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Poetry for GCSE and the Ability to Concentrate

This week I’ve been mostly thinking about poetry for GCSE (because we’ve been so busy with that) and how much technology has taken over our lives.  Two subjects that you would think are unrelated.

At the moment, many Year 11 students are studying poetry for GCSE English Literature.  Students have to learn, compare and analyse a cluster of 15 poems, covering subjects like Love and Relationships, Conflict, Youth and Age.  This is a huge amount of work, and many students may have an aversion to poetry.  They may think the poems are too long, too difficult, too boring, making it a mammoth job for teachers to inspire students to read the poems, and then teach the students to compare and analyse.  That’s before we get to the unseen poem question. 

Studying poetry for GCSE English Literature can be an enriching experience for students and open a new world of writing.  It’s no mean feat to read, remember and understand 15 poems.  It takes stamina to then analyse, read revision guides, write essays, and prepare for the poetry exam.  This is where our diminishing ability to pay attention comes into play.

In a previous blog, I mentioned that I have started reading Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari.  I’m not very far into the book but I’ve been astonished by what I’ve read.   He quotes a small study “that investigated how often an average American college student actually pays attention to anything.”  The study found that, “on average, a student would switch tasks once every 65 seconds.  The median amount of time they focused on any one thing was just 19 seconds.”   

Adults shouldn’t feel superior.  “A different study by Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, observed how long on average an adult working in an office stays on one task.  It was 3 minutes.”

“We touch our phones 2,617 time per day.”   These are sobering statistics.

Johann Hari makes it clear that technology isn’t the only thing that distracts us.  He talks about our diet, rising pollution, stress.  It’s a compelling read and by the end of it I may or may not agree with the writer.  However, I do agree that technology, specifically our phones, sap our energy and our ability to focus for long periods of time.  Anyone with a teenager in the house will be familiar with the negotiations that take place about how much screen time is acceptable.  Our young people spend time scrolling, barely resting for a few seconds on an image or video.  So, to ask them to learn, analyse and compare 15 poems can be a huge problem. 

As an English teacher, Mr L has faced this issue many times.  Visual learning, such as revision posters can be useful, and depending on the student, PowerPoint can take the place of large revision guides.  Many students are aural learners, so Mr L is recording a series of short audio guides on popular GCSE poems.  The experiment may or may not work, but at least it will give students another way to tackle poetry and give teachers another resource to bring into the classroom.

As a thank you to everyone who reads my blog, I'm giving you a freebie!  Send an email to with ESSAY TIPS as the subject, and I will send you a free short audio guide on essay writing for the poetry question.


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