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Comparative Study: Part 1 – Overview

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I know that for some of you the comparative is a tough nut to crack. I regularly see bright students analyse this area to death and botch the essay. I also know what it’s like at this time of year. You’ve done the single text well, done most of your poets and you barely remember the first comparative text you read. You watched the film to death and you’re about to read the second text, be it the novel or play. You’re about to start dissecting exam questions and sample essays and getting advice from older friends. My main piece of advice is to remain open-minded and get to know your texts well.

Once all the texts are ‘read’, you should be able to document your key moments and explain them in great detail. What do they say about the characters? The theme? The structure of the story? This is where you get to play the psychologist. As I often tell students, freeze on the key moment and explain its meaning in the grand scheme of things. You should then be able to categorise these moments in terms of the modes you are studying. A good way to approach the comparative is to use a grid for each mode on all three texts. Fill in key moments as you read and describe them in detail and how they relate to the given mode. By the end, you should have enough material to organise into a cohesive essay. These are great jumping off points. You will probably construct a more detailed analysis as you write.

The next piece of advice comes from my recent attendance at the annual INOTE conference, a beautiful day where us English teachers from around Ireland met in Kilkenny and realised that there are other geeks out there in Converse, cardigans and scarves, tweeting about the day on our iPhones (it could also be mistaken for a Liz Lemon convention).  At any rate, INOTE board member and textbook writer Fiona Kirwan presented a session on ‘Cracking the Comparative’ that was most enlightening. It appears that examiners are veering away from the dreaded C code that has plagued the paper in the past. They’re still looking for comparisons, but now they’re looking for personal response and insight that is unique to your answer. In other words, avoid the notes and explain what you understand about the key moments in respect of each other. Also, the modes are starting to overlap in the questions. In other words, don’t ignore what you know about Literary Genre just because you’re answering the Theme question. Sit down with the past questions and look at what is being asked of you. This basically throws the prepared answer option out the window!

Let me tell you about a girl I taught last year who was never the best English student. She was a hard worker and an attentive student, but was never a confident writer. She consistently outperformed the rest of the class on the comparative. The reason for this?  Well, she read the texts well, paid attention in class and was well organised. However, she would only sit down and designate one hour to her essay and would choose a random question. She answered the question, regardless of the plethora of notes available to her. While the others scoured the web and pestered friends for ideas and samples, she simply tackled the task at hand and did it well. She didn’t cling to her thesaurus or try to over-complicate things. It’s well worth taking a leaf out of her book (or comparative text!)

While there will undoubtedly be more to come in terms of the comparative, I urge you to familiarise yourselves with your texts and keep detailed notes. Analyse past questions in terms of what is being asked, and sit down to construct meaningful, personal and relevant responses to these questions. Good luck!

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