Modern Languages Study Guides: Un Sac de billes

Author: Karine Harrington
Publisher: Hodder
ISBN: 978-1471891878
Reviewer: David Sheppard


Released at the end of September 2017, this guide is a much-needed addition to the existing bank of available resources for Sac de Billes (ZigZag, dolanguages.com), particularly because it is based entirely on the new AS/A-level exam.

The guide can be broken down into three main sections:

  • Social and Historical context, Themes, Characters and Methodology
  • Chapter summaries 
  • Exam advice, sample essays, top 10 quotations

The first section – all broken down into separate chapters - corresponds well to what the various specifications tell us that our students must study:  key concept and issues, characterization, form and technique of presentation and social and cultural setting. It is telling that the chapter on Social and Historical context is isolated from the other chapters, placed at the start of the book, thus emphasising how historical context is essential to a good understanding of the novel. Each chapter contains both a French and English passage that develop and contextualise what Harrington deems to be the main ideas, complemented with small tasks, key quotes, exam tips and vocabulary support. The content is very well researched and explained. Of particular interest are the class activities and summary mind-maps at the end of each chapter which are ideal for revision.

The second section is by far the biggest chapter and will be useful for students, in the lead up to the exam, who want to remind themselves of the story and all the key details. My students have read the 300+ page novel twice and they will not be required to read it a third time, in light of the other academic pressures they face. However, due to the broad scope but very specific nature of the new AS/A-level questions an intimate knowledge of the entire text is essential, and this summary will undoubtedly prove invaluable to this end.

The final section, in my opinion, is what really makes this guide stand out. As there is a real dearth of information from the exam board on what they are expecting, this guide is the first detailed glimpse of what someone involved with the exam board would like to see in an A-level exam. The section on planning is excellent – my students responded very well to it – and the sample essays, combined with exam comments, are a fantastic tool for demonstrating to students what is expected of them. Harrington rightly stresses the importance of students thinking on their feet and moving away from pre-learnt essays, unfortunately encouraged by the previous specification.

However, whilst an extremely beneficial addition to any teacher’s classroom, Harrington’s word must not be taken as gospel. For example, she insists on a ‘stipulated’ word count (Edexcel 300-350/ AQA – 300 for A-level), contrary to both the advice in the Edexcel specification that ‘the essay will be marked regardless of length’ and to the glowing comments from examiners given to sample AS-level essays of 550 words. In addition, based on a sampling of pre-2008 A-level questions on Un Sac de Billes and on observation of the sample questions, it is clearly not possible for Harrington to cover every single potential topic. For example, a question on the importance of family was in a recent sample paper but is not treated as a major theme in this guide. Of course, knowledge of family members is explored in the Characters chapter and an experienced student should be able to adapt what they know to fit the question.

All in all, this is a highly recommended purchase that will save teachers many hours of preparation. However, with a challenging exam like the new Paper 2, we should be wary of over-reliance on such an excellent guide, tempting as it is, and make sure that we prepare our students to deal with the unexpected.