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How to Write an A* GCSE

English Literature Poetry


Response

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

The Poetry Component of the GCSE Literature Paper


The poetry task is the second question on the GCSE English Literature exam paper. It is perhaps the more
demanding of the tasks on the paper, because unlike the question on the prose, in this section you are being asked
to compare four poems simultaneously throughout your answer.
In the exam you should spend one hour on this section of the paper.
Given the greater demand of the task, your response to the poetry is worth more marks than the response to the
prose. In order to perform at the highest level on this paper, it is important that you develop a nuanced and
sophisticated comparative written style. However, this is achievable if you adopt a systematic approach to
ordering and writing your responses. It does, however, demand considerable practice prior to the final
examination.

What is the Examiner looking for in a response to the Poetry?


The exam is designed to test your ability to do the following things:

Can you respond to the poems critically, in detail, and sensitively using textual evidence?
Can you explore language, structure and form contribute to the meaning of texts?
Can you compare the ways that ideas, themes and relationships are presented in the poems by selecting
pertinent details from the texts?

In other words you need to:


Write a detailed and nuanced comparison of the poems considering how the language and form contribute to the
overall meaning of the poems, and the relationships, themes and ideas that the poets are trying to present to the
audience.

What is the Examiner looking for in an A* response to the Poetry?


An A* response is characterised by a conceptualised, insightful and imaginative approach to the texts that
combines an analytical and exploratory use of detail in each poem individually with evaluative comparison across
all of the four poems discussed in the answer.
Essentially, an A* response will set itself apart from the hundreds of other responses because it has an individual
and unique approach that shows the writer has developed their own individual ideas about the texts. This
approach is characterised by a confident engagement with the themes, ideas, relationships and technical
construction of the poems. Equally, the writer of an A* response will show comparative skill; making links and
cross referencing the poems using telling detail to form the basis of insightful comparisons between the poems.
The following are the specific requirements of an A* response:

A conceptualised and imaginative response to the themes, ideas, relationships of the poems;
Insightful exploration of the themes, ideas and relationships of the poems;
Sensitive and evaluative use of detail, integrated into the response to support the argument;
Evaluative comparison of language, structure and form and their effects on the reader;
Evaluative comparison of ideas, meanings and poets techniques.

At first this may appear daunting but with a ruthless and systematic approach it can be achieved. Essentially, the
key to performing at this level is having your own ideas; if you can form your own opinions about each of the
poems then you will be able to write this kind of essay. The real skill here is to marry the ideas that you have with
a written style that allows you to showcase them in the examination. The former depends on you knowing the
poems intimately; the latter on a ruthless determination to master the process outlined in the rest of this
document.

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

What do each of the requirements mean in reality?


The following is an example of a typical poetry question set in the Literature exam:
Compare the ways that poets present death in Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney, The Affliction of
Margaret by William Wordsworth and two other poems.
In order to meet the different requirements of an A* response you would expect a response on this title to take the
kind of approach shown below under each criteria. The key difference between the examination and coursework
essays is that in the examination you only have to hit each criterion once throughout your essay.

A conceptualised approach to the themes, ideas and relationships of the poems

You might begin and end your response with some theoretical discussion of the concept in the title question. In
the case of this question, the concept is death, therefore you might begin your essay in the following way:
The finality of death is presented in a range of ways throughout the poems in the
Anthology; it forms a central concern of the poets and each one focuses on different
aspects such that we might come to see the poems as exploring the process of death.
That is, while in Mid-Term Break, Heaney centres the narrative of his poem on an the
nature of grief the longer term impact of a death conversely, Gillian Clarkes The
Field Mouse is concerned with the genocidal murder of a people during the ethnic
cleansing in the Balkans during the 1990s. However, ironically, given the scale of
Clarkes deaths her poem is imbued with a sense of anonymity it is more focussed on
the concept rather than the event because we never see a death, but instead, the effect of
its magnitude, in turn, this foregrounds Clarkes attempt to locate her exploration of
death as an abstract meditation on the concept itself. Another poet concerned with
death as a concept is William Wordsworth in The Affliction of Margaret who presents
the impact of a possible but unconfirmed death, in turn, the persona of the poem is
forced to confront the uncertainty and guilt presented by a hypothetical bereavement.
This forms an effective contrast with the reality of the death in Heaneys poem, despite
the lack of a death in The Affliction of Margaret, it is Heaneys persona who confronts
death in more detached and cold way. However, in the same way that both Heaney and
Wordsworth focus on the impact of a death in the family, so too does Ben Jonson in On
My First Sonne. However, Jonsons approach is much more concerned with the longerterm effect of death, of how a man recovers from not just the death of his son, but his
own metaphorical death; that is, the son that defined his role as father has died and so
too the purpose of the personas life.
Why is this conceptualised?

