Friday, January 04, 2019

Lists, concepts & different ideas: thinking about AO2 on Paper 2

I’ve been at quite a few meetings recently where teachers have asked if the exam board can publish a list of the key theories and studies needed for each topic and that question has got me thinking about what students need to know to do well on the English Language A level, especially on AO2, which at 26% of the weighting of marks across the whole course, is equal highest with AO1 in terms of importance. And while most people are familiar with what AO1 involves – a grasp of linguistic terminology, methods of language analysis and coherent written expression (balanced out differently on different kinds of questions), AO2 isn’t always as clearly understood.

The request for a list to cover is perfectly understandable: there is a lot to cover on the course (including some areas that are new to experienced English Language teachers), many teachers (still) come from a Literature background and the exam boards haven’t always been very clear on exactly what might come up, either in the specifications or in the sample material issued with them. Then again, you might argue that this is just the nature of the beast – English Language is a vast subject, it changes constantly like the language itself and there is always something new to add to the pile to study. That’s what makes it so interesting… but kind of frustrating if you’re also teaching KS3 and 4 and maybe even two or three other A level courses. And I can appreciate that if you’re coming to the course as a new teacher of English Language with little grounding in linguistics, it’s pretty daunting.

But I think that it’s the scope of the subject that can actually help us understand a bit more about AO2, what students need to know and how it’s assessed. My own take on it – and this is very much my own view as a teacher of the subject (alright…sort of teacher of it these days) rather than something that AQA are saying - is that you could actually teach pretty much any studies and theories you like and still see your students do really well. Just so long as they understand the core ideas behind language change and diversity and can relate that understanding to the studies and theories you choose to cover. I’ve thought this through more and think that this is most relevant for Paper 2, but I can also see how it might work for Children’s Language Development on Paper 1 (but more on that another time).

So, how does this work in practice? If we look at the mark scheme for AO2 on Paper 2 (Questions 1, 2 and 4), we can see that the different levels relate to different kinds of knowledge.


  • Level 0 is no knowledge at all and I can only see that being applied to a student who has not even attempted to answer the question. 
  • Level 1 relates to students who talk very generally and without any specialist linguistic knowledge. In essence, this is the kind of knowledge a total stranger would bring to the question, had they come in off the street, evaded the invigilators and (for some inexplicable reason) sat themselves down at a desk and taken the exam. 
  • Level 2 responses would show the beginnings of understanding and might reference a few named researchers, perhaps start to talk quite generally about how language changes or notice that language varies from person to person. The higher you go in this band, the more solid that knowledge would be. It might also be used to allocate marks to those students who have the beginnings of the bigger picture but little sense of detail and probably no examples. 
  • From Level 3 upwards, we are normally looking at students who know some stuff and will be able to discuss examples, refer to studies, ideas and concepts to support their arguments and choose material that’s relevant for the idea they’re evaluating. 
  • Level 4 work will start to see that language is complex and that there can be different ways of looking at the question, different positions and arguments that might be offered. 
  • Level 5 work will be genuinely evaluative, offering “an individual overview of issues” (which to me at least suggests that ‘evaluation’ has to offer a supported personal judgement from the student on the idea they’ve been asked to look at). 


So, obviously students need to know ‘stuff’ and that’s maybe where the desire for a list of ‘stuff’ comes from. But I think we might be better off looking at Level 4 first and thinking about what that means before discussing the ‘stuff’ that can be deployed in Levels 2-5.

The ‘performance characteristics’ for AO2 Level 4 (i.e. the description of the kind of work going on in that level that doesn’t change year to year and paper to paper) states that students will “identify different views, approaches and interpretations of linguistic issues” and I think that’s the key here. What are these views, approaches and issues?

In a way, it’s quite simple. The key things students need to know are:

How and why does language change? 

and

How and why does language vary? 

If they can go some way to answering these questions, using a range of different examples and studies to illustrate what they are saying, they are starting to produce the kind of work that is seen in really good answers. Of course, students will need to answer the questions that have actually been set and address those specific ideas, but at the heart of all questions about language change and diversity, these to me are the key concepts. It can get a bit more complicated when you factor in questions such as “What do people make of these changes and variations?” but that’s still part of the same broader question, I think (again, something I hope to come back to another time).

Once students have a grasp of these questions and some ideas about the answers – and really importantly for Levels 4 and 5, a grasp of the different and often competing ideas that thinkers, commentators and linguists have offered – they are on their way to being able to select from a range of different material at their disposal.

And that’s why I don’t think a list of content for each topic is really that useful. It might make sense to argue that all students should look at the Milroys’ work in Belfast, Trudgill’s Norwich study and Petyt’s Bradford study for UK language variation – and they’re nice studies to teach because they are clear and widely available in plenty of resource and reference books, but there’s nothing wrong with using a completely different study to illustrate a similar point. Emma Moore’s Eden Village Girls 2010 study in Bolton, or Rob Drummond’s 2012 study of Polish speakers of English in Manchester (in this) could be just as helpful. So long as the study is explained and detailed and the significance of it is clear to the question set and the overall argument being offered, I think that’s fine.

The other issue and one that I think is really important for more able students to understand is that language is complex. If they can start to show their understanding of these complexities, they will again offer an insight into the bigger picture and potentially hit Levels 4 and 5. They’ll need to support and exemplify their arguments and ideas, but again that can come from a huge range of different sources. So, for example, one complexity about language is that while our backgrounds and individual characteristics (occupation, social group, ethnicity, sex, gender, region and class) can have an impact on our language, we also have choices to make depending on who we are talking to, the mode of communication we are using, the relationship we have with others involved in the conversation and the uses to which we want to put language. That’s the kind of complexity that can be illustrated by drawing on some of the wider concepts of code-switching and style-shifting, accommodation and linguistic repertoire.

And again, while it can be useful to have a name or theory to hang these on, I think it’s probably more important to understand the principles behind these and be able to illustrate them. How and why did Ed Miliband sound more and more like Russell Brand as his pre-2015 election interview went on? How and why (in the name of all that is sacred) did George Osborne think it would help his cause to sound like Jonathon Ross while speaking to Morrisons warehouse workers? And why did privately-educated Adam Boulton of Sky News try to throw shade on working class Eastender and Labour candidate for Chingford, Faiza Shaheen by claiming that she was “hiding her poshness” by dropping her Ts? These case studies – if well-explained and linguistically explored – can be really useful ways to look at the issues of identity and language use (and indeed language change) that are behind so many of the discussions we have around language on this paper.

So, that’s quite a long blog on AO2 and what I think it involves on Paper 2. I’d be interested to hear what people think and whether or not this chimes with your own experience and thinking.