Friday, April 09, 2021

Putting the F in NEA: making language investigations work

The latest guest blog comes from David Chew, a teacher in the East Midlands. Here he looks at how he approaches the NEA language investigation from its earliest ideas and inception through to the detailed analysis needed to make it work, and he looks at how the mysterious F score can add a new dimension to discussions of formality in texts. 

“It’s more maths and science than a literature essay.”  This is my opening announcement to a class of English Language students as we embark on the AQA Language Investigation NEA (coursework). The subsequent groans could fill a pandemically-induced empty football stadium.

In an attempt to shift students’ perceptions of having opted for an “Arts” based A level, I riff on about creating “a fair test” and identifying “measures of central tendency”.  I am fully aware, after teaching variations of this investigative language study for over 20 years now, that I need to shock Mark into realising that he will need to find something to count, count it and then report what the count tells him about language and language users.

Don’t worry. I hear your gasps of “you can’t reduce the niceties of language analysis to bean counting” and “where are your socio-linguistic sensibilities?”. We will come to that; especially since AO3 is the weightiest of the three AOs awarded to this study and trades marks for appreciation of contextual factors and meanings.

But Mark needs to understand this isn’t an essay; it isn’t a commentary; and it certainly isn’t a report. It is however a precursive experience to a university dissertation.

Assumptions challenged, the next pitfall is approach. There are two processes which students must engage in: conducting an investigation and writing about it.  These processes exist in a chicken and egg symbiosis. Do I teach one and assume the other will follow? If they don’t know how the writing will be structured, how can they cover all the bases when they launch themselves into investigating? If they haven’t assembled data and identified variables, how can they formulate a hypothesis? I tend towards spinning both plates at once, knowing that different students will develop their understanding of these processes in different ways.

And what to investigate? I advise students to go with what they know and enjoy. After all, they will be engaging with the material for several months: that’s a prison sentence if your teacher has foisted an idea onto you just because your initial reaction was “I don’t know what to investigate”.  So, will it be editorials in Horse and Hounds magazines? Perhaps you’ve noticed that sports commentaries on radio stations are more effusive than TV commentators. Your swimming coach has a different way of addressing the team competitors whether you are winning or losing. You’ve noticed that your young female cousin is learning to read faster than your little brother. You suspect that the talk on reality TV shows featuring young people doesn’t match what you have been told about 20th century theories of genderlect. 

However, I draw the lines at poetry and advertising slogans. Not because there isn’t anything to be discovered in these texts: there most certainly is. But you’ve got to write 2000 words covering at least two language levels (or systematic frameworks in old money) and “Guinness is good for you” repeated over the decades with different images of Toucans can only get you so far. Similarly, there is a post grad thesis to be had looking at the implicature of e e cummings dispensing with capitals, but not a successful A level NEA.

There’s always one, though. However much you encourage them to tell you about their latest loot box disappointment, their bilingual grandmother, or their moonlighting gig shelf-stacking on Fridays when they should be attending PSHE lessons, they will still succumb to the lure of an investigation into the comparison of tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. They don’t see any downside to this choice, even when they admit that they don’t read newspapers, and can you just remind them why the Guardian is a broadsheet anyway.

What have I learned over twenty years? A wise colleague transformed my teaching, and students’ outcomes, when she pointed out that moving from a general hypothesis to a detailed analysis was a bit of a stretch for the investigator and the reader.  So, the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts have become more informal during her 68-year reign, but what exactly will you look for to support this hunch? This is where a series of language level-based expectations come in. In terms of lexis, there will be fewer Latinate words now than there were in 1952.  There will be more colloquialisms in 2020 than ever before. And that use of first-person pronouns, unique to royalty (and Margaret Thatcher), might also have changed semantically. These organised, structured, and coded expectations then become the organising framework and structure for the analysis section. Everything is now set up clearly for the investigator to investigate and the reader to read.

Ideally you would start the investigation at the end of the two-year course. This would allow students to reference theories and theorists which they have already studied in Language and Gender, Child Language Acquisition, power, change, diversity etc. But this isn’t practical, so you’re faced with signposting students to ideas and concepts which they don’t yet know are relevant to their investigation. At this stage you are grateful that, although you don’t know much about anything, you do know a little about everything.  There is one theory, however, I discovered that you can bank on to bolster most investigations. One panacea theory; one magic bullet. That is the F Score. 

It’s great. It assigns numerical value to word classes based on whether the word class is deemed to be more formal or more informal. So, adjectives are more formal whilst adverbs are more informal. Students look at their data samples, identify the word classes being used, and apply a formula: [F = (noun frequency + adjective freq. + preposition freq. + article freq. – pronoun freq. – verb freq. – adverb freq. – interjection freq. + 100)/2]. Now they have a number for the degree of formality of each data set. We are talking charts, graphs, means, modes, medians, trendlines….. At this stage Mark wishes he had paid attention in GCSE maths. His classmate Sophie did pay attention though and, having analysed a sample of 6 editions of The Aberdeen Press and Journal over 220 years, she has a wealth of statistical analysis about the formality of language.


Even Mark can now see how he could measure the spoken formality of his favourite sports stars:




At this stage you throw in the curve ball. “Well done, Mark. Now which of your subjects are monolingual?”  Now you’re sold on this universal remedy, I would love to claim ©dchew, but I can’t. Instead get the full monty here.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not an English teacher simply because the Maths department wouldn’t have me. I don’t think that there is beauty in numbers alone; but they do have their place when your student’s investigation needs some close comparative analysis and some marks for AO1 and AO2.

