Thursday, April 07, 2011

ENGA3: some tips for success (part two)

Here's the second instalment of a series of posts designed to help you cope with the A2 exam in June (June 24th to be precise). Last time we looked at the Assessment Objectives on the paper and some ideas about approaches to AO2, and this time we'll have a fairly quick look at how to deal with AO3.

What is AO3? Well, on the mark scheme for ENGA3 it's described as follows:  "Analyse and evaluate the influence of contextual factors on the production and reception of spoken and written language". That's quite broad, so what are examiners really looking for when they award AO3 marks?

Looking in a bit more detail at the mark scheme, we can see the following descriptors in the top 2 bands (10-12 and 13-15):

  • Demonstrates analytical grasp of how language works across different levels.
  • Places analysis in wider contexts.
  • Shows perceptive/conceptualised/illuminating/ open-minded approach.
  • Uses interesting and judicious examples and quotation.
  • Evaluates appropriateness/success. 
  • Analyses language features, their explanatory context and their communicative impact confidently
  • Makes a subtle interpretation integrating various levels of description.
  • Explores texts' meaning, purpose and effects.
  • Makes evaluative comments which are well supported.
So, in essence, if AO1 is all about identifying and labelling significant language features, AO3 is more to do with working out what those language features do, what they mean and how they are used to represent what the writers/speakers think about their subject matter. Tied in with these is also a need to use appropriate examples to show where these things are happening, and also an awareness of the contexts the texts are from - whether they're spoken or written, produced for a specific or general audience, how the writers position themselves in relation to their audiences.

One of the big problems for lots of candidates taking this paper is that there is a lot to do and explaining the effects of language can be harder for some people than just labelling a noun or a simple sentence. But then again, that's why it's an A level paper that you take in your second year rather than as AS one: it's supposed to be a challenge.

A key point to remember is that for AO3 you must have some idea about what the subject matter is and how the writer feels about it. For example, in the paper from June 2010, there were two language change texts - one a diary entry from a mother in World War 2 and the other a blog entry on a journalists' website - but it was quite rare to find candidates saying very much about how each writer felt towards the events and experiences they were describing. Plenty of people were good on talking about how the technological advances of the Twenty First Century allow bloggers to communicate with a global audience and keep audiences up to date with world events, or how the diary used an elliptical style, but there wasn't much on the emotions of the mother writing the diary entry or the way in which war reporting was being represented as fun and fashionable in the blog.

So, how do you write about this sort of thing? First of all, I'd suggest that you get a clear idea of what it is the writers are actually talking about. Read the texts carefully. Lots of students last year took a quick look at the blog and assumed it was about war: it wasn't; it was about the lifestyles of foreign correspondents and war reporters and the ways in which journalists view themselves and the work they do.

Secondly, once you're clear on what's really being addressed, try to identify the angle/s the writer is taking. In text A we could see that the mother felt restricted and unable to say much of importance in her letters to her prisoner-of-war son: "For one thing, news is scarce when one cuts out the war, and one may not say anything to give any information to the enemy. So things have to be carefully sifted till there is very little said.".

In the second text, the rather relaxed attitude of the blogger is revealed by his casual use of military metaphors "And we won’t just be blasting you blog style. Oh no, no, no... We’re coming at you with each and every social media gun blazing.".

So, in these two texts you could have picked up some solid AO3 marks if you compared the anxious, concerned stance of text A's writer with the laid-back approach of blogger B.

For Language Discourses - the second section of the paper - AO3 is actually a bit easier, I think. Because the whole point of section B is to make you look at arguments about language, the texts chosen will have identifiable viewpoints. Often, these viewpoints will be very clear to see and you'll be able to find plenty of evidence to back up your interpretation of (say) writer D as a strong prescriptivist or writer E as a more open-minded descriptivist. But it's not always that easy...

The writers may not be particularly consistent - they may shift between positions on different issues. The paper in January 2011 featured two articles about texting, one by Will Self and one by Lynne Truss. Both were quite anti-textspeak but were actually quite positive about technology and text messaging itself. In last June's paper, several of John Humphrys' points could be identified as being very prescriptive, but others are harder to place.

In these cases, this is where the "open-minded" descriptor of AO3 comes in. If you want to do well on the paper, show that you're not just making a blanket judgement about a writer's views, but point to where you think you see certain views and even how those views might shift as the text goes on or contradict each other.

Another key thing to remember with AO3 is how the author is positioning him/herself in relation to the reader. Are they trying to speak as one of "us" (whoever we are are...) or as an expert with specialist knowledge to impart? In John Humphrys' attack on descriptivist linguists in the June 2010 paper, he was cunning in his approach of distancing himself from linguists with their fancy ideas and academic viewpoints, and keen to represent himself as a "normal" person who speaks "common sense". But remember, "common sense" is only that which appears normal at a given time and it can be plain wrong. A hundred years ago it was "common sense" to smoke cigarettes because they were good for your lungs, apparently. Fifty years ago it was "common sense" to not give Black Americans equal rights...

That's it for now on this particular post, but we'll pick up Language Discourses in another post soon and also have a look at how to integrate theory and research into answers on language change and variation.

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