Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dealing with AO2 on ENGA3

ENGA3 is assessed using three AOs - 1,2 & 3 - but AO2 is the chunkiest of these on this paper, accounting for 40 of the 90 marks available.

While you should still be using the close textual analysis skills you've been learning throughout the course (i.e. the linguistic labelling with clear examples for AO1 and the discussion of meanings, effects and representations created for AO3), it does mean that you need to think carefully about addressing the wider issues of change, variation and discourses that usually appear as part of the 2nd bullet point in each question.

What exactly is AO2, though? The AQA spec says "AO2: demonstrate critical understanding of a range of concepts and issues related to the construction and analysis of meanings in spoken and written language". I've generally taken the first part of this as the most important, namely the concepts and issues part.

In the top band for AO2, you can see what they're after each year from the non-italicised descriptors (i.e. the bits that remain the same each year, whatever the question set):

So, from the top 4 descriptors you can see that it's mostly about theories, research and ideas about language. It should also be clear from this that to hit the very top of the mark scheme, you need to do more than just regurgitate all the ideas you've learnt and revised.

To use a tortuous analogy from the world of rubbish, you need to do more than just wheel out your wheelie-bin of knowledge and dump it across the pavement for the examiner to sift through. You've got to be a bit more like the person who sifts through their recycling and splits it into various types - cardboard, paper, tin cans, bottles -  working out where things go before you put it all out for collection.

(Of course, this analogy breaks down the minute the council rubbish truck (aka the AQA examiner) comes along and just tips it all into one big pile before shipping it off to Albania to be dumped as landfill. But why let truth get in the way of a tedious attempt to make exam revision entertaining?)

So, evaluation of knowledge is critical:
  • weigh up ideas and look for competing explanations (e.g. reasons for people using non-standard English)
  • discuss contrasting models (Charles Hockett's bull's eye theory or Paul Postal's "non-functional stylistic change" versus Jean Aitchison's functional approach, as outlined in Chapter 8 of her Language Change: Progress or Decay*)
  • think about alternative explanations for the same linguistic features (Robin Lakoff argued that women use more tag questions because they're insecure; Janet Holmes found that women use more tags but only of a certain type, and that male tags tend to be the ones seeking reassurance)
  • be prepared to challenge ideas within the texts you are given in the exam (especially true in Section B where the texts are non-specialist and often caricature, or present simplistic versions of, linguistic arguments)
We'll come back to ENGA3 again before Monday's exam, but in the meantime it's probably a good idea to chase up a few references to various theories about language change (such as those described and evaluated in Aitchison's book) and variation.

*thanks to Sherif for raising the issue of AO2 evaluation and these ideas

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Language Discourses revision June 2013

For those of you revising for the ENGA3 exam next Monday, there have been some really good recent examples of articles that focus on attitudes to language use and abuse. A few of these have featured on the @EngLangBlog twitter feed, so thanks to the various teachers and students who alerted me to them.

Last year's ENGA3 paper featured a Section B question all about the Queen's English Society and their prescriptivist views about language. Some really on-the-ball students - readers of this blog, no doubt ;-) - managed to mention the demise of the QES as reported here in their answers to the June exam: exactly the kind of contemporary reference that always impresses examiners.

The recent articles that you might like to have a look at all take a look at how people feel about the ways in which language changes.

In this one, Steven Poole looks at how the internet has both spawned linguistic development and, for some at least, linguistic abominations such as LOL and bad spelling.

In this one, Simon Horobin, an English Professor at Oxford University, stirs up the readers of The Daily Telegraph into splenetic projectile-vomiting by telling an audience at the Hay-on-Wye Festival to chillax and STFU about apostrophes and spelling errors.

In this one, Michael Rundell of MacMillan Dictionaries has a dig at those who tell us we should strictly adhere to grammar "rules" just because they say so.

All of them provide plenty of food for thought and ammunition for the exam.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Gender revision

If you're revising ENGA3 Gender and Language Variation (like the students at the Convent of Jesus and Mary Language College in Harlesdon - hello!) then this interview with Deborah Cameron from Woman's Hour might come in handy.

Cameron is one of the key thinkers in this field and her Myth of Mars and Venus is an excellent book to study before the exam.

A quick look at other posts about her would also be handy and you can find a load of them here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The language of the workhouse

Val Gillies has written a great piece on the revival of a "Victorian lexicon" to describe class in the UK which echoes and magnifies some of the points brought up in this blog post from January about the polarised discourses surrounding people in work and out of work.