It engages with the death as an idea rather than just an event that happens;
It deconstructs the idea of death and discusses specific elements or characteristics of death;
It understands that death is an idea the poets use as a theme that is explored through the events, characters
and relationships of the poem.
Also note how the writer establishes a comparative tone from the outset this is a real positive because already
the examiner is aware that this essay has comparison at its centre.

Insightful Exploration of Themes, Ideas and Relationships of the Poem

In order to hit this criterion you need to show that you can not only identify what the different themes, ideas
and relationships are, but instead, that you can consider the different possible meanings that the poet is trying to
convey. So for example, at some point you would want a passage that shows this kind of exploration:
The arrangement of Mid-Term Break and The Field Mouse is central to the way that
both poets present the concept of death. Mid-Term Break adopts a rigid three-line
stanza structure which is counter pointed in the final single line that is intended to
enhance the horror of the childs death. However, Clarke sustains the regularity of her

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

stanzas throughout in order to convey the powerlessness of the victims of war who are at
the mercy of the unbreakable horror of war. In turn, the regularity of Mid-Term Break
may be representative of the strong exterior the persona feels compelled to uphold in
order to support his father who he meets crying on his arrival. However, the final line,
a four foot box, a foot for every year transposes the focus of the poem from the external
to the internal; that is, into the mind of the persona who is struck by the horror of a
wasted life whose meagre years are presented by the morbid symbol of the coffin in
which his brother lies. However, undermining the personas rigid outward appearance,
and foreshadowing the final moment of realisation at the end of the poem, is the
enjambment that runs between stanzas three, four and five. While attempting to
maintain the dignity and stoicism exhibited by men like Big Jim Evans who
euphemistically characterise the death as a hard blow, the enjambment hints at a young
boy projecting an outward appearance of strength but internally struggling to repress the
chaotic and unpredictable feelings of an incomprehensible death. However, whereas
Heaney is concerned with a persona trying to repress the feelings brought about by a
death that defies reason; Clarkes poem is about how death can be ignored and
rationalised. The Field Mouses stanzas of equal length allude to the regularity of life
beyond the place of death in the countries where people are not affected by the events of
the radios terrible news. The idea of distance, evoked by the idea of people receiving
the news over the radio as opposed to first-hand is crucial because it creates the sense
of how war and by definition, death is a concept that the outside world can accept at
a distance, while to the people who suffer its wrath it is an overwhelming presence of
brutality. This marks a key contrast between the two poems: Heaney presenting a poem
about a death that we all find futile and tragic; while Clarke presents a death that is
negated by those to whom it does not reach, this is a central part of the tragedy of the
Balkans genocide to which Clarke might be referring: thousands of people were ethnically
cleansed while the rest of the world looked on indifferently. The stanza structure of
both poems enhances the
Why is the insightful and exploratory?

It clearly understands possible layers of meaning in relation to the concept of death;


It doesnt just identify possible meanings, it develops on them, using textual detail to draw out the ideas to
their logical conclusions in other words it explores the ideas;
It draws its conclusions from a close understanding of the text as shown by the references to specific detail
in the poems and is therefore sustainable.
Notice that there is a balance here between close analytical reading of each poem and then some important
comparative remarks that again further the sense that this is at its centre a comparison. Another important
feature to note is the way that detail or quotations are embedded into the body of the argument and that the
paragraph isnt punctuated by long, overwhelming quotations.

