Saturday, April 15, 2017

From 'discuss' to 'evaluate' between AS and A level

One of the big differences between what you do at AS level and A level is in the "command word" used to give you your tasks.

At AS level, Paper 2 questions use the formulation "Discuss the idea that...", where the "idea" is something that you can then focus on and tell us about. By using "discuss" as the command word, the question ('s an imperative really, grammar-lovers, so not really a question at all) is asking you to tell us about what you know in relation to this topic. There's no real sense in the word 'discuss' that to answer the question at a reasonable level that you have to weigh it all up and come to any kind of definitive conclusion, but that's what's expected a bit more at the highest level (Level 5 of the AO2 mark scheme) where last year's main indicative content key words were: explore, assess and "make some evaluative comments".

The way I've taught my students to approach this at AS level is to assume that each level builds on the ones below and adds more:

  • Levels 1 and 2 are about basic knowledge. If you want to generalise, then you might say that Level 1 suggests very little grasp of anything to do with detailed study and Level 2 suggests that the student has been to some lessons and remembers a few names and ideas but not necessarily with much real grip. If you are a bit like this, then there is still time to get better!
  • Level 3: detailed knowledge - tell us about some examples you've looked at, some studies you've encountered and some concepts and theories that might be relevant.
  • Level 4: detailed knowledge of different ideas - tell us about different ways of approaching the topic. What are the different ideas that have been offered to explain how this kind of language works? For example, if you're talking about gender and interaction (as in the sample paper from AQA) can you explain some of the different models - difference and dominance - used to make sense of how women and men use language?
  • Level 5: overview and assessment of different ideas - make some sense of those different ideas and explain the most relevant ways to interpret that knowledge for the purposes of this question. Sticking with gender again, if Level 4 is about understanding different models, then Level 5 might be about placing those models in a historical context and explaining why one approach might have significant at one time and another more significant twenty years later. It could also involve you looking at different variables and arguing for their relative importance, while considering ideas around performance and identity. 
For A level, the bar is likely to be shifted up a little, I think. No actual A level papers have been sat or marked yet, so I'm basing this interpretation on how we approached the marking of the AS last year and my experience of teaching the A level this year. The A level is more demanding for a couple of reasons. 

  • First, there's no stimulus data, so you have nothing to give you a kick-start should you require it: you have to come with examples and ideas ready to use. 
  • Second, the scope of the question could be pretty broad (e.g. "Evaluate the idea that the English language is changing and breaking up into many different Englishes.") where you would need to set your own terms of discussion and choose the most relevant approach from what you have studied, or quite specific (.g. "Evaluate the idea that spoken interactions between men and women are characterised by miscommunication.") where you would be expected to know about miscommunication as a concept right from the start. 
  • Third, because the command word is evaluate rather than discuss, I think we are probably asking students for a higher level of engagement with different ideas right from the start. So, it probably means that to get into Levels 3,4 and 5 you'd need to do more than an AS student.
What does 'evaluate' actually mean though? defines it in three ways (but one of these is about maths, so we'll leave that one out): determine or set the value or amount of; appraise:to evaluate judge or determine the significance, worth, or quality of; assess: to evaluate the results of an experiment.
The Ofqual document from which AQA 'command words' were drawn up, defines evaluate simply as "judge from available evidence". So, what does this mean for English Language A level? My view is that it's about weighing up ideas, assessing the relative merits of different ways of discussing language and showing an understanding of how different explanations can be offered for why language works in certain ways. If we stick to the sample questions, you might weigh up the view that English is breaking up by arguing that it has never been one form in the first place (look at all the accents and dialects that exist now and have done for hundreds of years, for instance). You might weigh up the idea that English is 'breaking up' as if it's a bad thing. Maybe a better metaphor might be the language morphing and adapting, not breaking at all. 

If you are looking at the other question, then you might weigh up/appraise/determine the value of the the whole notion of 'miscommunication' and argue that we all miscommunicate and that it's got very little to do with gender at all. You might evaluate that idea more sympathetically too and argue, as Deborah Tannen did, that because boys and girls have been socialised into different types of talk that there *is* a type of gender-specific miscommunication at work.