If you're looking for ENGA3 topics related to language and representation (for PC discourses) or are thinking ahead to ENGA2 topics for next year's coursework, it makes a good, if deeply depressing, read.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Language Development essay advice

You can find plenty of advice for the data question on ENGA1 in previous posts on this blog (like this and this), but if you want help on the essay, here goes...

With my examiner hat on (it's a bit like a wizard's hat, but less fashionable), I'd say that some of the things that examiners really want to see are as follows:
  • People who answer the question . This may seem blindingly obvious, but lots of students seem to write very generic answers which don't really address the question that's been set. So, avoid this by actually addressing and deconstructing the question right from the start. By this, I mean try to define what you think the question is really asking about and how you are going to deal with it. So, if the question says "Discuss the ways in which children develop their grammatical skills" you need to define what's meant by "grammatical skills" (i.e. syntax and morphology). 
  • Examples.  Give examples. It's all very well knowing plenty of the bigger picture, but you also need to bring in examples of what children (and sometimes adults) actually say. Have examples of your own ready. Failing that, use some from the data question.
  • Evaluation. Many questions are phrased with "How far..." or "To what extent...", so you should be able to see that it's not just a question of raising a flag for Chomsky, Piaget or Skinner, but to really evaluate how different theories might explain how children acquire language. And remember, just because conditioning seems to work in a way with politeness features, doesn't mean it works for everything else. Think about different elements of language and how - for example - social interaction theories are very good at explaining children's pragmatic development, but pretty poor at explaining the overgeneralisation of grammar rules.
  • A clear structure. You've got to write clearly and offer a logical and developed argument. Think through your answer, use a plan and paragraph it!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Do I not like 'like'

There's a pretty sketchy and rather vague piece from yesterday's Mail on Sunday here which uses work on a corpus of contemporary English to make some rather sweeping claims about declining standards of "correct grammar". Needless to say, it's full of prescriptivist claptrap.

One of their particular bugbears is the apparently increased appearance of "like" in colloquial talk. Fair enough, they might not (like) like, it, but to claim that "The average English child is likely to say the word 'like' five times as often as his or her grandparents..." is a bit silly. The word's use may well have increased over time - no one would deny the growth of like as a filler - but that's not the only use we put it to. As, the excellent Linguistics Research Digest at QMUL points out, many linguists have started looking at how like has developed as a quotative (as can be seen in the excellent Zack bike transcript on their site) and even as what are called "it's like enactments". So, not just a word we use to fill a gap, but a word that's like lots of others, doing, like, lots of different jobs and not getting much, like, love.

Sadly, for the Mail, they also seem a bit confused about what grammar actually is. Is the pronunciation of 'going to' as 'gonna' really grammar? And, if they are so upset about declining standards, why write a sentence using just an adverbial clause of time ("While Janet Street-Porter and footballer David Beckham are viewed as more 'demotic'."). Tut tut.

But even worse than this is the response from the readers of this paper. In a bid to obtain Mick from Scunthorpe's crown as King of Unintentional Irony for his mighty "keep talking like that and see were it get`s you, muppets no wonder some kids are as thick as to short planks" comment about an article on youth slang in The Sun, a guy called "Big Kev" gets very angry about Jamaican accents. While showing a disdain for the accurate use of his own language (sic):

The fake 'Jamaican' accent seems to be norm amongst comprehensive educated children in London. The cockney accent may of had it's day.
Big Kev , New Addington, 18/5/2013 13:59

Friday, May 17, 2013


It's unlikely that swearing will turn up as a topic on ENGA3, but it's an interesting area of language change to have a look at, all the same. The Boston Globe features a piece on the history of swearing here, while Four Thought also covered the same topic on Radio 4 this week.

Language Development data revision 1

Question 2 on the ENGA1 paper is your 10 mark data question, so here's an example with some extracts taken from Jean Aitchison's The Articulate Mammal.

Your job is to comment linguistically on 5 features of the child language below. All we need is an example and an accurate description (with a linguistic label) of what you've identified. If you add answers as comments, I'll give you a mark out of 10. If you're one of my students, the best answer will win an exciting prize from the Happy World of Haribo.

