Morgan poems. If I put Model Paper 2 in front of them they would have nothing to answer.
Is this what the SQA papers will look like in the end? As of this date the SQA hasn't published an official example with the genuine set texts. These model papers are labeled official, however, and nowhere in the book does it warn pupils, parents or teachers that the model papers do not represent all the choices that will be available. However, the idea that the SQA expect us to teach every set text is patently ridiculous, so it is clear to me that the writers of the model papers have simply decided to cut their work down by two thirds by writing one model paper and turning it into three. This would be just about acceptable if there was a disclaimer to that effect anywhere in the book, but there is not. It is therefore misleading, especially to any pupils or parents who buy this book.
Confusion and anxiety could be entirely obviated if the SQA would simply communicate clearly with teachers, parents and pupils about what the new exams will be like. As it is, we are all fumbling blindly in the dark, piecing it together from fragments of incomplete information. I had hoped this book would at last give me at least one complete exam paper to show to my pupils so I could say "Look! This is what we're working towards!" Alas, this is not the case.
The small amount of set text content that I can use with my class is valuable. The new style questions for the Close Reading are appreciated. The essay questions are all right.
The SQA are due to publish an official specimen Critical Reading paper that includes the genuine set text choices within the next few weeks. My hope is that they publish a full paper, with all the choices, and that they are different from the ones they are selling in this book. I will update this review when this is published.