Monday, October 14, 2019

What the examiners said.

This is something that I put together for the Oxford Education Blog which summarises some of the main messages from the AQA AS and A level examiner/moderator reports. If you are a teacher, you should be able to access the full reports via e-AQA, but with this I've tried to distill a few of the key messages for teachers and students alike.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Like it or loathe it?

The first guest blog this term is from Jacky Glancey, an A level English Language teacher at Macmillan Academy and it's a great way to get students thinking about the ways in which language issues are reported on in the media.

ITV’s Reality TV show ‘Love Island’ never fails to spark debate. And whilst some commentators are concentrating on the six packs, the fashion choices and the high drama, others seem more interested in counting how many times the contestants use the word ‘like’. As you do.

Last year ITV’s Piers Morgan mocked Niall’s Coventry accent and use of six ‘likes’ in five seconds whilst in The Sun this year, it was reported that, the programme had prompted a primary school in Bradford to ban the word ‘like’ and condemn it to a ‘word jail’. Incarcerating part of someone’s speech may seem a tad extreme, but these reactions are not isolated incidents and can provide us with some interesting insight into attitudes towards both language and social groups and language change. All good stuff for Paper 2 responses. This little four letter word has a history of irking listeners and prompting public disapproval.

Back in 2010 Emma Thompson (aka Nanny McPhee) gave a talk at her old school and scolded the students for using words like ‘like’ and ‘innit’ because, in her opinion, it made them ‘sound stupid’. It’s not hard to find other comments that add to the discourse that suggests that using the word ‘like’ will severely hamper your chances in life. Telegraph columnist Max Davidson suggests that the increase in the use of ‘like’ in speech is an American affliction that makes the speaker sound, in his words, ‘educationally subnormal’. And Gyles Brandreth pipes up in his blog telling us that, ‘Like it or not, ‘like’ has become the lazy linguistic filler of our times’ .

It gets worse. According to Sankin Speech Improvement (a company that offers speech training) this linguistic phenomenon is a language infection that has reached epidemic proportions and threatens to ruin our careers. Yikes.

But language peeves are usually more than purely a dislike of language itself and it’s worth thinking about what these language commentators have in common and trying to unpick what attitudes towards society underpin their vehement disapproval of this dinky little lexical item.

All these language commentators are middle aged, are comfortably off and have a degree of power and standing in society. They all have set views on what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ language use and feel that they are qualified to instruct others on their use of language: in short, linguistic prescriptivists. The groups of people whose language use they complain about are often, younger, or less wealthy and/or have less power and standing in society. Some modern linguists feel that language complaints are sometimes a proxy for social complaints. Deborah Cameron, suggests that, ‘panics about grammar can be viewed as the metaphorical expression of social anxieties concerning society’. So, complaining about young people using ‘like’ in a non-standard way might, in a less obvious way, stem from some of the older generations being concerned about young people not sharing some of their more traditional attitudes and ideas about life.

Descriptivist linguists, on the other hand, are often at pains to challenge what they see as linguistic pedantry, surrounding the hand wringing responses to the use of ‘like’ and other language choices in modern society. They are more interested in describing how language works in real interactions, than reiterating what can be seen as arbitrary rules dictating how we ‘should’ use language. Descriptivists are interested in how language is continuously reshaping to meet the needs and preferences of new speakers and for them, the use of ‘like’ is fertile and fascinating ground for study.

John McWhorter, author of ‘Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)’ describes how ‘like’, like so many other words, has become more flexible in its use over time and can signal pragmatic meanings, as well as hold onto its more traditional grammatical uses as, for example, a verb (I like her) or a preposition (He looks like his dog). He describes three interesting developments:

1. Like as a way of acknowledging unspoken objection at the same time as underlining one’s own point. So when we hear someone say, ‘I was like just about to call you’ we understand that on a pragmatic level the speaker is saying something like, ‘I know you might not believe this, and I understand that, but I was at this very second about to call you. The speaker is trying to convey the idea that they are being truthful and factual, despite the fact that their claims might be challenged by the listener. McWhorter calls this the ‘reinforcing like’.