Child Aged 2
I singing
Blue shoes
He is asleep
He is a doctor

Child Aged 3
He wants an apple
I helped mummy
I am singing
He's a doctor
I'm singing

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poetic hustla upsets bearded prescriptivist

...because American signs are better than foreign ones
This link came from @aboutworldlangs and is good for some ENGA3 analysis. It's full of the usual moans and groans about language changing for the worse and uncultured morons ruining English, so should provide fertile ground for a bit of discourse analysis.

Which themes can you pick up from this? I can see a bit of damp spoon, a touch of crumbling castle, a whole heap of declinism and even a subtle waft of infectious disease.

ENGA3 topics so far

Thanks to Ellie, we now have a complete list of all the topics set for Sections A and B on ENGA3.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Watching badgers

The BBC site has a nice list of 'naughty' euphemisms today. Among them are several wittily ambiguous ways of describing drunkenness or extramarital trouser-dropping, including "Watching badgers" and "Hiking the Appalachian Trail".

They make a lot more sense if you have a look here. But no entry for "taking the dog for a walk" (and subsequent euphemism of "dogging") which Essex is so famous for?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Grammar and Gove

It probably comes as no surprise to regular readers that this blog is not a fan of Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, but his pronouncements last week were particularly grim, even by his own standards. And, while this blog is primarily concerned with A level English Language and not politics, we all know that arguments about the English language  - as Henry Hitchings, author of The Language Wars, puts it in his interview with emagazine - are often really about "people’s attitudes to – among other things – class, race, money and politics".

A quick look at today's BBC News Magazine article about attitudes to grammar and punctuation (a really nice intro to the topic if you're still looking for a way into this for the ENGA3 exam) helps illustrate this very point.

In a speech last week, Gove attacked a number of teaching approaches, teachers and journalists with an interest in education, while once again trying to fly the flag for "correct grammar". He also had a go at the Mr. Men. It's interesting that he referred to grammar in his speech, as Year Six pupils are doing their National Curriculum Tests this week , and a new grammar test has been introduced as part of this: something that Gove is keen to trumpet as a new, 'rigorous' approach to the teaching of English.

Now, you might expect an Education Secretary to have a decent grasp of what grammar is and how it can be taught, but Gove clearly doesn't. He certainly has some knowledge of it, but it's a very narrow, blinkered view, and one that doesn't really match the reality of how language is actually used.

In his speech , Gove states the following:

We are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of primary school.
But again the unions - and their allies - have objected to the suggestion that eleven year-olds should be able to spell words in Standard English, use full stops and commas with confidence or deploy adverbs appropriately.
One of the critics - Michael Rosen - attacked the proposed assessment in his column, “Letter from a Curious Parent”, in the Guardian.
Mr Rosen criticised the test on the basis that there was no such thing as correct grammar, but if you were perverse enough to want to ensure children knew how to use Standard English you could of course devise some form of assessment. However, such a test was only ever accessible to a minority because when a comparable test of grammatical knowledge existed in the past, only a minority of students passed that. So this new test was clearly a fiendish exercise to brand hundreds of thousands of children as failures so that they were reconciled to a future of supine wage slavery.
I could argue that nothing is more likely to condemn any young person to limited employment opportunities - or indeed joblessness - than illiteracy. I could point out that the newspaper Mr Rosen writes for has a style guide, a team of trained sub-editors and a revise sub-editor as well as a night editor and a backbench of assistant night editors to ensure that what appears under his - and everyone else's - byline is correct English. I could observe that it was a funny form of progressive thinking that held that the knowledge which elites have used to communicate with confidence and authority over the years - and which they pay to ensure their children can master - should be denied to the majority of children.
To Gove it appears simple: there is a correct form of English and that is what young people should be taught. End of.

Now, I don't actually think that Gove believes this; he's a clever man and is no doubt aware that language can change, that the "rules" we have often followed in the past haven't really been rules, as such, but preferences for particular styles. As Henry Hitchings points out so convincingly in The Language Wars and Robert Lane Greene so clearly in You Are What You Speak, these preferences are often rather misguided, relying on models of grammar (for example, Latin) that don't really match the flexibility and fluidity of English in its various forms. And clearly, grammar consists of different structures, some of which might be seen as non-standard when compared to formal, written English, when it is used in a spoken form or online.

