Monday, April 06, 2020

Embracing Independent Study (at home!)

This is a guest blog by Richard Young, an A level student at St Thomas More RC Academy in Tyne and Wear, who's hoping to go on to study English Language/Linguistics at degree level.

As David Crystal (2011) says, ‘all living languages change’. And, even at this moment in time, whilst Coronavirus forces us into lockdown, there are still neologisms creeping up here-and-there, surrounding the pandemic’s semantic field. Whilst we aren’t at school or college, it is possible to keep up with these linguistic innovations, develop crucial digital literacy research skills, and foster an understanding (and an interest) around the topics and language issues that we have a passion for exploring further.

Lockdown is the perfect chance to delve into linguistic research, and do an ‘Independent Study’ - taking time to explore a topic that interests you. It’s an opportunity for you to be creative and experiment with a selection of research methods, to see what works best for your revision, whilst practising those key skills that help make your research credible. I really enjoyed independent study, during my A-Level course, and now in preparation for studying English at university, I am keen to make the most of it again. The benefits of independent study include:

  • a freedom of choice - allowing you to research a topic of your own interest, and present findings in a way that suits your own study habits. 
  • the opportunity to ‘scratch up’ on strategic use of digital/online resources - becoming a necessity in lockdown, with the majority of us (if not all) referring to the internet for our research. 
  • a developing understanding of language topics - making you think hard about your own opinions, leading to more critical questioning about your reading and sources. 
Now, you’re probably wondering how to approach independent study?

Firstly, think about the kind of language source you might like to study. With the internet, there are now various ways to find sources to study. Choose a source that you believe you will find most interesting and relate to your interests; here are some of the tasks that you could consider:

  • watching an episode of a TV programme with a language context - e.g. Channel 4’s ‘Educating…’ series or ‘The Secret Life of Four and Five Year Olds’ - relevant for social groups, language change and language acquisition topics. 
  • watching a TEDtalk on a language issue or debate - there is an interesting talk by John McWhorter, ‘Txting is killing language’, useful for language change.  
  • listening to a podcast on a language issue or debate - BBC Radio 4’s ‘Word of Mouth’ and Lexicon Valley are amongst many useful series.  
  • reading an article on language change or prejudice from an online broadsheet newspaper - e.g. The Guardian’s ‘Mind your language’ section.  
  • collecting your own language data for an investigation - e.g. ‘below the line’ comments on articles and social media feeds, debating language change and issues. 
  • using an online corpus to research the collocations and meanings of particular words, investigating potential language bias. 
  • using Google Images to find examples of language use in popular culture - e.g. investigating if t-shirt slogans vary, according to gender and identity. 
  • following key linguists and exploring hashtags (e.g. ‘#coronaspeak’ or ‘#plainenglish’) on Twitter - interacting with language debates, keeping up-to-date with current discourses and language change in action; there’s something new, almost everyday! 

 ...these are just a few starting points; but, whatever you decide to explore is good preparation (and practice) for your Language Investigation (NEA). I found exploring the impact of Brexit on the language of politicians interesting. I became intrigued in the topic, and continued to keep up-to-date with published articles and research, by following many of the key linguists on Twitter. The constant media focus, frequent examples of new content and the discourses around the topic gave me the idea for my NEA, where I explored it further.

Collecting meaningful research/data to accompany and support your study is essential. As I learnt, the first result that appears in your search of ‘accent and dialect’, for example, may not always be the best choice. One of the many useful strategies is the use of a ‘search operator’; they can help restrict your source to specific websites. For example, if I enter into a search engine, ‘dialect levelling’, the ‘’ only returns results of websites that are of an academic institution, such as a university - try it for yourself, on your next search!