2. His second category is termed the ‘easing like’ and describes situations when using ‘like’ helps to deliver unwelcome news, but helps to cushion the blow. So, when you are told that your phone repair will involve you not having your device for a week, you might be told, ‘That’s, like, your only option.’ Take the ‘like’ away from that utterance and it becomes a little more brutal. Pop the ‘like’ back in and you can feel some human understanding of the situation again.

3. A third category, in which ‘like’ is used in a very straightforward way, is ‘like’ as a ‘quotative marker’. Instead of hearing someone relay a conversation along these lines, ‘So I said, ‘You sure?’ and he said, ‘Well, yeah’.’ , you might hear something like, ‘So I’m like, ‘You sure?’ and he’s like, ‘Well, yeah’. Both ‘said’ and ‘like’ do exactly the same job, but one choice is standard and the other is non-standard.

And that brings us to the final point, one which is always worth considering in the study of language: context. Often newer language uses are created in informal contexts and are used quite happily without meaning breaking down. However, those that complain about these newer usages often warn of the dangers of losing the ability to use Standard English. Standards are slipping, they cry. The descriptivist response to this panic would be, ‘Yes, having knowledge and the ability to use Standard English is highly desirable in our society, but (and it’s a big but) this doesn’t mean that other non-standard uses are inferior. The choices we make are always context dependent and some, less standard choices can carry pragmatic meanings in a really concise way.’

Next time I smash my phone, I think I’d appreciate an ‘easing like’ with the bill.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Next conference on its way...

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Revision: for now and later

With the clocks going forward, beautiful blossom blooming on the trees and summer rapidly approaching, it's time to cast happy thoughts from your mind and think about the looming exams in June. Sorry.

There's still plenty of time to get revising (or just 'vising' if you haven't done some of the course content yet) but there are a few key things you can do now to make sure that what you are on the right lines for later on. We've already had a revision post from Olivia which focused on advice from her as a former student for students in the run-up to the exams, so this one takes a slightly different tack and thinks about the bigger picture and some suggested reading.

Big ideas
Think big, to begin with. Before you dive into the details of different topic areas and sections of exam papers, think about the big questions around English. How confident are you about them? Back in this blog post, I suggested that one of the ways to help understand the scope of areas such as language change and language diversity was to think about the big questions around how and why language changes and varies. To this, you can also add questions around children's language development. What are the main influences on children's spoken language development? How does children's writing development differ from their spoken development? Have some idea about the broad answers to these questions and then you can work out the ways in which the detail can be added as you work through the rest of your revision.

Read plenty of opinion pieces about language and get a good grasp of a) the language discourses used and replicated in them, and b) the style and structure of these pieces. Paper 2 Question 4 is where you need to write one of these yourself, so the more you have read and thought about, the better your chances of producing a good one of your own will be. You'll also be answering Question 3 on two texts that put forward views and opinions about language, so it'll help you with that.

Here are some suggestions for recent pieces that might help:
Regional Diversity
Meghan Markle's accent
The ugly rise of accent softening
Identity and International English

Get to grips with meanings
There's a worrying tendency in lots of English lessons these days, from Key Stage 2 to A level, to get completely obsessed with masses of literary and linguistic terms. You're doing an A level in which you need to show linguistic knowledge and expertise - and terminology has a role to play in that - but it's much more important to engage with what texts mean and then trace back how the language creates these meanings and representations.

In examiner-speak, this is an AO3-led approach. What is the text about? What is being said about this? How is the text producer using language to represent the issue, the events being described, the people or sources in the text, themselves, language? Once you can talk confidently about this, you can look at how the language - across all the levels of grammar, graphology, semantics and discourse - works and get more technical about it.