At the very top level, this probably means doing more than weighing up alternative views, but critiquing and challenging models and even challenging the terms of the question.

Revising gender: discourses and debates

Gender as a topic area features in both the AS and A level, and can appear in either part of Paper 2. You could get an AS level "Discuss the idea that..." or an A level "Evaluate the idea that..." question in Section A or gender might feature as part of 'language discourses' in Section B.

What is meant by 'discourses'? Well, it's something that I've defined elsewhere as a debate or argument about language, but it can also be treated as a way of thinking about, talking about and describing language. If you want to get academic about it (and why wouldn't you?) here's what the linguist Paul Baker has to say about it in his excellent book about language, gender and sexuality, Sexed Texts:

Language constructs ideas about gender, represents them to us and often helps establish them as 'common sense'. When people write about gender, they often articulate many of the existing discourses - that gender interaction is like a battle of the sexes, a form of combat, or that debates about gendered pronouns are about a form of repression or policing of natural language - and part of your job at both AS and A level is to unpick those discourses and find alternative ways to express them. 

For example, at AS level, you were asked in Section B of last summer's AS Paper 2 to write an opinion piece in which you discussed claims about female and male communication and the stimulus text was an extract from a Mail Online article about how men are supposed to use one kind of filler an women another. Even the Mail article (yes, even the Mail) managed to point out that it wasn't always as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, because they pointed out that there are what they termed 'betweeners' such as David Beckham, Jessie J and Eminem who mix and match their umms and errs. The article also pointed out that age might have a bearing on the kind of filler a person uses.

Why does this matter? Here's the main reason. If the stimulus text shows that it's not quite as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, then why do they use a headline that suggests exactly the opposite and why do they think that is an appropriate way to frame the debate? Maybe because, as Deborah Cameron pointed out a few years ago, difference sells. To paraphrase Cameron, headlines such as "Newsflash: men and women use language in largely the same ways" don't really have as much appeal as ones that propose there's a difference. She talks more about these dubious claims in her (highly recommended) Myth of Mars and Venus and has this to say about such reductive headlines in an extract from that book on The Guardian's site in 2007:

Most people, of course, do not read academic journals: they get their information about scientific research findings from the reports that appear in newspapers, or from TV science documentaries. These sources often feature research on male-female differences, since media producers know that there is interest in the subject. But the criteria producers use when deciding which studies to report and how to present them introduce another layer of distortion. And sometimes headlines trumpet so-called facts that turn out, on investigation, to have no basis in evidence at all.
The other reason it matters is that if you are going to produce an opinion piece about gender and interaction, it makes sense not to parrot the simplistic, black and white discourses of the popular press, but to offer something a bit more nuanced. Not only is this good for getting marks on AO2 (concepts, knowledge about language, theory and research) but it's good for your AO5.

If you can engage your readers and inform them about language in a way that shows you understand the media discourses around gender and manipulate them for your own ends - perhaps even subverting them and challenging them in the process - you can pick up marks for style, structure and shaping of language. If you can show that you have read, tasted and perhaps even digested others' opinions, you can do a better job of expressing your own views.

And when it comes to the A level, where you might be required to pull apart the language of articles and other popular media texts about gender (or sociolect, accent and dialect, world Englishes, language change for that matter, where all these discourses recur) your ability to spot popular and prevalent discourses, and then to interrogate them, could really help you with the text analysis task in Question 3.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Gender sensitivity?

Looking for an example of how language and gender makes the news? Then go no further than these two pieces about the same story. Not only do you get a good sense of how language can be part of a wider battle about gender roles and social inequality but you also get a lesson in language discourses for free.