The ‘CRAAP test’ is another particular favourite of mine, whereby you assess the currency, relevance, accuracy, authority and purpose of a source (published online or on paper), in order to ensure that the source you have selected is valid, and a good choice to refer to in your study. Check the usefulness of a source, by asking:

  1. When was it written - is it recent? If it is a few years old, could it be outdated or the content no longer accurate? 
  2. Which sections are relevant for my study? Will it support and provide evidence for my points? 
  3. Who wrote it - do you have any information about the author/writer? Are they an expert/specialist in the subject - can you trust them? Is there potential bias, due to the writer’s own opinion(s)? 
  4. What is the purpose of the source? Is it trying to spark debate - and influence your opinion? Or, inform you of an issue? 

 Remember to keep a list of the sources you find in a document. Every time you refer to a published source (online or on paper), you could practise referencing these, in a bibliography format. This helps to make referencing and acknowledgment of your sources common practice; again, particularly useful in preparation for your NEA and Higher Education, where a bibliography is expected.

Also, think about how you want to record your findings, and personal reactions to the source. You could present them on a PowerPoint presentation, or through a revision poster or flash cards, or even through an audio or video recording of yourself explaining them.

Summarising the key points of information that are significant and interesting in bullet points on a Word document or written list may help you structure the way that you choose to present your findings; you may even choose to write a list of potential exam questions, where you could apply the concept(s) you have researched.

And finally, consolidate your learning by considering any questions you have, or what ideas have sprung to mind, on what you have read and researched. Keep those questions in mind for when you come to discussing your findings with your teacher and/or your classmates.

Remember, research a topic that interests you - and be creative in the way that you present it!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

NEA support: genre and the original writing commentary

If you are still working on your NEA original writing commentary, or just polishing it up for submission, here are a few bits of advice.

We covered the NEA commentary a while ago here on the blog, but there are a few other things I'd add to that, having seen hundreds and hundreds of folders since then.

Think carefully about the genre of your style model and your own piece. Genre is the key to doing well on AO2 and is often - according to the Lead Moderator's report - one of those areas often not done very well. What does 'genre' involve? It's basically about the kind of text you're writing, how you might classify its type. But as with any classification, there will be some texts that fit really neatly into a genre, others that seem to straddle genres and others that are harder to pin down.

Daniel Chandler, a media and visual arts theorist, talks about a traditional view of genre in An Introduction to Genre Theory:

For the purposes of your English Language work, I'd argue that these - theme, setting, structure and style - are all very relevant, but that it's perhaps structure we see done less well at the very top end. While the content side of things is often quite well-handled (think of thrillers, ghost stories, dystopian fiction etc and you'll have a pretty instinctive grasp of what is going to appear in them), it's the form side of things we don't see done as well. 

So, have a think about this in relation to the two texts you're looking at (the style model and your own piece). Which structural elements are linked to the genre? How are they important? 

An example. You're writing a dramatic monologue to be performed on stage or in front of a camera. The structural elements of the narrative might be deliberately designed to delay key information about the narrator's character: that's a key structural aspect of this genre. 

However, it's also worth bearing in mind that genre isn't always that simple. As Chandler goes on to point out: 

So, you can manipulate and experiment with genre, and that's what I think the mark scheme is driving at in the descriptor in Level 5 for AO2 of 'demonstrate understanding of genre as a dynamic process'. Some kind of understanding that what you have written (and even perhaps, the choices made in your style model) as being more than just a tick-list of features to add, but a set of choices that writers make for all sorts of reasons seems to me to be a good way to show evidence of this descriptor. 

On a simple level, you might argue that being able to identify the features of a genre and then use them is one kind of skill, but it's another level of skill to be able to understand the nature of the genre and explore it, test its limits and even mix it with another. If you can combine this with a discussion of the language you've used and the representation and effects you've intended to create, then it could form a good blend of AO1, 2 and 3. Talk about both texts together and offer a clearly written line of argument, and you're doing all 5 AOs well. 

So, if you're still working on your commentary, give this some thought and if the idea appeals, have a bit more of a read of Chandler's ideas about genre and see what you make of them.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Paper 2 Section B resources

Other A Level English Language teachers have been really generous with their help at this weird and unsettling time, so thanks to Jacky Glancey at Macmillan Academy for sharing her revision material for Paper 2 Section B.

