Should we make a bigger deal of authorial intention?

Structure comments, analysis – make sure you zoom in now, methods, reference to themes. Ooh, and don’t forget context whatever you do.

Good writing comes from deep understanding and exposure to modelled responses, over and over again.  The more I write model answers for my students, especially under timed conditions, the more I realise how nuts some of my past advice has been – either confusing, counterproductive, or completely unattainable.

The challenge for English teachers is two fold, especially in mixed ability contexts. On the one hand, we need to get the broadest range of students over the baseline standard, as is the gift of accountability measures. On the other is the obligation to push students to reach for the stars. Sometimes these two things can feel at odds. Do they really need to know this? Will this confuse the issue? Is this too limiting an approach? If there is one thing teachers are outstanding at, it’s finding sticks to beat themselves with!

The AQA mark scheme for literature responses looks like this:

AQA lit markscheme

If we teach to the top, which I think we must, words like ‘critical’ and ‘exploratory’ require much more than formulaic responses. These essays long for a hint that the student can hold more than one line of argument and still steer their essay in a straight line, with a clear guiding thesis. Can we facilitate both the ‘consistent’ and ‘explained’ essays of level 3 and 4, as well as the higher level approaches, without making the whole house of cards fall?

Part of that juggling act, holding more than one line of argument, is the confidence to allow room for ambiguity, and complexity. Before we can expect students to write confidently about multiple possibilities, they must be encouraged to think about multiple possibilities, and teachers must be clear in how they want to teach multiple possibilities.

I think it is a fairly common human trait to reject ambiguity. Even as adults we do not cope well with unstable ground, and my feeling is that for teenagers this is even less so.  Definitive statements are far easier to deal with. This is also true of complexity. One reason seems so much more satisfying than 5 or 6, each with varying levels of impact. The problem with many of the GCSE Literature texts is that they are chosen precisely because of their ambiguity and complexity – their richness and opportunity for multiple interpretation. We are doing students a disservice and, perhaps restricting grades, if we don’t open up this ambiguity for them. This is perhaps one of the limiting factors of knowledge organisers. Whilst they serve a vitally important purpose (and I am a huge fan), reducing a text to a single A4 sheet leaves little room for knowledge that deals with ambiguity, subtlety, intricacy and interpretation of a GCSE literature text.

However, we can head this off at the pass and give students the knowledge and tools they need. Chris Curtis, here and Sana Master, here reflect on how to cope with ambiguity in texts and express it. Both are excellent posts in addressing this.

Here is what I am going to do when we return:

  1. Remind students explicitly of the complexity and ambiguity in their key texts. Use mindmaps to determine factors that detract from or support the central idea/thesis and ensure students are comfortable with these perspectives.
  2. Model paragraphs, that help students juggle 2 ideas together. Remind students of language scaffolds that help with evaluative statements to give a clear opinion: whereas, ultimately, whilst, primarily, fundamentally, critically,  peripheral, arguably  etc.
  3. Ask students to define authorial intentions, so that they are clear about what the writer was trying to do throughout the text. This can be the driver for strong opinion and unpicking effects analysis. A good way into unpicking authorial intention is to ask students questions about the characters if they existed in alternative realities: What would Macbeth do if there were no witches? What would  he do if his wife said ‘Yeah, you’re probably right. We should leave it’ ? What would Jekyll do if he couldn’t separate himself? What would happen to the couple in Winter Swans if they didn’t see the swans? Would they get back together? These questions can help students tease apart the details from the intention. Authorial intention for AQA texts may look something like this:

Jekyll and Hyde: To expose the hypocrisy of Victorian society

Macbeth: To reveal the nature of man (humankind)

An Inspector Calls: To warn of the immorality of a capitalist society

Winter Swans: To reveal the strength of a relationship even in conflict

Mother Any Distance: To explore how complex relationships become when you reach young adulthood

We can rarely say with absolute certainty what the author’s intention was, which is why there is a tendency in student responses to focus more on what the author does (the language, the imagery, the plot!) rather than starting with what they intended. However, this can lead to poorly constructed essays which read as either ‘what happened when’, or ‘a journey through the extract in a hundred methods’.

Once students have confidently embedded their understanding of the authorial intentions for the text, they can start to shape responses which use this as their driving thesis.

How does Shakespeare present the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is important but certainly not the main cause of the tragedy in Macbeth. Though this extract suggests Lady Macbeth plays a more dominant role, this is peripheral to the main action of the play. 

To what extent is Sybil Birling responsible for the death of Eva Smith?

Sybil plays a critical role in An Inspector Calls. However, it is more what Sybil represents, along with other characters in the play, that is ultimately responsible for Eva’s death. 

How does Stevenson convey fear and terror in this extract and in the novel as a whole? 

Fear and terror are a key feature of this extract and Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson used fear to comment on Victorian society and the dual nature of man. 

The benefit of starting with authorial intention is that it gives students a licence to write about two opposing points in their essay. The extract may not match up with the whole play, the statement may not reveal the whole truth. They do not feel their essay is confused because they have stated at the outset ‘it’s not quite that simple’.


Any comments would be most welcome.





10 thoughts on “Should we make a bigger deal of authorial intention?

  1. Really thought-provoking and something I will try with my Year 11 group, some of whom seem resolved to remain earthbound when the stars are forever guiding them upwards…
    On another note, thank you. I don’t think my colleagues share this sort of higher level thinking enough and it is something for which I strive as an RQT who has been reading avidly for years and returned to these classic texts since I started teaching.
    Could one argue that the authorial intention of Dickens in A Christmas Carol is to shine a light upon the inherent injustice of the class structure in society [be it Victorian or otherwise – Jacob Rees -Mogg could almost be the 21st century manifestation of Scrooge] and the healing power of love and redemption?
    Thank you for your wisdom.

    • Thanks Hugh! I don’t teach ACC but think your conclusion sounds about right!! That’s the wonder of Twitter – the opportunity to keep looking outwards and beyond your own knowledge, institution and subject. Your comments are really appreciated.

  2. Very many interesting points here focussing on the why. This reminds me of a blog I read to develop thesis statements by questioning like a four year old repeatedly asking why. Thank you

  3. Pingback: No Bells, No Whistles. | gettingitrightsometimes

  4. Yes agree – it’s getting the students to approach this as a writing to argue task, exploring possible intentions whilst recognising that regardless of intent how it is received and decoded cannot be controlled thus the need for tentative phrasing. I use ‘So what?’ and ‘What if?’ to try to get that higher thinking from them.

    • That’s a great idea Tina. Having a strong opinion response before students go into the exam is really important for the higher bands – both of their own response and what they feel the writer was trying to do. It is a lot to juggle but I think if we do it from the start, students read texts much more effectively. Thanks for reading.

  5. Totally agree – I have worked on thesis statement with a prior attainment high group all year which worked really well but found myself resorting to point evidence etc with other classes. Realised in the run up to exams how if all the pupils had been encouraged to think about intentions earlier they would be better prepared to answer a wider of questions. Thanks for posting.

    • I think that is it – we can never cover every base with exam questions, and think that’s where it’s easy to come unstuck. But if we teach students to develop a strong response about what the author was trying to do and if s/he achieved it, they should be able to answer any question – theoretically… We’ll see what August brings!! It is a such a hard juggling act – balancing knowledge of texts with polished essay writing. I agree though, that thesis statements are essential for deep, confident understanding. Thanks for reading!

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