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How to write a commentary

Teaching commentary can be difficult. One reason for this is that students need to have experience of reading a wide variety of styles before they can begin to analyse literature effectively. Below is a programme of 15 lessons (one a week) for students who have had no, or very little experience in writing commentaries. The lessons begin with material that students are already familiar with so that they do not feel intimidated. I have always found it important (a) to persuade students that poetry does not need to be approached as if it were an insoluble enigma, and (b) to convince them that the ability to analyze language provides them with a powerful defence against all those (politicians and salesmen) who may wish to manipulate their thoughts.

What is a commentary?

This is not an easy question to answer, although anyone who has done commentaries or taught them, probably thinks they know what they are. Matters are not helped by looking for a definition in a reference book, such as the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms, by J.A. Cuddon, as there is no entry under “commentary”. The most useful answer is to be found under the term used by the French: explication, which can be defined as: “a formal and close analysis of a text: its structure, style, content, imagery – indeed every aspect of it.”

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What is the difference between a commentary and an essay? The writing of essays is a skill that goes back to classical times, and just as an essay can focus upon any one of a virtually unlimited range of topics, it can also be written in a wide variety of styles and attitudes and degrees of formality.

It is one of the most flexible of literary forms, but it generally consists of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion with some form of argument linking the parts together. A commentary is one specific type of essay which is written in a formal style appropriate to literary criticism and is normally only concerned with analyzing a single, relatively short text. In IB exams this will be a poem, or a prose extract no more than about 60 lines in length.

A good poetry anthology is an essential tool for teaching students how to write an effective commentary. The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (published by Faber and Faber); Touched with Fire, compiled by Jack Hydes (Cambridge University Press); and A Flock of Words, compiled by David Mackay (The Bodley Head) are all excellent.

The secret of teaching any skill is to provide practice and repetition over a period of time. Expecting to teach students all they need to know about commentary in two or three consecutive lessons does not work. There are one or two exceptional students who seem to have been born with the ability to analyze literature, but they are as rare as musicians who have perfect pitch. An effective way to teach commentary is to spend one lesson a week on it, and the lessons which follow are based on this approach.

Lesson 1.

1. When students arrive in class at the beginning of the IB English A1 class they will often say they hate poetry. To counter this prejudice, hand out to every student a copy of a good poetry anthology and ask them to look through it and try to find a poem that they like (or do not find completely hateful). They will then have to read the poem to the class and say what they liked about it. They can give any reason except that of length; they cannot say they chose it because it was short. Allow about 15 minutes for this activity. Then ask them to read the poems aloud.

What is interesting about this exercise is that everyone in the class will find a poem and that most students will give a perfectly good reason for choosing it. Even students who appear to be most suspicious of literature will come up with a poem, and a reaction to it that reveals a perhaps unexpected degree of sensitivity to content and language. After each student has read his or her poem ask for reactions to the lesson. You can point out that since everyone has found a poem they thought worth sharing with the group, they may find others; so they can never, ever again say that they hate poetry. Not only will you have dented a prejudice but you will also have had a very enjoyable lesson, in which every student has participated.

Lesson 2.

Advertisements are all around us in our daily lives, and we are continually exposed to the persuasive language of the copywriter. Because of this, most students can analyze the techniques that advertisers use to persuade people to buy their products (or that politicians use to persuade people to embrace their ideas). To test this, ask your students to talk about their favourite TV advertisements. Ask about the choice of background music or images and you will be surprised at how aware they are of the techniques employed.

Select a number of advertisements to take into class. Try to find examples that, along with illustrations, contain enough text to analyze. Advertisements that are presented in the form of cartoons are also useful for analysis. Divide the class into groups and ask them to answer questions such as What, exactly, is being advertised? What is the tone of the advertisement: humorous, dramatic, mocking, serious? And so on. It has been said that all advertisements appeal to at least one of the seven deadly sins. List them on the board: pride, anger, lust, covetousness, sloth, gluttony and envy. Ask the group to discover which one, or more, of these motivations, is being appealed to in their advertisement. Ask them to look at the length of sentences and the type of language used. Ask them to note down anything else they notice about the techniques being used to sell the product.