Context really is everything, though. Once you have counted those Latinate derivations, those run of the mill colloquialisms, and “did she mean ‘we’ as a singular or a plural”, you need the context. Why was the 1992 Christmas message an anomaly in the bar chart representation of the Queen’s increasing informalisation? Perhaps because saying “annus horribilis” ad infinitum takes the Latinate lexis count sky high for that year!  When those reality TV shows go out after the watershed and editorialise the hours of recorded talk to 45 minutes of the most dramatic dialogues between two self-serving egotists, then perhaps you really do need to consider the Observer’s Paradox. When you have squeezed the pips out of the numbers, you need to recognise that the F score won’t tell you about semantics, production, reception, representation and variables.

Ah, variables. To keep them open or closed? If Mark is comparing female and male language use (go with me on binary for now), he needs data sets from each group. But if he is going to attempt to ascribe any causal links to his findings, then all the other factors in the data set such as age and audience and familiarity and function had better be the same. Every year I find myself trying to explain the implications of correlation and causality to students who would have preferred media studies on their GCSE timetable to pipettes and Van der Graaf generators. I have honed it down to this example which I tell students every year. “I have looked at the latest test results for this class and I have to say I am pleased that on the whole the boys did better than the girls in the class. So, girls, since all the boys wear ties and none of you wear ties, I suggest that you start wearing a tie if you want to be as good as the boys in the next test.” 

Four months into the investigation you overhear Mark telling his classmate that trendlines only really work for comparing data sets over time. He then points out that using mode rather than mean would allow the anomalous data set to be included without skewing the results. He berates his friend for ignoring audience demographics and begins to explain synthetic personalisation. You sit back and smile. Your work here is done. The groans which filled that pandemically-induced empty football stadium are no more. 


 

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Quickfire Comparisons: Paper 1 Question 3

This is an activity I've been using for revision of Question 3 on Paper 1. The texts are all ones I've used before and some might be recognisable from courses and/or resources I've presented before, but I think the activity is a new one (for me, at least). The idea is to think about connections (the AO4 bit of Q1-3) by quickly identifying them (points of similarity or difference) and then including a language point to support each one. This starts with short texts and then moves on to slightly longer ones, so you might want to find more than 2 connections in these later ones. The point is to read the extracts and identify points as quickly as possible...

Rather than look at lots of pairs of full texts, you might want to try some quick comparisons of shorter texts for Question 3. Read each pair of extracts quickly and identify two points to compare/contrast. Each time, try to make the representation of the topic one of your two points, but then vary the other point from the following list, so you have discussed a range by the end:

  • mode
  • genre
  • time
  • audience
  • purpose
  • representation of author/text producer

Identify at least one feature of language for each example to help you illustrate your points.

Pair 1

A. Extract from TV cookery show

so I’ve got some pancetta here (1) and (.) I’m gonna fry it (.) in the pan (.) need a bit of oil (2) I love pancetta (.) such a lovely flavour

B. Extract from cookery book (Lorraine Pascale, Glam Mac and Cheese recipe)

Fry the pancetta in a medium frying pan over a gentle heat until it just starts to brown and crisp up, then add the thyme leaves and spring onions and cook for a further 3 minutes.

Pair 2

A. Spoken account from beginning of a story about an incident at school (Source: QMUL spoken language resources)

Zack:  no it was like (.) it was the end of school yeah so that school's finished yeah

                      and everyone was going home 

                      and I was getting my bike from the bike rack 

                      and I was going out 

                      and I was riding my bike 

                      and he stopped my bike.

                      I was like "yeah" 

                     and he goes "get off the bike”

B. Extract from an Arthur Conan Doyle story (1903)

A quarter of an hour passed, and then a second cyclist appeared. This time it was the young lady coming from the station. I saw her look about her as she came to the Charlington hedge. An instant later the man emerged from his hiding-place, sprang upon his cycle, and followed her. In all the broad landscape those were the only moving figures, the graceful girl sitting very straight upon her machine, and the man behind her bending low over his handle-bar with a curiously furtive suggestion in every movement. She looked back at him and slowed her pace. He slowed also. She stopped. He at once stopped, too, keeping two hundred yards behind her.

Pair 3

A. An extract from The Scotsman website (2011)



B. An extract from The Scotsman newspaper (1871) 




 Pair 4

A. An account of an anti-fascist demonstration against “alt-right” Trump supporters in 2017 from an American politics website

 



B. An extract from a letter giving an eye-witness account of part of the “Gordon Riots” in London in 1780

 



Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Many Ways to Climb the Mountain

And the guest blogs keep coming... 

This one is another from Neil Hutchinson, who teaches at Kirkbie Kendal School in the Lake District (on Twitter as @Hutchinsonnet) and here he looks at the foundations of Meanings and Representations when approaching Paper One: Section A.

For students and teachers it can sometimes feel as though the analysis of texts is an arduous uphill struggle. It needn’t be. It’s always heartening to discover you’re not alone on the expedition. The thought that you’re isolated in your decision making is so often the foundation of existential panic. So it was a huge relief to me, and I’m sure countless others, to read this post from fellow guest blogger Mr McVeigh. In this excellent entry, he talks about his approach to Paper One: Section A with a focus on questions 1 and 2. It was heartening to see that there are other practitioners out there making planning a response by examining meaning, before effect, the focus of approaching the questions. 

