Friday, October 18, 2019

Analysing patterns and structures

You might have seen Dan’s recent post for the Oxford Education blog; in it he distills the examiners reports on last year’s A-Level exams into some key advice.   Here’s what that post has to say about text analysis and patterns:

‘A key message in last year’s reports was that ‘patterns’ across texts were as important as – if not more important than – identifying isolated features of language. Both the Paper 1 and Paper 2 reports this year stress this again. So, for example, the feedback on Paper 1 states “examiners noticed that those students who had a clear sense of each of the texts as a whole were far more coherent in their responses” as that made them “better placed to identify patterns in language use” across the texts.’
I’ve been trying to encourage this in my own students; it’s more useful and interesting to focus textual analysis on structures and patterns than on single words or even single sentences, particularly when time is as limited as it is in an exam.  You should link these features to contexts, of course – ‘why’ is always more interesting than ‘what’ – so you need to think about what these patterns tell us about how a topic is represented, how genre conventions are used or challenged, how an audience is positioned, how this text can be related to wider discourses about the same topic, how the producer or participants represent themselves …

These are the kinds of features I’m suggesting that you could look for if you want to avoid the disjointed, one-word-at-a-time approach.

·       Semantic fields, extended metaphors or other patterns of imagery
For example, is that football match represented using the imagery of war with words like ‘fight’, ‘battle’, ‘attack’?  Or is it represented as a more scientific, thoughtful game with descriptions like ‘clinical’ and ‘precision’?

·       Lexical patterns and repetition
For example, are there lots of first person plural pronouns suggesting inclusivity or the attempt to create a pseudo community?  Lots of highly modified noun phrases suggesting that the producer is introducing a new topic to the audience?   Is a particular word or phrase often repeated, and what aspect of the topic does this foreground?

·       Syntactic patterns
For example, are there a lot of conditional clauses suggesting a complex, nuanced topic and a tentative approach?  Is there syntactic parallelism for persuasive rhetorical effect?  Is the subject of the sentence missing or does the text use passive voice to conceal agency?

·       Modality
How much certainty, uncertainty or reliability is expressed?  Is it all about ‘slightly’ and ‘might’ or is it ‘must’ and ‘definitely’?  Did an event ‘definitely’ or ‘apparently’ happen? 

·       Whole text structure
For example, is there a problem/solution structure?  Are there any adjacency pairs? A circular structure?  Are there any narrative structural features such as binary oppositions?  What aspects of the topic are foregrounded?  How does the producer guide the audience and provide cohesion?

Here are the notes one of my classes came up with on structural features and patterns in a newspaper article – this one is from AQA Paper 1 in 2018, and you can find the rest of the paper here.

I’m sure you could add to these notes: my students didn’t get around to discussing discourse markers or modality, for instance.    But their notes would provide the basis of a fruitful, ‘big picture’ analysis of the text which I think could be much more successful than analysing the connotations of the specific adjective ‘smelly’, for instance.  Looking at patterns also provides a way into how the text fits into wider contexts. Once you’ve noticed the repeated binary opposition between past and present, for example, you can see that the article feeds into nostalgic discourses which see social change as decline; this could provide a big-picture focus for your analysis.

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