The groups can report their findings back to the class and then they might discuss what audience they think given advertisements are aimed at, and how persuasive they might be. Ask how many of them agree that they are influenced by advertisements. For homework, students can be asked to find an advertisement for themselves and write down what they think about its aims, its intended audience, and its language. Without realizing it they will be writing their first critically-focussed commentaries.

This exercise is highly suitable for candidates who have never had to do anything like this before but, if time can be made for it, it can provide valuable practice in literary analysis and appreciation.

Lesson 3.

What is poetry? This is another difficult question that needs to be addressed in class. Many students think that the only distinctive feature of a poem is rhyme. Look at half a dozen pieces of writing ranging from the most prosaic: instructions on how to use a machine (a video machine?) to something everyone would agree was “poetical”, such as a Shakespeare sonnet, or part of a poem by Keats. Include a nursery rhyme, a newspaper report, a deceptively prosaic poem such as Peter Porter’s “Attention Please”, a mediocre poem by a student that does rhyme, and extracts from two novels; poetic extracts can readily be found in writers such as Lawrence, Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Bronte, and Dickens; more prosaic extracts can readily be found in almost any novel.

You might also include an extract from a non-fiction prose writer. Either in groups or singly ask the students to put these extracts into poetic order, starting with the most poetic and ending with the most prosaic. The results can then be discussed in class. Find out if the class can come to a consensus about the order. From their comments try to establish what they think “poetic” means. This activity sorts out those candidates who have some feeling for style from those who don’t. You will learn a lot about a class from this lesson.

(We are grateful to Don LeBeau of Amsterdam International School for this lesson.)

Lesson 4.

Comparing newspaper articles. Choose at least three versions of the same story from three different newspapers. Reports of a murder or a major accident usually provide a range of approaches to the story. Students can do this work in pairs, in groups or by themselves. Each person or group is given three articles to compare and contrast. Ask them to make a list of all the differences and similarities. When they have finished, ask them to explain the effects of the different choices made by the reporters. Students can usually see very clearly why newspapers have chosen to present the stories differently. This is an exercise in close reading which they can all do.

Lesson 5.

Creative writing. For homework ask everyone to write a brief and concentrated piece about the weather or one of the seasons (or, perhaps, on any topic they like): tell them that if they want to write a poem, they should do so. As well as writing the piece, they ask them to explain what they hoped to achieve in the poem. (You may wish to join in the exercise, and write your own poem.)

Pass the results around the class for everyone to look at, or ask students to read them aloud with their explanations. In the general discussion which should follow evaluate the texts in terms of how close the writers came to achieving their goals. Choose one or two poems, photocopy them (or write them on the board) and discuss how they might perhaps be made even more effective.

Lesson 6.

Choose an understandable but fairly complex poem. Divide the class into 5 groups and give each group a different set of questions:

1. on the structure of the poem;

2. on rhythm, rhyme and/or alliteration and assonance;

3. on length of sentences, line endings and punctuation;

4. on imagery and diction;

5. on the content of the poem;

There is no need to use precise literary-critical terms in framing these questions.

When they have written their answers students can report them to the rest of the class. Alternatively, the answer papers can be passed round from group to group with each group amending them as they think fit.

For homework ask students to write a commentary on the poem based on the research they have done in class. They can be asked to organize their work into three paragraphs: what is the poem about? how is it structured? how does the language and imagery contribute to the poet’s message?

Good poems to use are: Wilfred Owen’s “Futility” or “Anthem for Doomed Youth”; Seamus Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break” or “Follower”; Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms”. There are, of course, many others.

Lesson 7.

This is a suitable lesson for late in the afternoon – especially a Friday. Choose two stories written for young children. I use one of Enid Blyton’s Noddy stories and A.A. Milne’s “Pooh and Piglet go hunting” from Winnie the Pooh. Read them aloud one after the other with no discussion in between. Then ask the class which story they prefer. Usually there is a violent difference of opinion about them. Those who loved Enid Blyton when they were young will fiercely defend the Noddy story while others will appreciate the humour and relative sophistication of A.A. Milne.