The activities here are designed for Question 3 and help get you thinking about the kind of analysis that's needed when you're addressing texts about language issues. It then broadens out to focus on the wider discourses and issues connected to the analysis. There are loads of helpful ideas in here, so it should be helpful not just for Paper 2 but also for helping develop analytical approaches on NEA if that's what you're working on.

The activities here are designed for Question 4 and are designed to address the AO2 side of the task, by offering ideas about identity and language that can be discussed and debated.

NEA support: language investigations

As promised, here is (what I hope will be) some helpful material if you are still working on the NEA. We don’t yet know if the ‘calculated grade’ that Year 13s will receive, in lieu of the grades you would have got in the summer, will factor in any element of NEA, but as NEA was specifically mentioned in the Ofqual guidance last week, I thought it might be useful to offer a few things to help.

So, if you’re at the stage where you want to polish off the investigation, or you’re redrafting, following some feedback from your teachers, or you’re working out how to complete the commentary for the original writing, the posts today and later in the week are designed to help. If you've already submitted your final draft, then your work is done and this post isn't for you. Don't stress about it.

First off, the language investigation. A lot of the posts on here about the investigation have been to do with how you set one up and get started. You’ll be past that stage by now (if not, I won’t judge you… look here instead), so there are a few things to think about.

The advice from the NEA lead moderator’s report last year (and most years so far) has been consistent about what makes a good language investigation.

A few of these are going to be difficult to address now, so without a complete overhaul (which I wouldn't really recommend at this stage), it's probably best to think about those areas you really can deal with. 

Beginnings and ends
Starting at the end of the project is one way to think about this, because as you write your conclusion (and evaluation, if you are doing one as a separate section) you'll also be thinking back to the beginning of the project. Make sure you have actually done what you said you were going to do. If you haven't, why not? Did your investigation lead you to question your original aims and research questions? Did it make you reconsider your assumptions? If so, this could be turned into some interesting reflection and evaluation.

An example. You set out to investigate whether females and males used language in different ways in their interactions in social media. What you discovered was that gender was less important than the topic being discussed or the nature of the relationship between the participants. Does this mean your project was a disaster? No, not at all. Your evaluation might actually address some of these other factors. It's not too late to read what others have said about this too, so you might be able to reference ideas around the diversity model of gender, Butler's ideas about performance of gender identity, or perhaps other work carried out on social media to support your observations and show how it's more complicated than just a binary gender difference. 

The conclusion and evaluation is also a chance to reflect on the wider issues and consider if - had you been doing this as a longer study, or had access to more equipment/respondents/time - you would have liked to proceed. You should also be able to look back at the early stages of the investigation and see if you have phrased your aims and/or research questions and/or hypotheses as clearly as you can.

A problem that has been flagged up at various feedback meetings with teachers is that lots of investigations aren't very clear at the start about what it is they are actually investigating. Here's a tip. Show your introduction and methodology to someone who doesn't do this course. Ask them to read it and summarise in a few sentences what it is they think you are going to do. If they can't understand what your investigation is about or what it is you're setting out to find, consider re-writing it. 

We want the introduction to say exactly what it is you are going to do and what the language focus is going to be.

While it's probably too late to make big structural changes to what you've written, have a think about your subheadings. The advice has pretty much always been that you should follow the prescribed sections of the investigation in the spec as a bare minimum (Introduction, Methodology, Analysis, Conclusion, References, Appendices) and add more if it helps. This means you can add an aims section if you like, or subdivide your analysis under helpful subheadings, related to the approaches you've outlined in your methodology or the aims/research questions/hypotheses you've offered. many people also add an evaluation section.

If you haven't used subheadings, there's a risk your analysis might just be one big chunk - difficult to read and hard to unpick - so have a think about using relevant subheadings.

Analysis and quotation
Another big area where some people come unstuck is not offering detail, depth or exemplification in the analysis. Are you being linguistic in your discussion of the data? Are you offering some kind of technical description of language features that you're analysing (identifying word classes, interaction features, syntactical structures, for example)? Are you looking at patterns of language use and starting to think about how individual language choices form part of a bigger picture, or show that a strategy is being used? These could be linked to the aims of your project.