My own approach is broadly similar, with a few differences, and based on the needs of the small bunch of Year 12 students sitting in front of me, sometimes struggling to meet the demands of these questions and scale the heights of the mark scheme, due to shaky foundations beneath their feet. 

To remedy this I decided to refine my approach. The historical ‘framework’ approach is of course useful. I do want my students to be able to spot clause elements a mile away. Or label lexical items, with precision, but these alone are not summit markers in a response. Making meanings and representations the top and bottom of their approach, with terminology acting more like the gear to help them along the journey, seems the most sensible route plan. 

Mr McVeigh wrote:

I like students to identify at least three representations. I normally say that the author is always represented within a text so that is always a good starting point.

This after he has them, “contextualise the text by identifying the purpose, audience and form of a text (PAF)”

This is similar to my approach. We spend a lot of time focusing on the layers of representations as a starting point and then allow the meaning to reveal itself as the trek begins. I use the simple image of a triangle (mountain if my extended metaphor has landed thus far), which I will go into in more detail below. 

As an example, for upcoming exam(ish) preparation we looked at the June 17 paper, featuring the article from the Metro on athlete Veronica Campbell Brown. Spoiler warning ahead. 

The ‘What’

The first thing I asked the students to do was to read the text and simply list all of the representations they can find in the text. I don’t want them to come up with ideas about these representations at this stage. For the students who struggle to generate ideas to discuss in the questions I find this is extremely valuable as it gives them something to aim for. They’re mapping out their route through the questions already before they’ve even thought of anything analytical to say. 

At this stage I will write all of these representations on the board: 


They listed Veronica Capbell Brown as the most obvious person represented, but from there I encouraged them to consider who else or what else was being represented through her. It stands to reason that people don’t exist in representational vacuums. Especially with celebrities and the world of sport, people see themselves reflected back in those they look up to or hold in high esteem. They were then able to say:

  • Women
  • Black People
  • Black Women
  • Jamaica

And just as the students wearing their uniforms outside of school represent our institution I ask them to consider how the individual might represent organisations or institutions. This led to:

  • Athletics
  • The Olympics
  • Sprinting
  • Professional Etiquette
  • Celebrity

And then through polarisation present in the article, and again similar to Mr McVeigh, they were able to identify:

  • Britain/British Identity
  • British Athletics

And as Mr McVeigh always reminds them, I ask them to consider how the writer is representing themselves or the publication they’re writing for. So to cap it all off:

  • The Metro
  • Will Giles (writer)

This really gives the students a solid base camp with a variety of routes to follow. And it is something every student of every ability can do in an exam context. Naturally, those aiming for the highest bands will be more able to discuss the wider implications of the representations on display. They will even be able to spot patterns of wider discourse, which is really going to help them with AO3. More on that later. While those at the lower end will all be able to explore the representation of the individual named in the text, often the most obvious, yet still, the most salient of all listed above. 

At this point it is worth reminding them that they can’t discuss everything. This is where the interactive whiteboard comes in handy because we now organise that list into a hierarchy (see images below). We decide on this together based on the text in front of us. I ask them is the representation of Veronica Campbell Brown more salient than the representation of black people or women in general? We decide yes. After all she is named in the headline as opposed to say, “Black athlete runs in wrong lane…” or “Female athlete runs in wrong lane…” We do discuss that Campbell Brown is referred to as “The Jamaican” but we consider this as part of the patriotic, tribal stance The Metro is adopting, which we discuss later.

Before developing that, I first ask them if this seems more openly critical of black people or of women? For simplicity, does it seem more racist or sexist? That is not to say it is neither, arguably these prejudices exist between the lines because they feed into the wider social discourses, which are still present in our society. What we are doing at this stage is glancing back over the whole text and spotting what jumps out, again before we have really started to think of the ‘How’. They decide that for a number of reasons, the representation of women seems salient. They look to the overall discourse structure of listing Campbell Brown’s achievements in the opening and then following it with the angry sounding second paragraph, in which Giles utilises the verb phrase, “managed to RUN…” They felt this fed into a wider social discourse of belittling successful women’s achievements. 

The final order is listed above in the images of my board. The triangle/mountain image comes into its own here because although Veronica Campbell Brown is undoubtedly the peak in terms of representation, that can only exist on the foundation of typical/historical representations that exist within society. Her image in this article rests on the patterns of how women, black people, athletics etc are represented in our wider culture. 

Before moving on to discussing how these representations were being established through language, I emphasised with students that once they had organised them in order of salience they could choose any three to focus on in their answer. Again this is crucial in eliciting a response from every student which is personal and potentially different. The lower ability students may want to focus on the top three whereas those aiming for the highest marks may want to start at the top and pull in something less obvious and perhaps more perceptive. 

The ‘How’ 

As this article is more about an approach to the questions, I will focus less on this part. But it is here where we start to come up with statements about how these people and institutions are being represented. Again, nothing too linguistic at this stage. Simply what seems to be jumping out? These can be seen in red in the image, but they decided VCB was being represented negatively as either a heartless cheat or as an incompetent woman who did not seem deserving of her accolades. As mentioned above it was very easy for them to now suggest that women are often ridiculed in our wider culture as a way to downplay their achievements. Some discussed, away from the world of sport, the ongoing, relentless and hateful treatment of Mary Beard here. 