Just have a look at how The Guardian and Mail Online report the same story, use different sources, experts and language techniques to frame their views.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

They're right

Still on the subject of gender, one area which has long been debated and contested is that of gendered pronouns and what we do when we don't want to signal gender. For example, an expression like "Each student should bring his own lunch" begins with an indefinite determiner (each) uses a male (singular) pronoun (or determiner, more accurately here) but assumes that all students will be male. Using his/her is an alternative, but is often seen as a clunky and still puts the male first. "Each student should bring their own lunch" runs into problems with subject and pronoun agreement (singular each and plural their) but has often been seen as an acceptable way to phrase something like this.

However, many formal publications and style guides have ruled against 'singular they' and seen it as a grammatical faux-pas. But even that seems to be changing, and the Associated Press this week announced that they would accept 'singular they'.

The case for 'singular they' is made convincingly here as well, and it certainly seems to be a better idea than trying to invent new pronouns such as hesh, hen and thon which have struggled to catch on.

Edited on 05.04.17 to add another article on this story (thanks to @FKRitson and @a_gadsbey).

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Revising gender: representation of gender revisited

Here are links to old posts on this blog that address language and gender from a representation perspective.

Everyday Sexism
Pyramids of Egregiousness
Calm down, dear

And here are some links to more recent discussions of language and gender (thanks largely to Nicky B and her social media antennae):

Revising gender for AS & A level: legs-it and baby bumps

We've made a start on revising gender for Paper 2 of the A level this week and I've also been finishing off gender with my AS classes before we head into lots of exam revision. There's not a lot of time to teach everything on the A level part of the course after doing the AS last year, so we're relying a fair bit on the material students covered in class last year and hoping they revise the key things themselves, but I've been trying to find a way of approaching it that works.

Anyway, today's Daily Mail front page provided an absolute gift for the representation of gender. If you haven't seen it, it's this monstrosity below.

While the picture and caption make me want to bang my head repeatedly on the keyboard, shouting "This.Is.Not.The.1950s!" there's something in the whole way that this is presented that goes beyond what I've traditionally taught for this topic and made me consider another angle.

A lot of the focus on gender and language (for me, at least) has been on words and meanings: which words and which meanings and how we can raise awareness about what words might connote and how they are unequal - lexical asymmetry and semantic derogation, basically. There's also what language can do in terms of its syntax - constructing male as doer and actor and woman as receiver and patient. There's even what morphology can offer - suffixes that diminish women's roles and those that mark gender where it seems unnecessary (actress...waitress...why not just actor and waiter?).

So far so good. But when I've introduced language analysis to my students, I've always tried to conceptualise it as something that goes from tiny details of language to the much bigger picture, so am I missing something here?

We've got morphemes, words, phrases and clauses, but does any of that really explain what's so offensive and wrong about the Mail headline? It's not really the word 'legs-it' that's bad is it? We all have legs, don't we? The word legs is not really on a par with bad words like slag, sket and ho. No it's something that's working at a higher level than words, phrases and clauses that's the issue here and that's discourse. Discourse - as I've been grappling with in various articles - is a term that has multiple meanings in language study but here it's working as a couple of things: as language used at a level beyond the sentence and as a way of constructing and representing ideas.

The offensiveness comes from the wider discourse that's presented: that women - strong, powerful, political women (whatever you think of their party politics) - are not to be taken seriously and only deserve to be belittled and trivialised by talking about their legs. Their legs. On the front page of a national newspaper.

It's the same discourse that allows other national papers to discuss the human rights barrister, Amal Clooney's appearance at the United Nations in terms of her baby bump and high heels.

So, gender representation works on a level beyond the levels of words, phrases and clauses and on a wider textual and discourse level. That makes it slightly harder to pin down and analyse but it also offers some ways into it, and over the next week or two we'll have a look at different approaches to language and gender (and some other areas) to think about what AS and A level students could say about them.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sociolect, social groups & social class

One of the areas that we've been looking at in AS classes recently is that of sociolect. I've also been mugging up on the writing and research for this area because of a project I'm working on for something else, so it's been useful to go back to some of the studies that have been carried out into the links between language, the social groups we belong to through choice (communities of practice and discourse communities around work, play and special interests) and those we belong to due to accidents of birth (social class and gender).