Using a deluge of technical terms is not a substitute for thinking deeply about a text's meanings, so revise by reading texts and immediately asking yourself quick-fire questions like "What is it about?", "What's being said about that?", "Who is saying these things?", "Why should I believe them?", "How are they trying to come across?". If you can't answer these confidently, read the text again. Practise with short texts and then build up to longer and more demanding ones as you get closer to the exams.

Work through your own ideas
As I said before (here), there's not an official list of theories and case studies that you can use as a tick-list, but there will be studies and theories you will have covered in class and through your own reading. Organise your notes on these and think through them. Be clear you know how you can use these ideas for different kinds of questions and pay particular attention to those studies that have multiple applications. Emma Moore's Eden Village Girls study in Bolton is a good one for this, because it opens up discussion about gender, region, class and friendship groups, and introduces ideas around 'communities of practice'. Likewise, Peter Trudgill's classic Norwich study takes the variable '-ing' and traces its pronunciation according to region (Norwich), class, gender and context (different kinds of speech formalities) while also considering how people tend to report on their own usage.

Understanding and exploring the intersection of different factors in people's language identities is a crucial part of doing well in the higher levels of AO2, so it makes sense to use studies that help address this, but equally, you can draw on any relevant research, so long as you use it intelligently (see the original blog).

Do some reading
There's still time to get some reading done. I know it's English Language and you don't have set texts, but there are some really good, accessible and fascinating language books out there. Even just dipping in and out of a few chapters from some of these will give you some added insight into the debates and the history but also lots of original examples and perhaps a few nice quotations. Here are my current favourites:

  • Deborah Cameron: The Myth of Mars and Venus (how we talk and think about gender and speech)
  • Lynne Murphy: The Prodigal Tongue (history and debates about American English)
  • John McWhorter: Words on the Move (all about language change and how it happens)
  • Lane Greene: Talk on the Wild Side (how we think about language change and try to 'tame' the language)
  • Henry Hitchings: The Language Wars (the best book for understanding language discourses)
  • The EMC Language Handbook: 14 chapters on different language topics and areas of research, all designed for A level students.

There are plenty of blogs and sites produced by linguists and experts which can keep you up to date with language in the news and the latest research. Some of my suggestions are:

And then there's always emagazine from the English and Media Centre. Every issue has great articles for students on the course and you can access the digital archive with your school/college's user name and password.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Top student revision tips

In this blog post, we've invited former A level English Language student, Olivia to give some advice to students about how she revised and what her top tips are for students doing the course. Thanks to Olivia for writing this and for all the great ideas here.

Hi, I’m Olivia! Two years ago I sat the A Level English Language exams. I’m now at university and make and share English Language revision resources for ambitious students as @astarlevels on TES and Twitter.

With that in mind, in this post I’m sharing my revision tips for aiming high in A Level English Language. I’ve split it into four sections: learning theory, preparing for writing essays/ articles, tackling data and general revision tips.

Learning theory
The first step in preparing for the exam is to get familiar with the AO2 you’ll need. Go through your notes from the past two years and fish out all the bits that look interesting or important.

Work smart before you work hard. You don’t need to learn everything. Select the best bits from each theory or case study, maybe two or three sentences that focus on the main findings or key ideas. Forget about learning the exact number of participants, endless details of the procedure or how the results were analysed. Stick to what they did and what they found. These are the parts that will help you answer the question.

Once you’ve lifted this information from your notes, you need to think about it. This is the crucial bit: make sure you have something useful about every piece of AO2 you plan to use. Ask yourself these sorts of questions that will encourage you to evaluate the essay title you have been set:
  • What does it show about the broader topic?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What could the real life implication be?

It can also be useful to see how different studies and ideas link up and agree or disagree with each other. This is good preparation for evaluating ideas in the exam. Look at this example on language and gender:

  • Zimmerman and West found men do the majority of interrupting in mixed conversation suggesting men want to dominate conversation.
  • But Geoffrey Beattie suggested one man could have a disproportionate effect. His own research found the ratio of interrupting to be more or less equal.
  • Deborah Cameron suggested that our need to find differences between language used by men and women causes us to exaggerate certain perceptions and ignore others. This creates a distorted picture. 

