Oxford graduate and qualified English teacher with seven years’ tutoring experience. A-level English literature tuition in west and south-west London or online.
I try to combine three things that I want my students to do, which are three forms of thinking: speak about complex ideas, read high-quality material, and write essays for which they will receive detailed feedback. For obvious reasons, lessons are weighted to speaking, and homework to reading and writing.
Pedagogy’s holy grail is measuring progress, which is difficult in a classroom and impossible in a lecture. Happily, the tutorial system allows this to occur continuously and efficiently via dialogue. Can a student re-express an idea they have heard or read in their own words? If the answer is yes, they have probably understood the idea. Hence the constant questions!
As well as understanding the ideas of others, speaking is essential for students to develop their own. I love the quote from the novelist E. M. Forster, ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’ We improve the quality of our ideas through the process of articulating them.
For my part, quite a lot of what I say is explaining what texts mean. This might sound obvious, but great works of literature are complex, so, to understand their meaning, one’s own interpretation probably needs the support of other people’s prior interpretations.
I sometimes like to break the question of a text’s meaning into two: What’s it about? And what’s it really about? Answering the first question is comprehension, a necessary first step. To answer the second question is to understand. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, for example, Blanche goes to live with her sister in New Orleans. She expresses a strong dislike of her surroundings and is frequently associated with images of water. She declines mentally and is eventually taken away. So what’s the play really about? Blanche is a Romantic idealist who is disappointed with her life but still tends to imagine things in their perfect form. The play is about the human soul conceiving of things being as good as they could be (as if cleansed by water), reaching for the conception, and failing to grasp it – shuttling back and forth, in other words, on the streetcar named desire.
One thing I frequently encourage is making the link between those oft-cited elements of a good essay, themes and quotations. These are not unrelated ingredients, they are the text itself viewed from different distances. A theme (the desire to be cleansed) is a wide shot, and a quotation (‘the land of the sky blue water’) is a close-up. So the student of English has to practise their ability to zoom in and out.
Another way I try to support my students’ studies is by making connections between the texts they are reading, which in my experience doesn’t happen that much at school. Particularly at A-level, there are often many fruitful connections between the half-dozen or so texts being studied: the Romantics were devoted to Shakespeare and Milton, the Gothic is an aspect of the Romantic, the Aesthetic Movement drew on particular strains of Romanticism, etc. When these connections get made with reference to particular writers, they are no longer just isms. They make the material deeper and easier to understand at the same time. Towards the end of their school careers, students of the humanities should be able to get the sense of taking part in ‘the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day’ (Robert M. Hutchins). The journalist Christopher Hitchens referred to this as ‘the pleasurable exercises of a reasonably trained mind’.
I regularly give my students PDFs and print-outs of high-quality secondary material pitched at their level or just above it. Explanatory notes, commentaries, and essays can help with understanding, particularly when it comes to context. (And all exam boards have assessment objectives relating to historical context.) To know that a text was written during a particular period and what characterised that period is to have a mental scaffold that does not limit movement but frees it. In studying the humanities we are studying human culture, and no one can do that without a bit of structure. It also helps when thinking about texts in relation to each other – when writing a comparative essay, for example. I like to think of honing in from context to text, e.g. Romanticism (late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) > William Blake (1757–1827) > ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ (1794) > ‘The Tyger’. (What’s ‘The Tyger’ about? There’s a question!)
In my experience, knowledge acquisition operates according to the Matthew principle, named after a verse in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘unto every one that hath shall be given’. In other words, the more you’ve got, the more you’ll get. Every time you learn something about Romanticism, the greater will be your understanding of the poetry of William Blake. Your internal bookshelves expand – more connections, greater understanding. Reading secondary material is obviously ‘extra’, but it works to enhance students’ understanding of set texts rather than crowd them out. Homer Simpson said, ‘every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain’, and we laugh because it’s not true. You can’t fill up a brain, so the cliché about people’s (particularly young people’s) limitless potential is true. Every time you learn something new, you enrich your contextual understanding of everything else you have ever learnt.
Speaking and reading are in a concrete way preparation for writing. If you think and make notes while speaking and reading, by the time it comes to writing an essay, the question should not be about what to say, but how to arrange the things you want to say. So annotation is an important skill. It’s a bit like getting ‘in the zone’ for a sportsperson – students must practise getting there and staying there. I model the annotation process something like this:
Read with a pencil in your hand. What makes you underline? Something fires in your brain, so that you have a response – you spot a developing theme, you’re reminded of another book, you agree or disagree, there’s a word you don’t know and need to look up, you like the way a sentence sounds. It could be anything. Read until you’ve underlined twenty words or sentences. Work out the three or four connections between the things you have to say, and you’ve got a paragraph plan. Work out the main thing you have to say, and you have a thesis for your essay, which, as you aim your paragraphs at it, will accumulate force.