One of the things that's particularly interesting to look at is the overlap between what we might call social groups and the other areas on Paper 2 of the AS and A level - gender, regional dialect, occupation - and it's clear to me that you can't really talk about one of these without thinking about the others (and indeed, areas like age, ethnicity & sexuality).

I've set my AS classes the following task recently and we've been looking at ways in which it can be approached from different angles. Here's a structure that we used to look at it. Next week, I'll add some more ideas about approaching another question on the same broad area.

Question 1 
Discuss the idea that the language of some social groups is designed primarily to keep others out. In your answer you should discuss concepts and issues from language study.

You should use your own supporting examples and the data in Text A, below which is taken from an article about teenage slang from the Daily Mail. [30 marks]

Planning and structuring your answer

Start by dissecting the question and explaining its key terms.

Language: think about the different language levels. It’s more than just words (lexis), so consider phonology and grammar (and perhaps spelling, punctuation and graphology as well?)

Social groups: which social groups? Define this term and think of a variety of social groups who you could use as case studies. Think about age, class, interest groups, occupation groups etc. The more the merrier.

…designed primarily to keep others out: what does language do? Think about the functions of the language used within social groups: what is it primarily designed to do? Can you think of examples where it is the primary aim?

How can you make use of the data?

  • What examples are there in the data to use? 
  • How can you categorise the examples? 
  • Can you develop any of these? 
  • Do any of these help you address the main question? 

What to do next?

  • Draft an introduction to show you understand the question. 
  • Map out 2-3 social groups whose language you can discuss and comment on in more detail. 
  • Construct a line of argument to guide you through the whole question. 
  • Think about the research and theory that you will need to refer to: you will need to refer to work done by others and the research carried out by Trudgill, Cheshire, Moore, Kerswill, Fox, the Milroys and Labov & the ideas put forward by Coleman, Fox, Dent and others when discussing this area. 

Get writing. You have 40 minutes to complete it.

Allow yourself a few minutes at the end to check spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

NEA Commentary

As part of the Original Writing section of the NEA, students will be required to produce a commentary on their piece. This blog post will provide some guidance on completing the commentary for the NEA and useful tips.

What is the commentary? 

The commentary is designed to enable you to explain the decisions you have made in writing your piece and the language levels that you have employed and replicated following your exploration of a style model. 

Word Count

The commentary is just as important as the Original Writing piece in that it is also 750 words and the same number of marks (25). 

Assessment Objectives 

This piece will test your ability to employ all of the assessment objectives equally. Below is a screenshot from the criteria on the top band features: 

What does this mean? 

A01: You need to use a range of language levels. Note the key words ‘integrated’ and ‘connected.’
Regardless of the language levels used, aim to cover a range rather than repeating multiple times the use of a particular word class. Do not write about the language levels in a disjointed fashion. You will do better by integrating them, e.g. The attributive adjective “gold” within the noun phrase “the gold surface.” 

A02: Through your knowledge gained from the style model, you will need to demonstrate an awareness of genre. How does your original writing imitate the genre? How have you shown understanding of how individual genres work (and possibly overlap)?

A03: You need to engage in the way language is used to create meanings and representations. Think about how the language levels are used to create different effects.

A04: Within your commentary, you must make reference to the style model. An integrated comparison between the style model and original writing piece is needed.

A05: Throughout the entire piece, you will be assessed on your ability to express ideas clearly and carefully using an effective structure. Note the key word “guide.” You need to provide a clear analysis that is well organised rather than a disjointed piece of work that lacks coherence.

Getting the process started

In order to produce a successful commentary, you should complete the following:

1. As part of your planning for the Original Writing, you will have have selected a style model and looked at the linguistic strategies that it uses. In order to write a successful commentary, analyse the language levels used in your style model. Highlight them in different colours, e.g. red = syntax, green = word classes. This is a really important starting point as you need to make connections (A04) to your style model. Your commentary cannot just write about your own Original Writing piece as you need to justify how they relate to your selected style model.

2. After analysing your style model in detail, you need to then identify the language levels used within your own work. Think about why they have been used. 