The above passage would also get maximum credit for the final three criteria:

Sensitive and evaluative use of detail, integrated into the response to support the argument

You will notice that in order to support the points being made, the writer has used key details the specific
reference to the stoicism of Big Jim in Mid-Term Break or the radio in The Field Mouse which are integrated
or embedded into the body of the argument. The passage would be rewarded for sensitive and evaluative use of
detail because the details used by the writer are used to make an insightful comment about death in the poems
for example, that death in Mid-Term Break creates conflicting emotions in people which have to be repressed or
controlled in someway dependent on other people. This then becomes an evaluative comment because of the way
that the writer then comments on how the persona is projecting an outward appearance of stoicism, showing that
they understand that there is a duality of purpose in Heaneys presentation of the poem; he isnt simply showing
the boy is trying to act like the men around him, but instead, he is being forced into a much more complex
dilemma about how to deal with grief.

Evaluative comparison of language, structure and form and their effects on the reader;

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

The central point of this paragraph is concerned with how form and structure help us to derive the key thematic
ideas presented by the poets. The writer is comparing the way that the poets use the length and construction of
stanzas to convey meaning essentially, an issue of poetic form and therefore immediately they get credit for
showing that they understand that this is a crucial feature of poetic craft. However, they then develop this into an
evaluative comparison by explaining why each poem adopts its stanza structure. In order to do this, the writer
explains the effects of each one in terms of the meaning that it conveys:
In turn, the regularity of Mid-Term Break may be representative of the strong exterior
the persona feels compelled to uphold in order to support his father who he meets
crying on his arrival. However, the final line, a four foot box, a foot for every year
transposes the focus of the poem from the external to the internal; that is, into the mind
of the persona who is struck by the horror of a wasted life whose meagre years are
presented by the morbid symbol of the coffin in which his brother lies
and
The Field Mouses stanzas of equal length allude to the regularity of life beyond the
place of death in the countries where people are not affected by the events of the radios
terrible news. The idea of distance, evoked by the idea of people receiving the news over
the radio as opposed to first-hand is crucial because it creates the sense of how war
and by definition, death is a concept that the outside world can accept at a distance,
while to the people who suffer its wrath it is an overwhelming presence of brutality.
Then, to conclude, the writer draws from the different ways that the poets have used form, a final comparative
remark:
This marks a key contrast between the two poems: Heaney presenting a poem about a
death that we all find futile and tragic; while Clarke presents a death that is negated by
those to whom it does not reach, this is a central part of the tragedy of the Balkans
genocide to which Clarke might be referring: thousands of people were ethnically
cleansed while the rest of the world looked on indifferently.

Evaluative comparison of ideas, meanings and poets techniques.

The paragraph would get maximum credit for this criterion because it synthesises all three of the component
parts:
1.

Comparison of ideas and meanings:


However, whereas Heaney is concerned with a persona trying to repress the feelings
brought about by a death that defies reason; Clarkes poem is about how death can be
ignored and rationalised.

and:
This marks a key contrast between the two poems: Heaney presenting a poem about a
death that we all find futile and tragic; while Clarke presents a death that is negated by
those to whom it does not reach, this is a central part of the tragedy of the Balkans
genocide to which Clarke might be referring: thousands of people were ethnically
cleansed while the rest of the world looked on indifferently.
Both of these passages would be rewarded credit for their evaluative qualities because they take the central concept
of the answer death and comment, with insight, on how the writers present it differently. The writer does not
simply write that the presentation is different; they explain specifically how it is different.

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response


2.

Comparison of poets technique

The initial proposition at the beginning of the paragraph achieves credit for this element of the criteria:
The arrangement of Mid-Term Break and The Field Mouse is central to the way that
both poets present the concept of death. Mid-Term Break adopts a rigid three-line
stanza structure which is counter pointed in the final single line that is intended to
enhance the horror of the childs death. However, Clarke sustains the regularity of her
stanzas throughout in order to convey the powerlessness of the victims of war who are at
the mercy of the unbreakable horror of war.
This moves beyond a simple comparison of fact; that is, the writer does not just state that there is a difference in
the arrangement of the stanzas. It becomes an evaluative comparison because it explores and explains the effect
the difference in form has on the central concept of the question: death. In turn, the writer of the essay is making
a sophisticated comparison of how form directly affects meaning in relation to the concept of death.
Points to Note

It important that you write in an imaginative way showing that you have a personal engagement with the
poems; this will ensure that your ideas are individual and set you apart from the many other responses.