A lot of learning (and life) is about noticing connections, so getting into the habit of doing so is something like learning how to learn. If a student has developed this habit, they shouldn’t really have to think ‘What shall I write?’ in front of a blank sheet of paper or screen. The content of the essay will be a sort of emanation of prior thinking.
When it comes to giving students feedback, I keep in mind one of the best incites I heard early in my PGCE: attend to your students’ writing as you would a piece of literature. This way, the marking progress becomes analogous to the writing process. What are all the things that could make this essay better? And is there a connection between them, i.e. what’s the main thing this student needs to focus on? (I usually give feedback using comments and track changes in Microsoft Word.)
WHY STUDY ENGLISH?
It has been said that ‘If you can think, and speak, and write, you are absolutely deadly’, and I think that’s right. Learning how to construct and articulate good arguments is learning how to impose ideas on the world. To the extent that English is about feelings, it is about their articulation, and there is a great deal to learn about how feelings have been and can be articulated. Moreover, because English is the medium of instruction in all other subjects, command of it confers a freedom to range through the history of ideas and discriminate between reliable and unreliable. Language is a prerequisite for thought – doing English properly is learning how to think better.
I am a qualified English teacher and have been tutoring since 2013, specialising in A-level English literature. Before that, I graduated from the University of Oxford with a first-class degree in English language and literature. At Oxford, I won the prize for the best performance in English finals at Mansfield College and the college essay prize. At school, I was awarded eleven GCSEs at A-star and three A-levels at A.
In 2016, I completed a PGCE in secondary English at the UCL Institute of Education, the highest-ranking college of education in the world (QS World University Rankings). During this, I taught all age groups at two west London secondary schools, and received A’s for my master’s-level assignments. I have taught AQA, Edexcel, OCR, WJEC/Eduqas and CAIE (Cambridge International), and am constantly familiarising myself with new texts that my students are studying. At Christ College, Brecon, I ran two series of seminars, for sixth-formers studying RS and English literature.
I like one-to-one teaching because I think it is a route to understanding like no other. It also permits the development of a very human relationship between student and teacher. Please see below for testimonials.
Reading and writing have always been my favourite thing to do, and I do both every day. The interest I derive from reading my students’ essays and the texts they are studying is not separate from the interest I derive from the reading and writing I do for pleasure – frequently they are indistinguishable.
As well as tutoring, I have worked as a researcher, a copywriter, and a proofreader. And in my spare time I enjoy cycling and photography.
‘Thank you so, so, so much for your brilliant, brilliant help throughout the last year. You really have been the most wonderful teacher.’
from a student, August 2020
‘it’s been great being taught by you, I’ve learned so many critical thinking skills in such a short space of time.’
from a student, June 2020
‘I can’t thank you enough for everything that you’ve done for her - you’ve been the best English teacher she’s ever had and she has loved her time with you.’
from a parent, March 2020
‘Josh has been incredibly helpful with my daughters A level English study. He is patient and very approachable. His explanations are clear and he has helped my daughter to consistently get higher grades for her pieces of work. I recommend him highly.’
from Clare, a parent
‘Josh is punctual, polite and prepared both for the lesson and with excellent resources to broaden my understanding of the various texts that I study. Through his use of the 'tutorial system', Josh is able to generate insightful and interesting discussion with me about the text I am studying which forces me to share my own ideas and think deeply on the spot, enhancing my understanding of the text in the process. Furthermore, he is also extremely knowledgeable about whatever text I study and even if he hadn't encountered the text before, he would read it in his spare time and develop an expertise in even the smallest of details regarding it. Overall, Josh is a first class tutor combining his in-depth knowledge and skill for English literature with his talent for teaching and puts an enormous of effort amount into helping me succeed both inside and outside the lesson. I would highly recommend him to anyone.’
from a student
‘Josh has been helping my daughter with A Level English Literature. In just a few lessons, he has inspired her with new ideas and approaches to her texts. He is highly intelligent, dynamic, gentle and kind and my daughter has learned so much in such a short space of time! He has a rare ability to combine his academic achievements with a natural talent for teaching. I would highly recommend him to anyone.’
from Diana, a parent