Ask them to compare the language and syntax used by each writer: is it a good idea for Milne to use words such as “trespassers” and “spinney”? Then ask what each writer’s basic message is? Evaluate the messages in terms of young children. Ask them what they think a story for young children should provide. If there is time, read a fairy story or one of the Greek myths and ask the class to compare the myth/fairy story with the children’s stories.

Although this lesson might appear to be wasting time it is very worthwhile since it increases students’ awareness of language and theme. No one in the class will feel left out as they will all be able to contribute something. This lesson is fun but also educational.

Lesson 8.

Denotation and connotation.

In order to realize that words can have associated meanings apart from the obvious ones, it is necessary to explain denotation: the most literal and limited meaning of a word, and connotation: suggestions, associations or implications evoked by a word or phrase. To illustrate the difference quickly ask students to write down three or four words that they associate with “milk”. Tell them not to think, just jot down words as they come into their head.

As each student tells the class their words write them on the board. It will soon be obvious that the associated words vary according to whether students like milk or not. The denotation of milk: “an opaque white fluid secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young” can be compared with what the students wrote. This sort of distinction can be shown with many other words but interesting ones to use are: “money” and “red”.

The class will by now have realized that connotations can be positive or negative. Ask about the connotations of the following well-known phrases:

He was a snake in the grass.

He was a lion in battle.

Speech is silver but silence is gold.

It’s coming down in buckets.

Show how the meaning of the phrase can be changed by replacing (in the examples above, for instance) “snake” with “pussy-cat” or “buckets” with “egg-cups”.

Write some factual statements on the board, with, as far as possible, no apparent connotations and ask students to rewrite the statements twice: once with negative connotations and once with positive ones. An example:

neutral: Linda had red hair, green eyes and she was 5 foot 10 inches in height.

positive: Lucinda had Titian-red hair, alluring green eyes and a tall elegant figure.

negative: Lindy had carrot-coloured hair, watery green eyes (one might consider James Joyce’s coinage, “snot-green”) and a gangling figure.

Further exercises can involve describing some part of the school building both positively and negatively. Students can work in pairs to do this.

Paraphrase is frequently an efficient way of testing the poetic quality of language. Othello’s command: “Put up your bright swords for the dew will rust them.” sounds less impressive when reworded as: “Sheathe your weapons.” A useful poem to demonstrate the effects of connotation is Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “Felix Randal”: in particular, the last three lines.

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,

When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,

Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Ask for synonyms for words such as “boisterous”, “random”, “grim”, and “fettle”. Look particularly at “bright and battering sandal” and ask if “shiny and noisy shoe,” has the same effect. What is the difference? Why did Hopkins choose “sandal” rather than “shoe”?

For homework ask students to paraphrase a brief poem by a poet like Keats or Shelley and comment on the differences between the original and the paraphrase.

Lesson 9.

The class members need to know one another quite well for this activity. Ask them to write a paragraph on a topic such as “light”, “power”, or “stars”. The topic needs to be one that allows for a range of approaches. Tell them to refrain from putting their name on the paper. This work could be done for homework so that a selection can be photocopied and handed out to the class. If done in class the teacher can read out each piece and ask the class who they think wrote it. Not every writer will be recognized, but for those that are, it is interesting to enquire why the readers associated the writer with that particular paragraph. The exercise helps students to develop a “feel” for style.

If there is time, hand back the papers at random and ask students to rewrite the paragraph in front of them as a poem, changing words but trying to keep the meaning. Discuss the results, either with the whole class or in groups.

Lesson 10

Prose and poetry comparisons. When presented with a poem or a prose extract, and asked to write a commentary on it, inexperienced students are often intimidated. It is easier when they have two pieces on the same topic that they can compare so that one can bounce off the other. A poem about old age that celebrates the spirit of the old man such as R. S. Thomas’s “Lore” can be compared with a passage written by a social worker giving advice on how to take care of the elderly. Any student can recognize the differences in tone, language and message. It is worth putting together half a dozen of these comparisons. A good source for them is old IB A2 exam papers. Students can do this for homework but it is important to go over the results in class.