You must use carefully selected quotations from the poems that are embedded into the body of your essay.
You want to avoid a situation where each paragraph is punctuated by huge quotations which are not gaining
you credit; carefully selected words or phrases which are embedded into the body of your argument will
will
work much more efficiently.

You must develop your ideas fully based on the textual details that you use, this will ensure that you are
rewarded for insight and exploration which is necess
necessary characteristic of an A* response.

It is important to engage with the texts as poems; that is, you need to show you understand that poetic form
and technique is central to how the meaning of the poems is derived. In order to do this, it is important to
learn key terms and concepts related to the creation of poems.

You need to write in a consistently comparative way an A* response will compare the poems
simultaneously in the same paragraph of the response.

Although you only need to hit each criteria once in your essay, an A* essay will tend to repeatedly hit the
criteria throughout. Indeed, as you can see from the paragraph above, you can hit many of the criteria in one
paragraph. If you write in an exploratory and insightful way you will automatically use detail in a sensitive
way to make comparisons between the texts.

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

Structuring your Response


The key difference between the coursework essay and an examination essay is that the structure is less elaborate.
This is to take account of the time restriction that an exam presents; you will only have an hour to write your
poetry response and it is important that each minute of the examination is used to gain marks. Therefore, you
will see below that there is a three-part structure to the essay you will write in the examination, each one with a
series of things you need to include.

Stage 1: The Introduction


Your introduction needs to do the following:
Address the terms of the question referring directly to the key words of the question;
Some conceptual discussion of the key concept in the title question;
An initial comparison of how the key concept in the title question is presented in each poem you need to
make sure you include in this the titles and names of the poets you are going to discuss.

Stage 2: Body Paragraphs


Each body paragraph needs to do the following:
Make a point of comparison between the poems in direct response to the title question;
Embed useful and pertinent details from the text to support your argument;
Make some detailed comment about how language, form or structure compare;
Explore meaning commenting how language, form or structure contribute to the overall meaning;
Conclude with a comparative remark that is directly related to the title question.
Throughout you should use discourse markers to show you are making comparison.

Stage 3: Conclusion
Your conclusion needs to do the following:
Directly answer the title question based on the exploration of the poems that you have completed;
Make some comparative remarks in relation to the title question;
End with a final, original idea about the key concept of the title question.

A Warning
If you practice using this structure then you will ensure that you not only write in a way that allows you to meet
all the criteria in the examination, but you will afford yourself the opportunity to showcase the sophisticated ideas
that you have about the poems. This structure is designed deliberately to achieve an A* response to the poetry in
the examination, however it is worth remembering that you cannot simply follow the structure in a methodical
and mechanical way, the central characteristic of an A* response is imagination and originality. This comes with
knowing the poems but also finding ways to express yourself imaginatively; the structure above is simply a
framework to help you do that.

Time
It is important from the outset that you are conscious of the time that you have in the examination, it should be
at the forefront of your mind. This structure is almost a safe-guard against the perils of running out of time, in
theory if you write a relatively small amount, you should still cover enough ground. However, at first you will
need to spend longer than an hour writing to learn the style, but towards the end of Year 11, you will want to be
regularly producing practice essays that cover all of the ground in an hour.

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

Planning a Poetry Response The Timeline Approach


One very logical way to plan a poetry response is to use the Timeline approach which allows you to think about
precisely where in the essay each point of comparison will be made, with specific reference to key details you will
use and explanations you will give. It is an effective visual way that you can check that you have included
everything necessary in your answer. You simply use the timeline to sequence the structure of your essay in the
same way would use a timeline to record a sequence of events in history.
Example:

Compare the ways that poets present death in Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney, The Affliction of
Margaret by William Wordsworth and two other poems.
Introduction
Death processes of death, each poem shows
different aspect.
Poems Mid-Term Break, Affliction, Field
Mouse, Sonne.
Body Paragraph 1
Heaney grieving, confusion over how to feel
Jonson despondent, loss of self (ie. ref father)
Cf. rigidity of language in SH with much more
elaborate rhythm/structure Jonson.
Rigidity SH reflects personas confusion Vs.
Elaborateness of Jonson much more of a
lamentation on death.