It is only now we get to frameworks. Once they have organised their thinking in this way, the language and structure seems to reveal itself in a way it otherwise wouldn’t have done before. They have a solid route and the terrain looks easier for them to negotiate. If you want a more detailed approach for this stage, I recommend this one

With these representations and meanings in mind we explored that second paragraph in more detail:

But despite all that experience, she has still managed to run in the wrong lane. 

Verb phrase aside, they discussed the sentence opening with the coordinating conjunction functioning as the opening of the adverbial, something I’m sure would have led to much prescriptivist moaning, if they happened upon the Metro that morning on their commute. Why make this deliberate “error”? Well it must be to emphasise that what follows is bigger than all of those achievements just listed. This ramps up the tone of anger, sarcasm, humour and does a great job of reducing this successful athlete to the status of either ‘silly girl’ or ‘evil witch’ or both. We re-wrote this sentence in a variety of ways and decided the fronted adverbial was loaded with meaning, which supported what they had already said about the representations. Then there’s the obvious graphology of the capitalisation to anchor this. 

The ‘Why’

If in reading this so far you have wondered where the PAF (purpose/audience/form) or GCAP (genre/context/audience/purpose) as I teach, comes in. Well it’s here. I call these the macro concepts of linguistic analysis. The micro elements come from the areas of the frameworks or language levels and should always be used to comment on the macro concepts. 

We now make decisions about these macro concepts and the impact they have had in the writing of the text. Did Will Giles set out to destroy this athlete because she is a woman or is this an unfortunate consequence of something else from GCAP? Starting with the macro concept of Context of production, we looked at the date (2015), and the patterns of language which seemed to focus on British athletics and came up with the idea that there may have been a renewed interest in the sport in this country as a result of the 2012 Olympics. This focus on nationalism and tribal loyalties to Team GB goes some way to underpinning what The Metro might have been trying to do in this article through these representations. They have perhaps tried to position us against this Jamaican athlete to drum up tribal support for our team, but have used conventional negative representations of women to do it.  We also discussed the impact of The Metro and its tabloid style in the informal register adopted in our example. On the part of the producer, it may only be a funny (not funny) story for someone to read in 5 mins on the bus (Audience+context), but as we know, context of reception is everything and for a young woman aspiring to be an athlete this could have a far reaching impact. 

This layering of meaning according to GCAP is going to unlock a variety of interpretations of features and patterns that will allow the students to score highly in AO3. As with subject terminology for AO1, points about genre, context, audience and purpose are only as valuable as the argument you pin them to.  

So just because we come to the macro concepts of GCAP last in this strategy does not make it an afterthought. Quite the opposite in fact. An understanding of the construction of a given text from the perspective of GCAP is part of the foundation to understanding the representations in the first place. But rather than taking the approach of, ‘this is a tabloid newspaper article therefore it will represent x as y’, I much prefer, ‘x is represented as y, possibly because this is a tabloid newspaper article but it may be more to do with z.’

I think that the macro concepts should be something outlined and discussed in introductions as part of the foundation on which the students can build. As long as they’re tied to meanings and representations and contribute to the direction of travel. So putting all of the above together a successful intro to a Question 1, with this text as a basis, may look like:

In Text A, The Metro and writer Will Giles, offer a stereotypically negative representation of women, through Veronica Campbell Brown, as a means of generating national support for British Athletics in the wake of the 2012 Olympics. At various points Campbell Brown is represented as foolish and dull-witted, someone undeserving of her previous achievements and at worst, a dishonest cheat. Giles adopts a classically tabloid style to create these meanings, potentially for click-bait in an online format or to entertain a tribal sports fan on their daily commute. 

This is slightly wordy, but you get the picture. This intro condenses everything into one paragraph, which covers three strands of representation and their link to audience, genre and two contextual factors. 

Hopefully this has given you some ideas about how to approach the Paper One mountain with students, particularly mixed ability students. Well done for reaching the summit! 


Teacher blogs: a quick list

Back in the mists of time, I started this blog for my students at St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College in south London (hence why it's still got SFX in its URL) to support what we were doing in class for A level English Language. I posted links to news stories about language and short activities linked to what we did in class and we used the blog as a way of keeping up to date with what was being discussed in our subject. I kept the blog going when I left SFX to go and work at UCL on the Teaching Grammar in Schools project and then back to teaching again in Essex and working at the English and Media Centre. 

The blog started in the days before Twitter appeared, so since then, a lot of the short links to news stories have appeared there on the EngLangBlog account instead and the posts here have become a bit more sporadic but also a bit longer and with different audiences in mind. Many of them are still aimed at students but a few of the newer ones are now aimed at teachers too. So, if you're new to teaching A level English Language - or just interested in what other teachers do - you might find a few of those teacher blogs handy to have in one place. Not all of them were necessarily aimed at teachers to start with, so if you're a student you might find them handy too. 

