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 (well...it'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? Dictionary.com defines it in three ways (but one of these is about maths, so we'll leave that one out):

1.to determine or set the value or amount of; appraise:to evaluate property.2.to 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.