Then, just like that, you have the foundation of three paragraphs that can clearly evaluate an idea about language and gender. It’s worth remembering that you will have looked at lots of different studies and that while there are common studies and ideas in the various textbooks, it’s what you do with ideas, research and theory that really matters.

Writing essays/ articles

One big piece of advice is don’t let the day of the exam be the first time you write an essay or an article! You’ll feel a lot more confident if you know you’ve already tackled everything in the exam at least once.

Practise planning or writing essay answers to a question asking you to evaluate an idea about accent/ gender/ social group/ etc. This will help you link up the studies and theories, and you’ll also get an idea of the lines of argument and structure you might be able to apply to the real exam question.

A simple bit of prep for writing an article on paper 2, is to think up some kind of headline that you can use. “Language and gender: its every man for himself” could really be the headline for any article on language and gender. Having something like this in mind for all the topics, before the exam, stops you panicking on the day desperately searching for something vaguely funny to open with.

Analysing data

To tackle the paper 1 questions, you need to be confident in identifying and analysing language, including patterns of vocabulary and grammar. To practise, there are lots of activities online that show you how to spot clauses and sentence types, as well as nouns, verbs and adjectives. It’s also worth looking on mark schemes to see what specific bits of grammar are classed as high level by the exam board. Analysing these in your answer is a quick way to climb the marks.

It can be tricky to come up with interpretations of the grammar. A tactic I devised to overcome this is to use synonyms as your AO3. Take the phrase “protestors poured onto the street” for example, here’s what you’d do with it:
  • Label interesting feature ‘poured’ = dynamic verb
  • Synonym for poured = gush, cascade, huge amounts moving quickly
  • Pull it together = the dynamic verb “poured” suggests the President is unpopular because huge numbers of people were surging through the streets to show their protest against him.

General tips

And finally, here is some general advice for revising for any A level…

  • Try not to talk about how much revision you’re doing with your friends. There’s no need to compare and this usually results in more stress.
  • Keep checking back to the specification, mark schemes and examiners reports – these are written by the exam board and are a good way to understand what they’re looking for.
  • Set realistic and worthwhile goals. No one can (or needs to) write six essays and memorise a textbook in a day. Also, creating a colour coded revision timetable isn’t the most beneficial use of time.

So, I think that’s everything for my student to student advice. I hope some of it will be useful in making your revision more efficient and effective.

Remember that you can find tried and tested resources to help you revise A Level English Language here.

Thank you so much to Dan for inviting me to write this and good luck to everyone sitting exams in June!


Monday, January 14, 2019

World Englishes

When Dan asked what he should post about next on this blog, one of the most common responses was this, the World Englishes topic.  Maybe this is because it’s relatively new on the AQA spec, especially if you previously did Spec B; but actually many of the issues and debates involved should be familiar from other topics in language diversity or language and power.   I love teaching World Englishes because it’s the most summative of all the topics, so students can use all their knowledge of language diversity and change.  We teach it at the end of year 2 for this reason.  

These are the questions that we cover:

1.    How did English become such a dominant language in the world?

2.    What are the different ways of grouping English-using countries around the world?

3.    What are some characteristics of different global varieties of English and of English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

4.    Who controls the English Language?

5.    What are the political implications of the dominance of English?  Are all groups in English-using countries happy with it?  Why?  Why not?

6.    What effect is English having on languages around the world?  Is it responsible for “killing” other languages?

7.    What is the future of English around the world? 

For question 1, the simple answer (as with all dominant varieties of language) is power; in this case, the power of the British Empire and, later, the cultural, economic and political power of the USA.  David Crystal has a useful 3 minute discussion of this here, and there’s a great one minute animated film from the Open University here.  Depending on your students, you might need to do a bit of a history lesson on the British Empire at this point, but I usually find that at least some of my classes already know plenty about this. 

