This guest blog is by Anna Browning (on Twitter as @wordphile) who is a teacher in the East Midlands. She says, 'I've been teaching for over 25 years and have learned so much from colleagues over the years; now it's a genuine pleasure to help others where I can'. Thanks for a great post.
Of all the questions on the AQA A Level Language Papers, this is the one that my students need the most help with. It is not that that skills are different, or that the texts are difficult – it is that there are so many balls to keep in the air at once. The examiner’s report (which I advise you to read) makes it clear that this is the question that candidates find most challenging.
What I have outlined here is a way to teach students. It is like a slow “guided reading” process that teaches students to see what is significant and interesting in the data.
1. Slow them down – make your students take the time to read.
Observing my students when faced with an article has taught me that they want to start annotating straight away. Out come the highlighters and the coloured pens and away they go. I understand – they see “just reading” as wasting time and making a mark on a piece of paper is tangible evidence that they are making progress with the task. The trouble is, they are frequently highlighting features without having understood the articles properly. Tell them to put down the pens and just read. Then write down three things about each source:
What is it? Who wrote it? Why was it written?
Get them to write these questions in large letters somewhere prominent and to keep them front and centre as they look at the texts.
Top tip – if there is a shorter article, look at it first and compare the longer one to it rather than the other way around. Simply, the shorter article will have fewer things to spot that the longer one.
2. Place the texts in a wider discourse.
Encourage your students to be precise about this. The articles will be about language change or language varieties and they will have encountered the debates and discourses in lessons and in their wider reading. You might have two articles about the way language change is perceived as decay, the apparent loss of accents and dialects over time, or the way women’s use of vocal fry and uptalk is seen as disempowering. Make this the first sentence of the answer and you are on to a winner from the start.
Be careful though, of having a reductive list of discourses. It is important to write about what IS there, not what we might LIKE to be there.
3. Find links and patterns.
On the paper, the two text are printed so that they can be placed side by side. This is so that from the very start, students can do just that and see them as a data set. Now to ask the next question – what else links these two sources that might be relevant? Do they use the same language? Are the writers, the contexts, or the attitudes similar? Are there any patterns across the two texts in the language or structures that are immediately obvious?
In my classroom we like to look for figurative language, rhetorical devices and code-switching on a first pass.
4. Compare the way the writers represent themselves.
Start with the by-line. In an opinionated editorial (op. ed.) the writer is usually an “expert voice” and the views are the writer’s own. A journalist will often distance themselves somewhat from the opinions by using quotation or paraphrasing an authority on the subject. However, there is no such thing as an unbiased writer. It is often interesting to compare the ways that writers shape and frame arguments by selection.
5. Analyse the representation of ideas and opinions.
Analyse the different ways that writers represent the opinions of others. It can be helpful to look at how experts are described – are they “linguists” or “language boffins” and what difference does it make? What assumptions are made about the knowledge and interests of the reader? What is simplified, glossed or exemplified? What use is made of metaphor or cultural references? Are the ideas being presented new or established? What sorts of sentences are being used – simple or complex? Declarative? Is the tone personal or impersonal? Is the register formal or informal…
Top tip – teach them to look at co-text as well as context. If you pick out a word or short phrase, then look at what comes right before and right after it and how that changes things.
6. Evaluate how the reader is positioned.
How have the two writers shaped their presentations of the issue for the audience? Remind your students that most people do not choose their reading material because it challenges their ideas and opinions – quite the opposite. I read the newspaper that most accords with my world view. Persuasive speeches do not change people’s minds – whatever we tell students at GCSE - they reinforce beliefs. And advertisements do not make you want to buy aftershave – they suggest that THIS aftershave might the one for people like you…
In my classroom, our current favourite device is the conditional sentence.
“If you don’t like uptalk, then you are going to hate vocal fry.”
See? There is not much room for the reader to LIKE uptalk in that sentence – it assumes that the readers do not like uptalk and are quite ready to dislike whatever new vocal tic they are exposed to.
7. Finally, make a choice about what to write about.
If your students have spent the best part of a double lesson looking at the texts in depth, then they have far too much to say.
Now comes the distillation process – what is most significant and interesting about the way these two writers have engaged with this linguistic topic and shaped their texts for their audiences?