No, I think Gove is aware of all this but chooses to present the argument in such a simplified, polarised and partial way because it suits his political agenda. He wants to help educate young people; the lefties and linguists don't care about that. It can't be a coincidence either that he's currently positioning himself as David Cameron's heir apparent to a sympathetic audience on the right-wing of the Conservative Party who are disaffected enough to vote UKIP.

As the other (better) Cameron (Deborah) explains in Verbal Hygiene (1995), grammar is a useful touchstone because it can be made " symbolize various things for its conservative proponents: a commitment to traditional values as a basis for social order, to ‘standards’ and ‘discipline’ in the classroom, to moral certainties rather than moral relativism and to cultural homogeneity rather than pluralism. Grammar was able to signify all these things because of its strong metaphorical association with order, tradition, authority, hierarchy and rules". Last week grammar and "dumbed-down" teaching, this week Europe, next week immigration?

If this is where Gove is coming from , then fair play to him. In studying Language Discourses for ENGA3, if we haven't discovered that different people construct their own discourses around language for their own reasons and with their own agendas, then we haven't really discovered very much at all. But what we've also learnt along the way is that we can analyse the arguments and language used to present them, to identify the positions being adopted and take them to task, if necessary. And what's more, we can use grammar to do that analysis.

Gove's arguments fit into a long line of prescriptivist thinking that we've seen characterised in Jean Aitchison's models from The Language Web, in Simon Heffer's belief that grammar is logic and in Lindsay Johns' assertions that "ghetto grammar" is destined to destroy the employment prospects of young people. These arguments can be quite convincing: who doesn't want young people to develop clear communication? Crazy people and communists, obviously. But is it really that simple?

In response to Gove's attack, Michael Rosen - one of those specifically singled out and named in Gove's speech - argued in a piece for Saturday's Guardian that Gove had got it wrong on grammar. While part of Rosen's objection is philosophical and stems from a socialist, humanist position, he's also a writer and educator, and not exactly a slouch when it comes to grammar.

 I can agree with some of Rosen's points on a gut level: "A problem that arises from talking about "correct grammar" is that it suggests that all other ways of speaking or writing are incorrect. This consigns the majority to being in error. Gove might be happy with that way of viewing humanity, but I'm not". However, I also need a bit more than gut feeling to go on.

A more convincing argument, to my mind at least, appears at the start of his article:
All language has grammar, otherwise it wouldn't be language. Grammar is what gives words sense. We produce language in strings of words, and the means by which they stick together and make sense is grammar. This applies to all language, all dialects – not one particular way of speaking and writing. So grammar is not a matter of being correct or not. It's a way of describing how all language works. All linguists believe there is grammar, but linguists do not all agree on grammatical terms or categories. Pretending that there is only one correct way to describe language is confusing and untrue.
This is it, in a nutshell. Grammar tests that judge answers as right or wrong, without giving proper consideration to context and usage, are not really going to help anyone develop their language skills. And if you don't want to take my word for this, then just ask Debra Myhill, one of the advisers to the government on the new test. When interviewed by the TES she said "The grammar test is totally decontextualised; it just asks children to do particular things, such as identifying a noun ... But 50 years of research has consistently shown that there is no relationship between doing that kind of work and what pupils do in their writing".

Grammar is a huge part of what we do in A level English Language, and as a grammar nerd, I also think it should be part of what we teach at Key Stages 2-4 as part of a wider English curriculum. But, unlike Gove, I don't agree that there's such a thing as a single "correct" grammar that we should teach, that there's a right or a wrong answer to every question. I think it's essential that we develop an understanding of how language works and tools to describe its use, its development and its variety, just not in the way that Michael Gove reductively claims that we can.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Analytical sentences

One thing that can really help you pick up marks in ENGA1 is developing a kind of template for your analysis that includes some kind of content for each of the three assessment objectives. It's a flexible template, rather than a straitjacket, so you don't need to include all four of these things every time, but it's certainly a good idea to hit at least three in every key sentence that you write:
  1. identification of a significant language feature (with appropriate labelling) 
  2. a clear example of this feature (ideally with the word, phrase or clause you’re specifically referring to underlined
  3. an explanation of the effect of the language choice/ representation of the subject matter created by it 
  4. a comment on how this is a feature of the mode of the text 
You might decide that  you don't want to talk about mode in every sentence of your answer, so it would make sense to maybe hit points 1-3 in most sentences, and then concentrate on 1,2 and 4 in other sections. As I said, it's not designed to restrict your writing or stifle creativity, but it's important to hit the three AOs as often as you can: AO1 Language labelling and identification; AO3i mode; AO3ii meaning.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Because you're worth it?