Body Paragraph 2
Clarke a tension between distance & immediacy
of death radio & field bleeding.
Wordsworth is distant because its hypothetical
death isnt assured but still personal.
The internalised imagery of hell in WWorth cf.
with the more understated imagery of the
immediacy of death.
Conclusion
Death presented in contrasting ways some
internal others external key difference
But, also they form an interesting dialogue with
one another about the process of deathdeath,
grief, regret
Also an interesting debate about how we value
death, and in turn, life.

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

Cohesive prose is writing that holds together logically. That is, text that has a clear sense of structure and
progression and shows the reader through the use of discourse markers the direction that it is taking. It is
important that your essays are cohesive the effects of writing cohesively are two fold: firstly, it will ensure that
your written argument can be followed in a logical fashion and secondly, it will demonstrate that you understand
the importance of carefully constructed prose.
Discourse Markers
Creating cohesive prose can be easily achieved by using discourse markers, in the tables below are a range of
discourse markers that have a range of purposes in written text. It is absolutely imperative that you use discourse
markers in a poetry response because it is another way of indicating to the examiner that you are writing in a
comparative way.

Transitions that indicate you want to add information to what you are saying
Besides

Furthermore

In addition

Indeed

In fact

Moreover

Firstly, secondly

Transitions that indicate a cause or reason


As a result

Consequently

For that reason

Therefore/thus

Since

Because of

Transitions that indicate a purpose or reason why


For fear that

In the hope that

In order to

With this in mind

Transitions that indicate you are giving an example


For example

For instance

In particular

Particularly

Specifically

To demonstrate

To illustrate

This exemplifies

Transitions that indicate a result or an effect


Accordingly

Finally

Consequently

Hence

Therefore

Thus

Transitions that show you are comparing or contrasting


Although
In comparison

However
In contrast

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

Practice Question
Compare how the poets present the importance of history in At a Potato Digging by Seamus Heaney
and A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998.
1. Highlight the key words of the title question.
2. In your own words re-write the question keeping its meaning.
3. What is the key concept of the title question?
4. Explain what you think the question means by the importance of history.
5. Now look again at both questions and complete the chart below to show the similarities and
differences in the way that the poets present the importance of history in the poems.
Importance of History
Similarities
At a Potato Digging

A Difficult Birth, Easter 1916

Events/Characters/Relationships

Events/Characters/Relationships

Themes/Ideas:

Themes/Ideas:

Language/Form/Structure:

Language/Form/Structure:

Importance of History
Differences
At a Potato Digging

A Difficult Birth, Easter 1916

Events/Characters/Relationships

Events/Characters/Relationships

Themes/Ideas:

Themes/Ideas:

Language/Form/Structure:

Language/Form/Structure:

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

11

6. Write a paragraph that succinctly explains the differences between the ways that the poets present
the importance of history in the poems.
7. Complete a Timeline Plan in response to the essay question as this is the first time you have
planned one of these questions you need to give specific detail in each box about what you intend
to do.
Your introduction box should include some comment on each of the following in note-form:
What are the key terms of the question title?
The key concept of the question;
The names of the poems you will use;
An initial comparison about the key concept across the poems.
Your body paragraphs boxes should include some comment on each of the following in note-form:
A key point of comparison that you want to make;
Specific textual quotations that you will use;
Comments on how the language, form or structure of the quotations compare;
Comments on what you will write to explore the meaning;
A final comparative remark to conclude the paragraph.
A note of key discourse markers that you will use to show you are making comparisons.
Your conclusion box should include some comment on each of the following in note form:
A direct answer to the title question;
Some final comparative remarks in response to the title question;
A final original idea in response to the title question.
8. Begin to draft your response in full.