An example. You've analysed newspaper reports of the UK royal family over the last year to identify if there's a difference in how the royal wives are represented. You start to notice that certain semantic fields are employed by one publication more than another. Perhaps this field creates certain connotations and links to a stance or political bias you've started to notice in this particular newspaper. Can you back up this hunch with some more focused discussion and analysis?

Another example. You are analysing children's spoken language in a primary school class and notice that some of the children around the tables are being much more cooperative in their speech than others. In the groups where the speech is more cooperative, you think they are getting on with their work better and making more progress. What is happening? How are you actually defining cooperative speech and what are some of its features? Are there any other factors at work? Can your observations be linked to any background reading you have done?

Addressing problems
The list of problems in investigations is worth a look too. If any of these apply to your work, you've still got a chance to address them.

One easy fix for a lack of quotations and examples is simply to go back and find them in your own data. Remember that quotations won't count towards your word count, so don't worry about that. It's  important to support any observations you've made and often a good idea to offer a quick bit of context to your examples. If possible, try to offer quotations of more than just a single word or phrase. It can often be useful to quote a slightly longer extract from the data so that the marker and moderator can see where the bit you're talking about came from and what was around it: it could offer important context.

That's it for this post. I'll address a few other areas later on.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Revising key areas

Thanks to Mr McVeigh, here are some very handy quick guides to different key areas of the course. Paper 2 here, more to follow...

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Language topics quick writing tasks

A-Level English Language has an awful lot of content, and a quick way to revise a lot at a time  is to do some short writing tasks.  I use these questions and key word prompts with my students and suggest 15 minutes of writing as much as possible on each one.  I initially saw this idea from someone on Twitter, but I have no idea who - so thank you and sorry for the lack of acknowledgement!    Here are some on language change topics for now.

15 minute writing task:  To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Text messaging is just the most recent focus of people's anxiety; what people are really worried about is a new generation gaining control of what they see as their language. (David Crystal)

Key Words: Prescriptivism, Aitchison, descriptivism

15 minute writing task:  To what extent do you agree with this statement?
“Language change is not a disease, any more than adolescence, or autumn are illnesses.” (Jean AitchisonLanguage Change: Progress or Decay?

Key Words: Prescriptivism, Aitchison, descriptivism

15 minute writing task:  To what extent do you agree with this statement?
I once met a very interesting guy from the OED who was fed up with people misunderstanding what a dictionary is. It's not a set of rules about how to use language, it's a set of observations about how it's used, which is why it needs to be constantly updated. Language changes, it is not fixed, and the only function it needs to perform is to be understood. (C. Higson)

Key Words: Prescriptivism, Aitchison, descriptivism

15 minute writing task:  To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Defenders of politically correct language claim that such speech reduces offensive behaviour. (O’Neill)
Key Words:  determinism, reflectivism, Sapir Whorf, Deutscher, Aitchison, euphemism treadmill

15 minute writing task:  To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Departures from the Queen's English do get noticed. The head of an online graduate recruitment agency wrote that they reject one third of all job applications from graduates with good degrees from good universities, because errors in English in their CVs and covering letters show ignorance, carelessness and a bad attitude.  (B.Lamb)

Key Words: Prescriptivism, Aitchison, declinism, descriptivism

15 minute writing task:  To what extent do you agree with this statement?
"You have too many words in English," said Jean-Paul Nerrière, a retired vice president of IBM USA, who is French. He has proposed his own version of Globish that would have just 15,000 simple words for use by non-native speakers.  "We are a majority," Nerrière said, "so our way of speaking English should be the official way of speaking English."

Key Words: Globish, linguistic imperialism, norm-dependent, norm developing, lingua franca, spread, power

Embracing Independent Study (at home!)

This is a guest blog by Richard Young, an A level student at St Thomas More RC Academy in Tyne and Wear, who's hoping to go on to study ...