Anyway, here are a few to get you started:

Paper 1

https://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2021/04/many-ways-to-climb-mountain.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2021/04/rules-regulations-paper-1-exam-style.html 

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2021/03/finding-meaning-in-meaning-and.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2021/03/paper-one-section-trying-something-else.html


Paper 2

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2021/04/paper-2-question-3-slaying-beast.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2021/03/paper-2-section-marrying-ao1-and-ao2-in.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2020/12/thinking-big-planning-and-structuring.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2020/11/guiding-reader-essays-for-paper-2.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2020/11/planning-and-writing-paper-2-essays.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2020/03/paper-2-section-b-resources.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2019/01/when-dan-asked-what-he-should-post.html

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2019/01/lists-concepts-different-ideas-thinking.html


NEA

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2020/09/using-lexis-podcast-to-inspire-language.html

https://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2021/04/putting-f-in-nea-making-language.html

Friday, April 02, 2021

Rules & Regulations: Paper 1 exam-style question

If you're a teacher and you've exhausted all the previous papers from AQA and are yourself just a bit exhausted after the... stuff... that's been happening over the last year, I thought I'd try to offer a few possible exam-style questions here. I won't claim any great originality for these as they have all appeared in some form or other in different places - either in textbooks or resources I've worked on - but some of them are in a slightly new form, so they might prove useful. 

Anyway, here's a possible pair of Paper 1 texts for Questions 1-3, based on school rules. Both of these texts originally appeared in a Workbook I did for the old AQA B spec which is now long out of print. I've also done a mark scheme for this which you can find here.


Paper 2 Question 3 – Slaying the Beast

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?


 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Paper 2 Section A: marrying AO1 and AO2 in an 'evaluate' question for language change

In this new guest blog, Donal Hale takes a look at how he and his students deal with both the content and linguistic register needed for good 'Evaluate the idea...' answers in Paper 2 Section A. Donal is Assistant Subject Leader i/c KS5 English at Huntington School, York and can be found on Twitter here.

One of the issues that many students appear to face with the ‘evaluate the idea that’ question is: how do you ensure students still develop an argument, and sound like a linguist as they do so, when evaluating a viewpoint of language change, for instance? Especially without a data set to draw from (like in Child Language Development). Whilst the primary use of AO1 is to assess the structure, fluency and shape of the argument in this section of the exam, rather than analysing data, we do need to also ensure students are using subject/topic-appropriate vocabulary as part of this linguistic register to create a more convincing argument.

Although the majority of marks for this question (20/30) are for AO2, AO1, like much to the AQA Language specification is the bedrock to any decent evaluation of language study. So, how can we support students in a happy marriage of AO1 and AO2?

Perhaps a specific example might be useful to illustrate some hints and tips, so I will use the following question as the basis of my approaches to this section of the exam:

Evaluate the idea that language is decaying slowly.


Keeping evaluation at the forefront of all ideas

My first tip, which albeit may appear to be a very simple one, is to evaluate the proposed viewpoint very concisely, in a single sentence, before students zoom off and bring in the concepts and references (AO2) for their line of argument – in essence, ensuring they guide the reader in their development of an argument for AO1. For the question above, I may offer the following as an example of how they do this and ask them to reflect on how this aligns with their own views:

I maintain that language change is a neutral process, rather than a process of slow decay, that neither indicates evolution or deterioration. 

We then spend time unpicking what argument is being put forward here, and shaping their own argument around this (whether they agree or disagree!).

The next step concerns exemplification of this key line of argument i.e. what supporting evidence will we use to “prove” these ideas. To do this, I might offer some support to students’ thinking in the form of frontloading the ‘indicative content’ might be useful for this question, to act as a springboard for them to judiciously select what knowledge of language study can be drawn into this question. For example:

Students are likely to:

conceptualise nature and causes of language change as a process

explore views of language change (e.g. decay metaphors, evolution views, progress, functional theory etc) using specific examples

evaluate and challenge descriptivist stances

evaluate and challenge prescriptivist and decay views 

Students use this to then explore their class notes, and select what is most relevant in supporting them to answer this question – this, in essence, formulates their planning of their responses.

The missing bits: linguistic register

When I ask students to feedback their ideas based on what we have planned so far, it is always AO2 focused and centred on concepts and references that help shape of the debate, and it is rare that students support these ideas of, let’s say Aitchison’s ‘crumbling castle’ metaphor, with what we might term a linguistic register to reinforce their argument. This is fine, for now, I say, before I present this introduction that expands upon our singular sentence evaluation from earlier (which I underline below):

The English language is an entity that is continuously changing, and the notion that this process is one of decay is not new to discussions among linguists. The use of language can be an emotive issue, and those harbouring prescriptivist attitudes often attribute ‘language decay’ to societal changes, such as the behaviour of the younger generation and technology. Aitchison (1996) has categorised these prescriptivist views into three categories: the damp spoon syndrome, the crumbling castle view, and the infectious disease assumption. The crumbling castle view resonates most closely with the idea that language is decaying slowly, comparing English to a beautiful old building that is collapsing. Conversely, descriptivists may argue that language is evolving, and that changes only enrich it. However compelling either argument may seem, I maintain that language change is a neutral process, rather than a process of slow decay, that neither indicates evolution or deterioration. 

Students, broadly, are happy with this, and confident, until I ask the question:

How do we develop this argument cogently and still maintain a linguistic register?

Errrrr…

A happy marriage

I use my own metaphor to introduce a model paragraph regarding a ‘marriage’ of AO1 and AO2 to signpost to the students that they are not separate entities in evaluative questions, nor do you need a data set to develop a linguistic register (AO1) when shaping a critical debate using theories (AO2).