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12

How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

In preparation for the examination, it is important to revisit what you know about punctuation. This is because
you will want to be able to express some highly complex ideas fluently. The most effective way to do this is to
use a broader range of punctuation in your response.
Outlined below are the rules and principles regarding the use of some more complex punctuation marks that allow
you to express complex ideas with greater fluidity.
Basic Principle: punctuation marks should be used to enhance the clarity and meaning of your writing they
should not be used sporadically and erroneously just because you know what they are.
1.

The Colon (:)

Rules Governing the Use of the Colon

The colon is used to indicate that what follows it is an explanation or elaboration of what precedes it.

A colon is preceded by a complete sentence; what follows the colon may or may not be a complete sentence.

A colon is not usually followed by a capital letter except where normal rules governing the use of the capital
letter apply for example, names of people or places.

Examples of Appropriate Colon Usage

Africa is facing a terrifying problem: perpetual drought.


[Information after the colon explains the problem.]

The situation is clear: too many teenagers are drinking too much alcohol.
[Information after the colon explains what the situation is.]

In the closing moments of The Crucible, Proctor understands one certitude: to


confession to stand would be to live a lie.
[Information after the colon explains what Proctor understands.]

Exercises:

Accurately place the colon in the sentences below:


-

When he left the Whitehouse he was clear he had left in shame.

In the deepening shade he saw just one thing the abyss.

The Crucible transcends time for one reason it confronts us with the perils of denial.

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allow the

How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

13

2. The Semicolon (;)


Rules Governing the Use of the Semicolon

A semicolon is used for one purpose: to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when the
following conditions are met:

The two sentences are felt to be too closely related in subject matter to be separated by a full stop.

There is no conjunction (and) or disjunct (but) which would require a comma.

The reasons for using a colon do not apply to the construction.

Examples of Appropriate Colon Usage

Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937; the first volume of The Lord of the Rings followed in 1954.

Womens conversation is largely cooperative; mens is competitive.

Students should aim to complete their coursework on time; their failure to do so can often lead to severe
penalties.

Note how the semicolon in each example is used to separate two complete sentences.
Exercises:
Accurately place the semicolon in each of the sentences below:
-

Steven Spielberg directed in Munich in 2005 War of the Worlds was completed just six months later.

Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer in Britain alcohol is the second most significant cause of
other cancers.

As John Proctor lifts Elizabeth his salvation is affirmed his goodness reclaimed amidst the amoral horrors of
the theocrats.

Conjunctions that Require the use of the Semicolon

Certain conjunctions (transition words) require a preceding semicolon they are however, therefore, hence, thus,
consequently, nevertheless and meanwhile (plus other words that serve a similar function)

For example:
-

Saturn was long thought to be the only ringed planet; however, this is now known not to be the case.

The two warring sides have refused to withdraw from the airport; consequently aid flights have had to be
suspended.

Accurately place the semicolon in the following example:


-

Proctor and Elizabeths relationship in Act Two is characterised by an inherent stasis however by Act Four
this has been supplanted by a regained sense of love and adoration.

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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literature Poetry Response

14

3. The Dash ( )

The dash has only one purpose in written prose: a pair of dashes mark a significant interruption in a sentence.
Rules Governing the Use of the Dash

Dashes are used in pairs and show the beginning and end of a digression.

Dashes should be used only when the digression is absolutely relevant to the point that is being made in the
sentence but causes the information to be significantly interrupted.

Dashes should be used sparingly to avoid the overall cohesion of the text becoming disjointed and
unintelligible.

Examples of Appropriate Dash Usage

An honest politician if such a creature exists would never agree to such a plan.

The destruction of Guernica and there is no doubt that the destruction was deliberate horrified the
world.

When the Europeans settled in Tasmania, they inflicted genocide there is no other word for it upon the
indigenous population, who were wiped out in thirty years.

Exercises:
Accurately place a pair of dashes in the sentences below:
-

The Iraq war has claimed over 400,000 civilian lives nearly four times the number Saddam Hussein is
thought to have murdered since the beginning of the conflict in 2003.

Theoretically, there is a link between poverty and academic performance albeit a circumstantial link which is
something the government needs to rectify.

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