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How to write a commentary

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Introduction

TEACHING COMMENTARY Elizabeth and Robert Druce - November, 2002 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 a 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 think 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." 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. ...read more.

Middle

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 which 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 term word 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. ...read more.

Conclusion

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. At 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. Elizabeth and Robert Druce - November, 2002 ?? ?? ?? ?? 1 ...read more.

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