Lesson 11.

Register. Not all teachers are familiar with the term words but as used in IB Language A1 descriptors it means the degrees of formality suitable for the situation or the writing required. A useful book to read is The Five Clocks by Martin Joos (1965) in which he explains his term “key” (his alternative to “register”). There is a critique of Joos’ ideas in H.R. Gleason, Linguistics and English Grammar, 1965. Some students do not realize the differences between formal and informal language but explaining “key” to them can help them understand the importance of writing in the correct way.

The main point to make to your class is that there are five “keys” or registers used by humans when they communicate with each other. They range from the intimate to the oratorical or frozen key and one’s choice of key depends entirely on the situation one is in and the distance between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader; the distance can be physical or emotional.

1. Intimate: this is the language used by lovers and by adults to small children or pets. It is nearly always accompanied by touch and consists of broken fragments of words such as: “mmm”; “nice”; “there’s a good boy”; and so on.

2. Casual: this is the language used among friends and family. There is no planning of what is to be said; sentences are not always grammatical, there will be in-jokes and references. This language can also be accompanied, but fleetingly, by touch.

3. Consultative: this is the language used in class discussions, in meetings and in seminars. There is more forethought and organization given to what is being said but attention signals are asked for and given; one expects at least a nod or the occasional “yes” as a response. But sentences may not always be correct. A sentence may veer in the middle from one point to another. Abbreviations – “didn’t”, “wouldn’t”, “I’ll” (in place of the formal “did not”, “would not”, “I shall” or “I will”) will be regularly used.

4. Deliberative: This is the kind of language one would find in an essay, a scholarly work, or in a public lecture where the lecturer is reading a prepared set of notes. No verbal attention signals are expected during the speech, though the speaker will expect the audience to look at him and not out of the window. The words have been planned across sentences and paragraphs. Quite often the passive tense will be used and there is less likelihood of weak forms or abbreviations. At the end of a lecture, the speaker may ask for questions and at that point the key is likely to move towards the consultative.

5. Oratorical or “frozen”: This key is totally impersonal and is always completely prepared. It is the language used in law courts and in church ceremonies. Sometimes it is decodable rather than readable. The words of the wedding ceremony or the burial service are good examples of the oratorical key. At times the words can even change a person’s future legal status, such as: “I now pronounce you man and wife.”

An example can be given of five different ways to ask people to stop talking. 1. Sshh! 2. Shut up! 3. Please be quiet! 4. Silence, please! 5. Silence in court!

Comedians use the wrong keys for purposes of humour. A workman who has just been hit by a tool dropped by a fellow workman does not say: “I say, old chap, could you be a wee bit more careful.”

Suggest that students work in groups to devise short sketches where people are using the wrong key for the situation they are in. For instance, meeting the Queen but talking to her as if she were your best friend.

Lesson 12.

Metaphor, imagery, alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia.

In workshops teachers sometimes ask if students need to use literary terminology in Language A1 exams. Obviously, it is sensible for students to be aware of terms such as metaphor, imagery, alliteration, rhyme and rhythm for it would be difficult to comment on a poem without using them. It is arguable whether they should have to learn the vast range of specialized terminology that exists. If students can use terms correctly and identify their effects that is admirable, but there is little point in students merely identifying the literary feature.

It is better to discuss what is happening at this point in the poem without the term than just to name it. For example, in Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, a candidate would not get much credit for saying nothing more than that there were two caesuras in the line: “And I, like a second comer, waiting.” More credit would be given to the candidate who pointed out that bracketing the phrase “like a second comer” with commas brings it to the notice of the readers and may make them consider possible religious associations which are further echoed in the word “waiting”.

Some teachers begin their courses by giving students extensive lists of literary terms to learn. It is usually better to introduce two or three terms at a time with enough appropriate examples for the significance of the figures to sink in.

Metaphor is a term that students cannot do without. To teach it Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Metaphors” is invaluable. It begins: “I am a riddle in nine syllables,” and one can set as a task the solving of the riddle as that requires the reader to understand the fourteen or fifteen metaphors it contains in its nine lines. When teaching any of these terms, it is a good idea to ask students to create their own examples. The class can also look at poems which take the form of a single, extended metaphor such as: “A Report on the Defector” and ask students to compose a similar piece.

