Avoiding empty analysis in GCSE English

Avoiding empty analysis in GCSE English


It’s important that we encourage students to explore structure and form when they are analysing a literary text.  However, this can sometimes lead to empty analysis.  I’ve regularly read comments on exam papers like, ‘The writer uses a comma to convey how the two people are separate’ or ‘By writing in rhyming couplets, the poet demonstrates the speaker’s love for her partner’.  Responses like these are often based on good ideas but, unfortunately, the analysis is tenuous: a comma doesn’t actually mean anything; a rhyming couplet doesn’t instantly represent love.

Start with language

With this in mind, when we are discussing a text, I always ask my students to start with language.  Words are the primary tool which writers use to convey meaning so – whether we’re studying prose, poetry, or drama – I insist on analysis being established in this way.

The class might be exploring character, theme, or atmosphere.  But however brilliant their ideas are, my students must prove them by referring to specific words, phrases, or images.  This also has the benefit of reducing responses that are based on a mis-reading or a superficial impression of a text.

If my students are a little sceptical of this approach at first, I put a big semi-colon on the board and say, ‘What does that mean?’  I’ll often get the response, ‘It’s a semi-colon.’  I just follow up with, ‘I know what it is, what does it mean?’  The subsequent silence usually convinces them that empty analysis is a problem.

Move on to structure and form

Just as I encourage my students to see language as establishing meaning, I suggest to them that sentence structures, narrative structures, and literary forms can all emphasise that meaning.

Once a student has established a clear idea and evidenced it using the writer’s language, I ask them to look back at their quotation and consider how it has been structured and where it was placed in the text.  We then discuss whether these additional aspects of a writer’s craft might be interpreted as supporting their initial idea.  This could be a short sentence, a list, an example of repetition, a poet’s use of meter, or a playwright’s reference to lighting.

Whatever the student comes up with, if it can be clearly related to the idea that they established through language then they are analysing the effects of structure and form with meaning.

Put it all together

I probably let discussion go on for too long in some of my lessons as I’ve always loved hearing what other people have to say about a text.  Giving airtime to their inferences, judgements, questions, and comparisons is vital.  Ultimately, though, I always end our talk with some writing.  When we’re doing this, I ask them to mirror the method of our discussion: after establishing their idea, they evidence it and start by exploring language; only once that has been completed are they allowed to consider the supporting effects of structure and form.  If the class are new to a text or less confident with their analysis, then we’ll start by modelling a paragraph together or doing some paired writing before an independent task.

Hopefully, I’ll end up with paragraphs like this one about Seamus Heaney’s ‘Follower’:

Heaney uses metaphor to describe a childhood desire for independence.  In the lines, ‘All I ever did was follow / In his broad shadow around the farm’, the ‘shadow’ is used to represent the son’s inability to be his own person.  The notion of always trying to copy, and live up to, his father is also indicated by the verb ‘follow’.  By internally rhyming these two words, Heaney emphasises the idea that he was always echoing his father in different ways

If you’re new to teaching or lack a bit of confidence when it comes to analysing texts, the Snap Revision Text Guides contain samples of analysis that follow a similar pattern.  One simple way to use them in class is to ask students to highlight where the language analysis is in the paragraph, then use a different colour to highlight subsequent analysis of structure or form.

By teaching strategies to avoid empty analysis, we will make young people better students of English.  Their ideas will be rooted in the writer’s craft rather than in pre-conceived ideas or misconceptions.  This will improve their future grades and perhaps encourage them to continue their studies to A-level.


Ian Kirby has been teaching English for over twenty years, currently working as a senior tutor and key stage 5 co-ordinator at a school in Northamptonshire. He is also the author of a number of English textbooks and revision guides, including the popular Snap Revision series.

Snap Revision is a series of bestselling text guides and workbooks for GCSE English. Plus, new editions now include video support for the most popular AQA set texts accessed via QR codes.