I use this model for this question, which I explain will be a main body paragraph within the whole essay response:

Moreover, a change that is occurring within the vocabulary of the English language is the use of portmanteau. For example, the blending of the proper noun ‘Britain’ and the simple present tense verb ‘exit’ forms the term ‘Brexit’, which expresses the idea of Britain exiting from the EU. This term has emerged as a neologism in recent years, after first being coined by Peter Wilding in a blog post (2012). The crumbling castle view dictates that portmanteaus indicate laziness, as they shorten a concept to make it easier to say. However, it has been suggested by linguists that ‘Brexit’ was central to ensuring the success of the Leave Campaign in the 2016 referendum; in this way, the portmanteau can be regarded as a powerful tool that helped to shape decisions of society. This concept is supported by Halliday’s Functional Theory (1975), which states that language changes to meet the needs of its users. The blend ‘Brexit’ was used by the Leave campaign as a psycholinguistic technique to attract support from voters, showing how it has functioned to meet the needs of the Leave campaign. Therefore, language change can be seen as catalyst of social change, rather than a sign of languor. 

AO1

AO2

We unpick this model and consider not merely what aspects of linguistic register the paragraph covers, but more importantly, how it connects and reinforces the AO2 ideas. Students pick out the moments they feel this occurs and we examine the relationship in greater detail. This helps sharpen their focus ensuring the fluency of their argument is inextricably linked to a linguistic register, rather than examining ideas as a psychologist or sociologist might do.

As you would expect, students then use the model as a style model to create their own paragraph that marries these two elements effectively. Before they submit this for feedback, I ask them to underline where the relationship occurs in their writing, and I focus my feedback on how happy the marriage is! 

Note: feel free to use your own metaphors for this.

Whilst deceptively simple, some might say, I have always found this highly effective. Indeed, as teachers this is fundamentally how we ensure learning takes place – making complex cognitive process seem simple and manageable to allow students to write essays with success.


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Finding the ‘Meaning’ in Meanings and Representations!

In this second guest blog of the week, Mr McVeigh takes a look at how he approaches Paper 1 Questions 1 & 2 with his students. 

As a Linguistics graduate, I loved the part of my studies where you started to acknowledge language around us. I could no longer sit at a train station people watching. I was consumed by the way that words encapsulate our everyday lives, connect with us on so many levels and shape our thoughts and attitudes.

To me, Meanings and Representations is the aspect of A Level English Language that helps students to see the power of words; the careful construction of texts and the ability to influence society.

Within this short blog post, I am going to outline some of the approaches to single text analysis of the construction of Meanings and Representations that I have found useful over the past few years.

When I first begin teaching Meanings and Representations, towards the start of their A Level journey, I try to encourage students to reflect on the construction of texts. Simply by making judgements on the way that a range of different texts impact and influence the students, we start to explore the connection between our attitudes towards a text and the language used to convey that.

The main aspect of the single text question is to understand what is meant by Meanings and Representations. I define this as; what is demonstrated or highlighted from a text (Representations) and what can be inferred from the text/ what that text wants you to do (Meanings). Introducing this terminology is essential as I ask students to ensure they use both words within their written responses to clearly demonstrate to an examiner that they are reflecting the assessment expectations.

Students then need to understand language frameworks and levels. This aspect of Meanings and Representations is the most complex aspect of this question: students often feel overwhelmed with the precision of terminology required to reach the top band in their answers. To begin to introduce language levels, I tend to start by setting students a SATS test. This gives them an understanding of some of the expectations needed when analysing texts and also gives me an indication of support needed. 

Graphology, as a language level, tends to be something that students fall back on as a support. Although, I stress its importance, I encourage students to apply more grammatical and pragmatic comments to their essays to try to show a greater control over their analysis. Recently, I taught a lesson on clause types. We spent the whole lesson trying to familiarise ourselves with the way that different clause types are used within journalism. I can’t say we all had fallen in love with grammar at the end of the 60 minutes but it certainly has helped to see an increase in grammatical points being expressed in writing.

Once students have grasped language level analysis (this is by no means something that happens overnight!) I begin to teach the construction of analytical paragraphs. Often, I have to do a layered approach to language levels, building confidence throughout the units we study in Year 12, connecting meanings and representations-style texts to language discourses.

Prior to annotation and beginning the writing process, I ask students to contextualise the text by identifying the purpose, audience and form of a text (PAF). I then ask students to have this as their introduction to a Meanings and Representations question. This helps to strengthen the overall structure of writing.

My approach to Question One and Two for Meanings and Representations has been refined over the past few years of teaching. I like students to identify at least three representations. I normally say that the author is always represented within a text so that is always a good starting point. I then say to focus on layers within the issue being discussed in the text. E.g. if the text talks about the representation of women in an old advert you may talk about both how women are represented and how men are represented with strong contextual connections and comments.

To clearly demonstrate an understanding of representations, I ask my students to begin each paragraph with “the representation of ‘x’” and apply language levels to that representation. Originally, I used to ask students to take a language level per paragraph but felt that, by fronting representations, students had a tighter control over their overall structure and were able to be more precise with their language level analysis. 

I also encourage students to apply a range of language levels throughout. As mentioned previously, I place emphasis on inclusions of grammatical and pragmatic references but also encourage lexis and semantics for students who may not feel as confident applying more grammatical terms.