A Report on the Defector

There was no dissuading him. For many days

he laid his plans, accumulating keys,

maps, coins for the ferry, rags

to muffle the alarm-bells, a coil

of pliant rope, should there be walls to scale

breaking out or in. He termed it ‘breaking through’,

brushing aside all talk of defection. O,

he explained it time and again, his grand design,

till that intransigence which marked him as a weakling

enraged us into silence. He returned rage for rage,

insisting on his own self-sacrifice.

What could we answer but with rage redoubled,

despising the tears he wrenched from our eyes?

How could he, how could we, otherwise?

Later he nailed a calendar above his bed:

day by day the scribbles blotted it,

crawling towards that circled dark of moon.

Occasionally we stumbled on traces of his intention:

locks and hinges of the outer doors

suddenly dark with an ooze of oil, things

missing. No, nothing of great significance:

A buckled strap, candle-ends, string,

a knife blade. And if he now spoke openly,

how could we not dismiss his dreams as fantasies?

The zero temperature beyond the gates,

the thickets of wire, the masonry:

all thought of it appalled us.

In the event, and predictably enough

to hindsight, he vanished ahead of time,

four sennights still blank on his calendar.

Soon after dawn a gate was found ajar,

a green track in the frosted grass beyond,

then nothing. That was two months ago.

Since then no more has been heard. True,

two messages have come into our hands. But

these are clearly papers dropped in his flight.

Their edges are blackened, as though by fire.

They did not originate beyond the frontier:

no word has ever come from there.

And if in the twigs the wind casts at our feet

there are runes,

or in the efflorescence fingering the stones,

we cannot read them.

Robert Druce

Key points for discussion could be: the passage of time from the past to the present (how?) The archaic word “sennights” (why?) the “near-rhymes” which multiply as the poem reaches its end (why?) the nature of the “frontier” with its zero temperature and thickets of wire (where?) the clue given by the black-edged messages (what?)

Alliteration is such an integral part of English speech and writing that it is sensible to teach it at this point (rather than when you deal with prosody) along with onomatopoeia and assonance; they quite often interlock as in Tennyson’s “The moan of doves in immemorial elms,/And murmuring of innumerable bees.” Either the teacher or the class can bring some examples of the use of alliteration in newspaper headlines and in advertisements, in order to discuss the reasons why reporters and copy-writers use this technique.

By beginning with tongue twisters (Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper….) and asking students to say them aloud one can easily illustrate some of the special qualities of alliteration. A good poem to demonstrate all the figures mentioned so far is W. H. Auden’s “Look, stranger, at this island now”. Divide the class into groups and ask each group to identify one of the features and decide what the effects are.

Lesson 13

By now the class should be ready to start writing full commentaries but they will need to have advice on how to approach a completely unknown text. It is easier to start with a fairly short poem; one that is useful to use is Vachel Lindsay’s “The Flower-fed Buffaloes of the Spring”.

1. The poem should be read at least twice before doing anything else. It is best to read it aloud for the sound effects but, of course, in exams that is not possible.

2. Before beginning to write there are a series of questions to ask in order for to make notes about the poem. They are as follows:

WHAT is the poem about?

WHEN and WHERE is it set?

WHO is in it? Whose point of view is presented?

WHY was it written?

HOW is it written? This is usually the hardest question for students to answer and needs further division. Tell them to check for imagery, metaphors, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, language etc. This is probably a good time to talk about the effects of rhyme and rhythm and also to look at diction/language. Tone is very important in this poem and it is worth discussing at this point. Tone is one of the most difficult qualities for students to determine. Lindsay’s poem can be readily used for this.

3. Having made extensive notes, now the reader has to put them into some kind of order. There is no set pattern for writing commentaries: the order depends on varying literary conventions and, obviously, on the text to be analysed.

I always told my students to start with the whole piece by giving a brief paraphrase of it. (In effect answering questions: what, where, when and who.