For question 2, there are several models which organise different global Englishes.  I use Strevens, which looks fairly hierarchical and is useful for showing how English spread around the world; Kachru’s norm providing, norm developing and norm dependent circles; and McArthur’s ‘different but equal’ wheel model.   Students should be able to discuss what these models imply about power and control of language, and all are very useful when discussing questions 3 to 7.

For question 3, there are great resources on ELF in the CUP book ‘Language Diversity and World Englishes’, but if you don’t have access to this or want something extra, there is a short intro from Jennifer Jenkins here  and a great article by Jenkins and Seidlhofer covering definitions, characteristics, issues and debates here.  Mario Saraceni also debates the issues around ELF, and I’ll return to his work when looking at question 7. 

When it comes to looking at varieties of global English, we research and discuss Englishes from India, China, the USA and Australia, then we do a detailed case study of Singapore.  This raises lots of relevant issues and debates about control and gatekeeping of English and about status versus identity; Singapore has a prescriptivist language policy which privileges British and US English as high prestige varieties, and rejects ‘Singlish’ as slang or ‘broken’ English which could adversely affect Singapore’s position as a centre of international trade.  Here’s a sick rap in Singlish so you can hear what it sounds like; an excellent Open University documentary covering the issues here; and a TEDx talk bigging up Singlish as the future of language in Singapore here.  At this point, we also come back to the models we looked at for question 2 to see how each could be applied to Singapore.  This case study also covers questions 4 and 5.  We also look at other language policies, including L’Academie Francais and the proposed language purity law in Germany; both of these are at least partly intended to stop English making inroads into other languages, and students might apply familiar concepts such as Aitchison’s infectious disease metaphors here.

Leading through question 5 and into question 6, we also cover the issue of linguistic imperialism and language death.  2 of the world’s 7000 or so languages die every month, and the power and dominance of super-languages such as English and Spanish shoulders much of the blame; your more ambitious students might want to read a transcript of David Crystal’s lecture on this.  The term linguistic imperialism was coined by Robert Philipson, and there’s an informative and interesting debate between him and Robert McCrum, who is far more upbeat about global Englishes, here.

Finally, for question 7, we look at possibilities for the future of World Englishes.  There’s a nice discussion by David Crystal in this video.

Mario Saraceni thinks that England should accept that we’ve lost control of the English language, and should now think in terms of Englishes, plural.   This means letting go of the idea of standard British English as the ideal ‘correct’ variety.   He uses a nice simile which students find easy to remember; we have as much control of English as Italians do of pizza – if someone wants to stick banana and bacon on it, we’re just going to have to let that go. 

Robert McCrum talks about ‘Globish’ (a term coined and monetised by Jean Paul Nerriere).  This is really a version of English as a lingua franca, and it raises some interesting debates; for example, are native English speakers likely to be disadvantaged by the spread of Globish because our use of idiom and complex grammar will make us difficult to understand? 

Maybe English as a native language will die and various World Englishes will remain; after all, this is what happened to previous lingua franca Latin.  Or perhaps, given the decline of Britain and the USA as global powers, another language such as Spanish or Mandarin will take over as a lingua franca.  Post-Brexit, English is certainly likely to lose some of its importance in Europe, as Juncker pointed out in 2017.

Finally, it’s well worth discussing the idea that elements of World Englishes are finding their way into varieties of British English as a result of globalisation and patterns of migration; we go back to our study of MLE/MUBE at this point.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

AQA A Level English Language Workbook

This is just a quick plug for the new AQA A Level English Language Workbook that was published by Oxford University Press before Christmas. We wrote it to give lots of texts and practice tasks to help with the A level and if you've been following this blog for a year or two, you might even recognise a few things that have been covered here in the past. Anyway, I hope it proves useful.

Book Depository link
Wordery link
Amazon link