  • What representation did you intend to create? 
  • What purpose does the language level that you have employed serve?
  • Ensure that you make a comments on the way the audience, writer and subjected are positioned along the way.
  • When you are analysing your work, it is important to consider a range of language levels. Avoid just focusing on the ones you feel most confident with using. A good spread of language levels that are appropriate and meaningful to justifying your ideas is better than repeating the same ones constantly. 
Beginning the Commentary 

As part of your A Level course so far, you will be familiar with the importance of context and how this shapes the meaning and production of the texts. When producing your commentary, your opening paragraph should contextualise your Original Writing piece and making a clear connection to your style model. Consider the following as part of your opening paragraph: 

  • You need to contextualise your own piece of work. Ensure that you comment on the purpose, form, topic, audience and how the subject is being represented. Do not generalise here. You need to be very specific. Generalisations will not help you reach high marks.
  • You also need to introduce your style model. Why have you selected it? How does it relate to your own original writing piece? 

"My style model is in the genre of a dramatic monologue. There are different sections in the text with scene changes indicated by 'Go to Black' or 'Fade.' The monologue explores a character who is not fully self-aware and I have reflected this in my Original Writing piece... My monologue is similar to Bennett's in many ways, whilst also having differences..."  
Main Paragraphs in the Commentary

After establishing the context of both your own original writing piece and your style model, you then need to carefully analyse the language levels employed in your own work.

  • Remember that you need to integrate linguistic description where possible, e.g. The pre-modifying attributive adjective ‘gold’ used within the noun phrase ‘the gold star’ is used to represent it as ….
  • Once you have commented on your own piece of work, you then need to make sure that you make connections to the style model. It might also be the case that there are marked differences in how you have used the language levels. This is equally acceptable but you need to explain why, as this will enable you to discuss contextual factors shaping the production.
  • Remember that you need to engage in meanings. Think about the way the linguistic strategies and language levels used create a representation.
  • Adopt an interwoven comparison throughout rather than writing about the style model and your own production piece in isolation.
  • Referring to the assessment criteria, you will note that it asks you to ‘guide’ the reader through. You will need to develop a coherent line of thought here. In order to guarantee this, you need to avoid leading with A01 features and instead developing topic sentences that enable the reader to understand the connections and points of comparisons being made. 
    • Both the style model and original writing piece employ … but to create different representations…
    • Within the style model, it utilises … which has been imitated in my original writing piece to …
    • Throughout the style model there is use of …. This is mirrored in my original writing piece … so that the subject of … is represented …
    • Whilst the style model utilises …. To represent the subject as … I have employed them in a different way so that the topic can be represented as … 
  • Ensure that you refer closely to your style model by quoting specific examples from it. Likewise, you will need to do the same with your own original writing piece. If you provide no evidence, credit for A01 features cannot be given regardless of how vast a range of features you have employed. 

"As monologues are spoken, it is important to represent speech. Bennett employs ellipsis to make it sound spontaneous and realistic. For example, Marjory says 'Said it was Rawdon anyway." This has been imitated in my own original writing piece through..." 
Concluding the Commentary 

This does not need to be a lengthy part of the piece. A couple of sentences will do here. Your concluding paragraph should very succinctly summarise the overall representation that you have created in your original writing piece.

  • Overall, my original writing piece employs a range of language levels that are similar to my style model to represent the subject as … 
Useful Phrases: 

  • Emulate / Mirror / Employ / Reflected / Imitated / Utilised / Mimics / Aligns /
  • Represents / Portrays / Illustrates / Illuminates / Conveys
  • The audience are positioned / This positions the audience to …
  • Both / Equally / Similarly / In the same way / Using the style model, I have …
  • Whereas / In contrast / Unlike / Alternatively / On the other hand
Good luck with completing your commentary for the NEA and I hope this has helped. 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Happy New Year Y2K+17

Let's hope it's better than 2016, which surely has to go down on record as the worst year in the recent history of the world.

Whatever happens, there will be lots of English Language resources to make use of and we will need to hone our language skills to make sense of an increasingly messed up world.