Having applied language levels to support the representation, students need to mention audience positioning. This is where they can connect the representation to the meaning. I ask students through questioning the following questions: “How does the writer position a reader to connect with this representation?” and “What meaning do you think they are conveying?”. This then builds the deeper analytical points needed to hit the top band answers. Audience positioning is also something that is frequently written in the AQA mark scheme so I try to encourage this phrasing being written alongside representations and meanings.

The last component of the paragraphs needed is to contextualise their exploration and connect back to the PAF stated previously. When exploring the older text, students can reflect on society at the time, similarly with the more modern texts, students can reflect on more pragmatic viewpoints that help to justify the meanings established.

Now that I am in my fifth year of teaching A Level English Language, I feel confident in this structure. My students have found the methods logical and apply these to essays and show a willingness to apply more complex linguistic features. I only hope that the next time they are sat at a train station, they too can no longer people watch!

If you wish to find out anymore from this strategy, please do have a look at the Teacher Guidance Pack shared on my Twitter account which provides an example paragraph to support.


Monday, March 22, 2021

Paper One: Section A - Trying Something Else

This is the first of a few guest blogs coming up this week, so thank you to all those teachers and linguists who have contributed their ideas and time. This one is by Neil Hutchinson, a teacher at Kirkbie Kendal School in the Lake District (on Twitter as @Hutchinsonnet). Thanks Neil!

In what has been a surreal and tumultuous ‘Endgame’ lead up to exam preparation with Year 13, like most schools across the country we are having to find our own way to assess our students in the face of cancelled exams. As a result of this we decided to make Paper One an integral part of this, as it does seem the bread and butter of English Language: the analysis of language and structure in unseen written texts has been something these kids have been working towards all of their lives in our subject. 

It is so important then that we constantly revise our practice to help them practise this skill. Twitter has a knack of placing you in the middle of a number of converging narratives when it comes to resources. Think of a shared universe of linguistic superheroes teaming up in one megablockbuster. So at the same time Dan posted this thread containing an article about an assault on a woman “on a path” (we’ll come to that later), another fantastic member of the linguistic twitter Avengers, Mr Crawford, whose superhero moniker is @MrCrawford9, posted this excellent entry on his own blog about a method of analysis he calls “Try Something Else”. 

I shamelessly adapted Mr Crawford’s idea in combination with the article posted by Dan, and so, like a low rent linguistic Thor (let’s face it I’m more like Falcon hanging on the cape tails of the enhanced) I am answering Dan’s call to assemble and sharing the outcome of this combination of ideas. 

I do encourage you to read Mr Crawford’s blog for a more detailed breakdown of the method but in short, I found that if you have students who want for a way in to the analysis of lexis and grammar (particularly grammar) in a given text, this works perfectly. If you have students who struggle to move beyond the obvious in terms of audience positioning, representation i.e. pre-modification and specific adjective choices writer’s make, this works perfectly. What Mr Crawford advocates is taking what, on the surface, seems a fairly innocuous sentence and making changes to it in order to draw attention to what was there in the first place. For example:

The text was taken from The Guardian, and was about the writer’s attempts to overcome her addiction to Diet Coke. I asked them to focus their analysis on the grammatical features of the text. We focused on the text’s sub-heading (known as a 'standfirst' in the media), which read:

 “I have been obsessed with the sugar-free soda since I was four, spending £500 a year on up to seven cans a day. This is what happened when I tried to quit.”

The students said that they had been able to identify grammatical features, including the use of present perfect tense, and adverbial and non-finite clauses, but that they did not know what to say about the text’s use of these features.

So, I asked the students to try something else. We swapped one of the words in the sub-heading:

“I had been obsessed...”

Now, instead of present perfect tense, we were looking at past perfect tense.

By focusing on the altered meanings, the student’s are now well placed to consider the original in a way which they may not have seen first time round. Aside from the advantages of this approach, I found it was also an excellent way to revise subject terminology, spot linguistic and thematic patterns and crucially to write a lot about a little - all essential AO1 goodness. 

So what I did was take the original headline in the article:

Teenage girl headbutts man after being grabbed on path

Not innocuous by any means, I know. In fact it was the justifiable criticism posted in response to this headline that makes this an essential piece of journalism for practising analysing representations. 

The first thing I had the students do was split their page into four quarters, putting this piece of text in the centre of the crosshairs. I then proposed the students re-write the headline in four different ways. At this juncture you can suggest they focus on using language to alter the representations or simply leave it as vague as “change the headline”. I did suggest they have a go at changing the grammar in at least one of their examples, again to move away from simply looking at lexical choices. 

 

Next I simply put some of their examples on the interactive whiteboard and modelled annotating and analysing. 