Secondly, analyse the features that are most significant or striking; these will vary from text to text. In “The Flower-fed Buffaloes” significant aspects are: metaphor, alliteration, repetition and onomatopoeia, all of which contribute to the meaning, the tone and the lyricism of the poem.

Thirdly. Having taken the text to pieces, try to look at it again as a whole. This might be an appropriate place to discuss its overall structure if it has not been mentioned earlier. At this point one can speculate on all the possible meanings. Is the style of the piece matched to its content? How effective has the piece been in conveying its message or vision? Students need to be warned that not all texts, and certainly not all poems, have a hidden meaning. There are some where the poet is merely trying to present a picture. An example is: Shakespeare’s “When icicles hang by the wall”, which presents a dramatic range of physical sensations (sight, sound, touch and texture (including warmth and cold and pain), taste, smell, physical effort.)

For homework ask the students to write a commentary on “The Flower-fed Buffaloes”.

Lesson 14

More time has been spent on poetry than prose so far, and now the balance needs to be redressed. Take two quite different prose passages into class for close discussion.

(Some teachers do not bother overmuch with prose commentaries, and tell candidates always to choose the poem in Paper 1. This is not good advice; a quick look at recent exam papers will show how the poems have sometimes been far more difficult than the prose passages. Where this is the case, it is always sensible for weaker candidates to tackle the prose passage.)

There is a large overlap in approach to analyzing poetry and prose but there are obvious differences. Prose has no pattern of rhymes or (except in political rhetoric, perhaps) intrusively regular and recurrent rhythm. For prose passages, it is important for students to look at structure, diction, syntax, dialogue and tone. The relationship between dialogue and descriptive passages is often a key to understanding how a given passage works.

Ask students to compare the structure, diction etc. of the two prose passages you have given them. This can be done in pairs or in groups. A general class discussion of their findings should follow.

To show how important structure is, ask students to write a brief report or story about something that has happened to them. Then ask them to exchange their stories and rewrite their partner’s story using a different structure, putting it into the third person, for example, or changing the tone (from comic to tragic, or from serious to flippant, for example). How does this affect the hearer’s response to the story?

For homework, students should write a commentary on one of the prose passages they have already discussed. It is better for students to write their first commentaries on works that they have become familiar with. This avoids results that are disappointing to both the teacher and the student.

The first novels that are read in class should be used for practice in prose commentary. Some novelists (Hardy, Dickens, Lawrence, the Bront�s, Cisneros) are excellent for practice; this kind of analysis will also deepen your students’ understanding of their works. Short story writers such as Mansfield, Joyce and Hemingway are also good sources for commentary.

Lesson 15

The 1,2 4 method.

Hand out a poem or a prose extract to everyone in the class.

1. Ask them to read it and write down THREE things about it. Tell them they can write anything – even: I don’t understand it.

2. After a few minutes divide the class into pairs. Between them they will have 6 (possibly 5 if there’s an overlap) statements about the text. Tell them to put these statements in order of importance. Allow 10+ minutes for this

3. This is the 4 stage where each pair joins with another. Between them, they now have two sets of comments. They should compare them and try to decide which list explains the text more accurately or effectively. After about 15 minutes ask one member of each group of 4 to report back to the class on their findings. The value of this exercise is that students arrive at an understanding of the poem and how it works without the teacher’s having to say anything.

In the end, if the teacher feels that important points have been omitted, then he or she can question and elucidate further. The 1,2,4 method (may the unknown inventor of it be praised) is one of the most useful ways for students to learn how to approach unknown texts. Nobody feels inadequate and better students help the weaker. It provides lots of exposure to the text without the teacher’s having to lead discussions. It also saves on marking.

Sometimes students do need to work on their own, and they do, of course, need regular practice in writing commentaries. Either at the end of the first term or at the beginning of the second term give your students an unseen text for commentary (in class or for homework).

The above is just the beginning of a lot more work on literary analysis. Depending on the class, you might want to change the order in which these lessons are presented; or to skip some of them. You might also want to spend extra lesson-time on aspects that are more difficult for some students.

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