Textual Analysis: Why use a ‘meaning-first’ approach?

In various A-Level English Language tasks, you’re asked to analyse text. This may be to comment on the meanings and representations created within it, or it may be in relation to a particular topic, such as child language acquisition or ethnicity.

Whatever the task is, many students are tempted to jump on features that they can easily identify and label. I’m here to suggest that’s not the best way to go about it. Starting with meaning is a more productive approach for 3 key reasons.

1: Selecting the most meaningful features

This may seem obvious, but when people jump on the things they can label most easily, they’re usually not thinking about how meaningful they are in relation to the question – and that matters, even when the question is just ‘what meanings and representations are created in this text?’. In fact, when that’s the question, don’t you want to be talking about the most important meanings and reps anyway? Surely if you jump into “‘dog’ is a concrete noun and this shows that the writer is judging the subject negatively”, when ‘dog’ is kind of a throwaway metaphor that just happened to be on the first line and therefore the first ‘technique’ that you (and 3,972 others…) noticed, that’s not particularly impressive?

2: Actually having something to say about your chosen features

If you start by looking for what’s meaningful in the text, you’ve got clear comments to make straightaway. Again, this is much more effective than being stuck at ‘ok, it’s an abstract noun, but so what?’, which can easily happen if you randomly choose (especially grammatical) features based only on the fact that you can label them. Going for meaning first basically avoids feature-spotting, which is what happens when you don’t know what to say about the features/techniques you’re finding.

3: Understanding meaning allows deeper analysis

Being more selective from the start should take you easily beyond straightforward description and into higher-level interpretation and analysis, which is rewarded more highly in the mark schemes. Ideally, if you’ve thought carefully about the text as a whole before selecting examples to talk about, you can link those examples to patterns immediately and show how these features contribute to the wider representations being created by the text.

And if you’re worried about not being able to label things, remember that there are always several ways to do that – that’s why we have language frameworks/ linguistic methods. Each one approaches the text in a different way, so you might have a lexical or a grammatical or a semantic label you can apply to the phrase or word you want to talk about – you don’t need them all at once.

So now what?

Hopefully, you now have a clearer sense of why we advocate looking for meaning first when analysing. The tricky part can be reminding yourself to put the labels in. You may find it reassuring that it’s something of a process that all Language students go through:

  1. too much AO1 focus
  2. not enough AO1
  3. just right

(a bit like Three Bears analysis – too frameworky, not frameworky enough, Just Right)

When you’ve just learnt a load of new terms, it’s natural to seek to use them and to make that the focus of your analysis. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to good analytical writing. Once you’ve accepted that and switched back to a meaning-first approach (as this is what comes more naturally to us), it’s normal to then start forgetting to use the terms. The trick is doing enough analysis practice to get yourself through those early stages and into the sweet spot at the end where there’s enough of both AO1 and AO3.

Why can’t I write ‘it makes the reader read on?’

and what on earth do I write instead?

As teachers, we’re pre-programmed to sigh – or roll our eyes – when students write or say that fateful phrase ‘it makes the reader read on’. But here’s the thing: when we’re talking about things like chapter ends, cliffhangers and clever titles, writers DO choose things to keep us reading. After all ‘page-turner’ or ‘I couldn’t put it down’ is a compliment for a book, right? So why is it such a banned phrase in GCSE English?

The trouble is, when we’re analysing, we’re looking at the micro level – or at least we’re supposed to be. The way to show you can do this is to comment on the effect of the features and words the writer has chosen, and the problem with ‘it makes the reader read on’ is that it isn’t specific enough to show your skills.

What I mean by this is that this fateful phrase – and others like it (‘it puts a picture in the reader’s mind’; ‘it makes the poem flow’; it helps you understand the writer’s view’) – doesn’t tell you anything about the feature, word or phrase you’ve chosen to comment on. It could be said about anything good in a text. And if that’s true, it’s not worth your time saying it.

Look at this simile: “solitary as an oyster” You may recognise it as describing Ebenezer Scrooge in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol. If you say it ‘helps us understand his character’ or it ‘makes the reader read on’, you’re not showing the examiner anything about your understanding of this image. It could just as easily be said of any other character detail.

However, there are various more specific things you might say that would help you – and earn marks – such as ‘the simile suggests that Scrooge is closed off to people’, or ‘Dickens uses this image to show how Scrooge may have something of value inside him, like a pearl in an oyster’. Either, or both, of these points are valid interpretations of this simile – and could be credited in a question about how Scrooge is presented (or similar relevant topic).

The key is: make what you’re saying specific. Does it explain THIS quote/ image/ feature? If not, have another think.