One example of a change was:
Man tries to grab teenage girl on path, receives headbutt

The first strikingly salient point in this student’s example (thanks Millie!) was the overall grammatical structure carrying a very “online” tone. The omission of a final coordinating conjunction in place of a comma followed by a final verb (receives) and indirect object (headbutt) is something we’re used to seeing pop up on our phones. But instead of dwelling on this we focused more on agency in this construction. The students suggested that in the first clause, the fact that the man is the agent of the verb phrase shifted the story to being about his crime and represented him as the wrong-doer. This formed a pattern with that second clause as “receives headbutt” almost removed the teenage girl as the subject and agent of the headbutt through the passive construction. The student in question said definitively she didn’t think the girl had done anything wrong and therefore wanted to suggest this in the headline. At this point we were able to go straight back to the original and looked more specifically at the agency. The students suggested that “Teenage girl headbutts man”, placing her as the agent seemed to represent her as the criminal in the story. And coupled with the violent nature of the verb “headbutt” this painted a very ugly picture of a young woman who had been attacked. Further to this, they similarly went straight to the second subordinate clause, like they did in the changed example, and suggested that “after being grabbed” similarly removed him as an agent in this assault, once again through its passive nature.

I mentioned pattern spotting was an area we wanted to revise and this method unlocked this perfectly. We went next to terms of address. Sticking with the changed example I asked why they stuck with “teenage girl” as the original did. The rest of the class suggested that in the changed headline the pre-modification of the noun with the adjective “teenage” in the changed headline represents her as brave and courageous in the face of the man’s assault. Indeed the juxtaposition between “teenage girl” and “man” demonstrates an unpleasant imbalance of power again representing him as an older criminal and she as a child victim. However, because the original seemed to offer a polar opposite set of representations, this pattern didn’t hold up in the original. Instead because the girl was being held up as the instigator of the incident by the BBC, “teenage” carrying now the socially negative connotations of “chav” or “delinquent”. This was a gift in revising pinning our analyses down to audience pragmatic awareness. They even paired these negative connotations with the traditional newspaper headline format (as opposed to the online style in the changed version) and suggested the target audience would be your older, more conservative reader of BBC news stories, who may hold more negative views about women. All agreed the BBC had a wide ocean of fans, so they let the linguistic construction of the headline guide them as to who, in that vast sea, would be drawn to the line cast by this headline. Going back to terms of address they were also able to suggest that the noun “man” in the original did not suggest an imbalance of power, as in the changed version, but instead through its lack of modification and dispassionate, bland and unemotive tone pointed towards his innocence rather than guilt. 



I think this was one of the more illuminating discussions in the lesson. The fact that the same set of lexemes can have polar opposite connotations depending on their position in a sentence and crucially, their presentation through the prism of contextual factors is AO1 and AO3 gold. 

Want more? Well let’s turn our attention to the verb phrase the student added. “tries to grab” rather than well...his possible role in her being “grabbed” in the original threw up some interesting discussion. Many said it makes the headline almost funny. I asked them if that would be true if it simply said “man tries to grab teenage girl”. They all agreed no. We go back to the pattern of the online tone that comes about with the inclusion of the last clause, “receives headbutt”. They suggested that because the “tries to” is there it makes him seem incompetent and someone who bit off way more than he could chew. Again emphasising her strength, her bravery. Celebrating her as a hero, not a victim. Placing it at the beginning gives the reader permission to laugh at this incident before we even find out about the headbutting, which arrives with a clunk at the end like the punchline to a very funny joke. How online in its patterning! These ideas are implied in the original. The story hasn’t changed. He tried to grab a girl, didn’t succeed and got his comeuppance. The class were actually horrified that the BBC didn’t have the nouse to take the same angle. 

So why didn't they? Well they decided, because it is 2021. And many still believe uppity women are perhaps getting a little ahead of themselves in calling for change. Remember contextually this story appeared in the same week as vigils were to be held in opposition to violence against women as a result of the Sarah Everard kidnap and murder. And we all saw how the status quo reacted there. Instead of seizing upon that and using this story as an opportunity to chime in with the chorus of women who have decided to stand up against injustice, the writer of this article instead simply replicated a thematic pattern when representing women: that they are to blame for their own abuse at the hands of men. Remember that’s men. Not “attacker”, a noun the BBC could have used. 

Finally in this changed headline, the student kept “on path”. Exploring this prepositional phrase in close detail revealed that both headlines seemed to highlight that these incidents of violence were occuring in open spaces, in public. Typical genre fair in newspapers is to feed into moral panics. The key difference being in my forward thinking student’s headline the message is clearly ‘women, watch out for men’ whereas the BBC seemed to be saying ‘men, watch out for teenage girls’. 

This wasn’t the end of the lesson. In fact this wasn’t the only headline we looked at. We then explored a couple more, constantly going back to the original and making informed judgements about the language used to create meanings and representations. 

The irony is if you click that link in the article now, the headline you actually get is:

Teenage girl fights off man who grabbed her on canal path

The next part of my lesson was focused on analysing what the BBC had changed it to and why. How they were now positioning us to feel about the girl (removed “teenage” eh? Hmm) and how they were positioning themselves as a voice in this debate. 

The first thing they noticed? The subordinate clause has been changed to a relative clause. Now the BBC were laying the blame squarely at his feet and coupled with the more politically motivated “fights off” as opposed to the violent “headbutts” (I know some still have issues with “fights” but that is a debate for a sequel perhaps), seemed to be reading the same script as the countless women protesting for the basic human right to walk down a canal path without the threat of being assaulted. The linguists won. Would my students have noticed a relative clause first time round? Honestly, I doubt they would have. Thank you Dan and thank you Mr Crawford. I encourage you all to try something else. 

Putting the F in NEA: making language investigations work

The latest guest blog comes from David Chew, a teacher in the East Midlands. Here he looks at how he approaches the NEA language investigati...