Close reading lesson: examining attitudes which build appreciation and judgement of character

We are learning to understand how the author uses evaluative language choices or attitudes to shape readers' opinions of characters.

Text

 Roald Dahl The Witches Jonathan Cape Ltd & Penguin Books Ltd.    

Success criteria

I can find evidence of evaluative vocabulary words or groups of words which help me to appreciate characters' appearances and behaviours.

Curriculum links

  • Victorian Curriculum (English) Speaking and Listening: Language
  • Level six: Understand the uses of objective and subjective language and bias (Content description VCELA364)
  • Victorian Curriculum (English) Writing: Language
  • Level six: Investigate how vocabulary choices, including evaluative language can express shades of meaning, feeling and opinion (Content description VCELA352)
  • Victorian Curriculum (English) Reading and Viewing: Literature
  • Level Six: Identify and explain how choices in language, including modality, emphasis, repetition and metaphor, influence personal response to different texts (Content description VCELT342)
  • Level 5: Analyse the text structures and language features used in imaginative, informative and persuasive texts to meet the purpose of the text (Content description VCELY320)
  • Level 3: Examine how evaluative language can be varied to be more or less forceful (Content description VCELA272)

The Witches

Pages 66 -7

That face of hers was the most frightful and frightening thing I have ever seen. Just looking at it gave me the shakes all over. It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken end shrivelled, it looked as though it had been pickled in vinegar. It was a fearsome and ghastly sight. There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see skin all cankered and worm eaten, as though maggots were working away in there.

There are times when something is so frightful you become mesmerised by it and can't look away. I was like that now. I was transfixed. I was numbed. I was magnetised by the sheer horror of this woman's features.

(Acknowledgement: Roald Dahl The Witches, Jonathan Cape Ltd & Penguin Books Ltd.)

Lesson sequence

Background for the teacher:

Attitudes about characters can be expressed through evaluative vocabulary which:

  • express feelings to help the reader align or not with a character
  • make judgements about people's behaviour
  • consider the quality of things or people's appearance.
  1. Read through the extract provided from The Witches. Ask students to tell you their opinions of the witch. Ask them to provide examples of words which help form their opinion?
  2. Explain that authors like Roald Dahl often use evaluative vocabulary to help us align or not with a character. We can think positively or negatively about the character by what the author tells us about the appearance of the character or the actions of the character. It might be through the nouns, the verbs or the adjectives the author uses. Often the author will adjust the force of the words to make a certain kind of impression. Roald Dahl uses strong, quite forceful words to create an intense, negative impression of the witch.
  3. Select examples from the extract to model or illustrate.

    For example: That face of hers was the most frightful and frightening thing I have ever seen. Just looking at it gave me the shakes all over. In these two sentences, Roald Dahl:

    uses evaluative adjectives - frightful and frightening

    'amplifies' the intensity by using the superlative form 'most frightful', and includes an embedded clause to post-modify the noun 'thing' where the adverb 'ever' is used to intensify the impact, as does 'all over'

    uses the idiom 'gave me the shakes' to reveal reaction

    the combination of most frightful and frightening adds to the intensity of the description.

  4. Ask students in pairs to highlight other choices. When students report back, highlight other choices on a copy of the text for all to see. As they report, ask them to consider what the selections reveal:

    Do they express people's feelings (affect)?
    Do they praise or criticise peoples' behaviour (judgement)?
    Do they assess objects, settings and appearances (appreciation)?
    Are they positive or negative?

    How is this achieved? Through:
    evaluative nouns, verbs or adjectives?
    metaphor or simile?

  5. Identify examples of when graduation or grading is used to adjust the level of intensity of emotion and attitude - that is, is the volume turned up or down?

    How is this achieved? Through:
    the choice of word
    using an intensifier
    repetition
    coupling of words
    a cumulative effect

  6. Once the text has been highlighted, point out what Roald Dahl is doing:

    His choices express negative attitudes about the witch, about her appearance. These attitudes are mostly expressed through strong, highly amplified evaluative adjectives such as frightful, frightening, crumpled and wizened.

    He also intensifies these attitudes by coupling words or using a series of words or phrases as well which act cumulatively, for example:

    so crumpled and wizened
    foul and putrid and decayed
    to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks.

    He also uses some intensifiers such as most frightful, so crumpled.

Extension

Something else important to narrative as he lets us know what the boy feels/ reacts about what he is seeing:

Just looking at it gave me the shakes all over.

And later, after describing the witch's face, Roald Dahl tells us more about the boy's reaction to what he saw:

There are times when something is so frightful you become mesmerised by it and can't look away. I was like that now. I was transfixed. I was numbed. I was magnetised by the sheer horror of this woman's features.

These instances of providing insight into a character's thoughts or reactions are very important in narrative. They build action - reaction sequences and help us align with the character, to care about him and to want to read further.

What other Roald Dahl texts do you know where he uses this technique of providing vivid descriptions of characters using highly amplified evaluative language choices?

Let's remove and change the choices to see what the effect is.

Her face was scary. Just looking at it made me feel sick. It was really ugly. It was rotting and looked like worms had eaten it.

Let's remove some of the choices

That face of hers was frightening. It was crumpled and wizened. It was a ghastly sight. There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, I could see skin all worm eaten.

What would be the effect if we were to change these choices to more positive choices? Try this and see. Rewrite the description and the boy's reaction to present the witches in a positive way.
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