Sunday, November 15, 2009

Know your text

SPM English

This week, we will look at the last question in Section D of the 1119 English paper. Question 34, which is based on the novels studied, carries 15 marks – 10 for content and 5 for language. It is quite easy to obtain marks for this question if you know your text well.

Knowing the text means knowing the plot, characters, themes, moral values and messages or lessons conveyed.

Knowing the plot means knowing the events, the sequence of events and details of the events. You should know what causes an event to occur. You should also know whether an event triggers other events and the effect an event or events on characters.

Knowing the characters means knowing the people in the story. You should focus on their characteristics – their physical, emotional and mental attributes. We learn about a character from what the author says about him or her, what other people say about him or her, or we may have to infer these characteristics from the character’s behaviour, actions or thoughts. Make sure you know your text well enough and are able to provide relevant and accurate information to support a point you make about a character.

Knowing the themes means knowing the main ideas that are conveyed in the novel. A theme is usually expressed as a statement about life. Some themes are explicit while most are implied, which means that they are not revealed directly.

Likewise, moral values or lessons may be conveyed explicitly or be implied.

An analysis of the aspects tested since 2004


Read the question carefully. Ask yourself what is required of you. Underline key words or phrases in the question so that you cover every aspect required.

Spend about five minutes planning your answer. A well-planned answer is one which is thought out and organised. Points are clearly advanced and the line of thought or argument is easy to follow. In other words, the answer should be smooth flowing. There is no irrelevant information or deviation from the question. Your answer should have an introduction, a body and a conclusion. Do pay attention to paragraphing. You may leave a line between paragraphs.

Display a sound knowledge of, and engagement with the novel. Provide relevant details to support your answer. Do not make the mistake of merely retelling the story. Remember, the examiners have read the texts. What they want to see is your engagement with the text.

As this is a language paper, focus on using correct language. Use simple sentences if you cannot handle complex structures. What is important is that you convey your ideas clearly. Do pay attention to spelling and punctuation, and write neatly and legibly. When we respond to literary texts, we usually use the present tense but if this is not possible, you may respond in the past tense. The important thing is to be consistent.

Be careful when answering questions on moral values. Many students confuse characteristics with values. If a character is brave, the value is bravery. Likewise, if a character is wise, the value is wisdom. Remember to use adjectives for character traits and nouns for values. Do not mistake negative values for moral messages. Students have been known to say that one of the moral values or messages in The Pearl is greed. The value/ message conveyed is one should not be greedy.

Let’s consider the strengths of the answer. The answer is well structured.

It has an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

The introductory paragraph conveys the idea that there are several lessons to be learnt from the novel but only one lesson is chosen as required by the question and that lesson is that we should not be greedy. The next sentence conveys what greed can do to a person.

Before the effects of greed are discussed, it is important to mention briefly what Kino’s life was like before the discovery of the pearl.

This is to show how Kino and his life changed as a result of desiring something to the extent that he misplaces his priorities. The paragraphs which follow convey the problems and losses that poor Kino has had to suffer.

The conclusion conveys the idea that Kino too realises how wrong he was and that Steinbeck had deliberately given the story a sad ending so that we, the readers, can learn something from this tragic tale.

Remember, this is only a sample answer.

This is not the only way to write an answer.

Common pitfalls

Some candidates do not read the question carefully. In this question, for instance, you are asked for one lesson but some candidates have been known to write about more than one lesson. This clearly shows failure to understand the requirements of the question.

Some candidates tend to retell the story. As mentioned earlier, the examiners have read the text. There is no need for you to narrate the story.

Some candidates also show that they have no clear understanding of the text. They only know about some events, and not in detail at that. This is due to not reading the text. It is important for you to read the text several times so that you know the story well. Also, you may gain new insights every time you read the text. Good luck!

This is the last segment of the SPM English series.


Write about a lesson you have learned from the novel you have studied. Support your answer with details from the text.

The novel The Pearl by John Steinbeck conveys several lessons to the readers. One lesson which I have learnt is that we should not be greedy. This is because greed is a destructive force.

Initially, Kino is a happy and contented man although he is poor. He is not bothered by the lack of material comfort in his life. His only material possessions are a canoe and his brush house.

However, when he finds the pearl he becomes ambitious. He desires things which he has never considered before. He wants new clothes for himself, Juana and Coyotito. He also wants to marry Juana in a church. He wants a harpoon and a rifle. Most importantly he wants an education for his son, Coyotito.

However, his desire for these things soon becomes an obsession. When he is attacked the first time, Juana advises him to get rid of the pearl because she believes that the attack was triggered by the pearl. He refuses to listen to Juana and is adamant on keeping the pearl. When he is attacked a second time, Juana again tells him to throw the pearl away but he refuses to listen. He is intent on getting a better life for himself and his family.

Unfortunately, after these attacks, he becomes suspicious of everyone. When Juana quietly creeps out of the house to throw the pearl away, he follows her and is able to stop her before she flings the pearl out into the sea. Angry, he lashes out at her and beats her viciously, punching her in the face and kicking her in the stomach. His determination to keep the pearl makes him lose his senses. He beats up the one person who has been very supportive of him.

Things become worse for him when he accidentally kills a man in the third attack.

The people who are after the pearl are also driven by greed. They too become destructive. They destroy his canoe and burn his brush house. Kino, knowing that his life and that of his family’s are at stake, has no choice but to flee. He heads towards the mountains and he is pursued by three trackers who will stop at nothing to get hold of the pearl. The pursuit ends with Kino killing all three trackers.

Unfortunately, his son Coyotito is also killed by a stray bullet.

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