Just as spoken language can be transformed into the written mode, so the written mode can be made to resemble the spoken.

We recently looked in class at Tesco's attempts to address their customers in leaflets, as if they know them and really care for them (sounding, with their desperate "We are changing", like a repentant wife-beater, swearing it won't happen again). L'Oreal too have used the same technique - synthetic personalisation - for years. And now this tweet captures it slightly more rudely:

Writers - copy writers for advertising agencies, especially - know that by capturing a spoken tone in their written words they can present themselves to us in ways that position them as more normal and approachable. The combination of direct address, positive politeness and facework is designed to make us believe they are somehow like us. But they aren't, are they? They're faceless corporations spending big money on trying to relate to potential customers because they want our money.

Even some of the apparent good guys - Lush and Innocent - use synthetic personalisation to create a brand identity that chimes with what they hope will be an ethical consumer who feels that the folksy, colloquial, even slightly quirky tone is really addressing them as an individual.

Changing channel

Several recent ENGA1 Language and Mode questions have used texts that contain a mixture of spoken and written mode characteristics. Occasionally, students have complained that these aren't as easy to analyse. I think they pose their own challenges but can often allow you to explore some of the most interesting dimensions of mode and score really high marks across all the AOs.

While it might reassuring to open an exam paper on this topic and see a straightforward transcript and a straightforward extract of written language, the grey areas of mode open up areas such as how one mode has been made to look like another and why that might have been done.

For example, in this January's paper, there was an extract from an article about women's football that featured a written version of an interview carried out with three women who had gone to the Women's World Cup. While some aspects of their speech had been modified in the written version of the interview - non-fluency features edited out, punctuation added, prosodic features removed - there were still elements that remained from the spoken mode: fairly casual lexis ("It gives you a buzz"); some non-standard grammar ("Neither me or my mum had ever been outside Europe"); sentence punctuation such as splice-commas reflecting a more casual and free-flowing style ("We didn't ask anyone else to come along, it was a girly trip.").

Each of these examples can be identified and described linguistically (AO1), discussed from a mode perspective (spoken mode & aural channel changed to written mode & visual channel - AO3i) and then considered in terms of meaning (AO3ii), i.e. why it has been conveyed in this way and how it represents the women's views about the experience.

To test your own grasp of these kinds of texts, why not look for a few yourself? A good place to start might be the NME website, where the spoken words of various musicians (and Funeral For a Friend) are conveyed in a written form. A previous ENGA1 paper used the They Work For You website, which has written versions of MPs' spoken questions and responses in parliament. Just find a short extract and do a quick analysis of it, building an analytical paragraph up as you go along:
  • Identify and linguistically label the features of language you spot.
  • Link them to the mode characteristics of the text.
  • Provide a clear example.
  • Discuss the meaning of the extract and/or the representation it creates of its subject matter.

Foetal prepositions

Here's a quick link to some new research that backs up work by people like Fifer and Mehler (which we've looked at as part of Language Development for ENGA1) on children's early capacity for understanding and picking up language around them.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Is that a mode continuum in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Today's ENGA1 revision post (the first of a few in the next week) is a tip that can work for pretty much anyone, anywhere.

Here's one I made earlier...

The first thing is to turn out your pockets, find your phone, laptop, tablet (or similar electronic device) or even gather a bundle of things off your kitchen table (see picture above).
  • Have a look through the things you find: bus tickets, receipts, prescriptions, books, notes from school/college, text messages, tweets, emails, voice mail recordings.
  • Choose 5 or 6 of the "texts" that you find. Basically, you can treat any of these as "texts" of some sort.
  • Locate each item on a selection of dimensions from the mode continuum (see here). So, for example, you might choose the formal/informal, standard/non-standard and planned/unplanned dimensions.
  • Find a piece of language evidence from each text to back up your mode placement (e.g. "I can tell that this text is planned rather than spontaneous because of this complex sentence" or "I can tell that this text message uses some non-standard features because of this non-capitalised first person pronoun").
  • Find the right linguistic label from one of the top bands of AO1 to apply to the feature you've noted.
  • Try to write an analytical paragraph about each text, making reference to the purpose of each text, the mode characteristics and the language features.
  • Bob's your uncle.
I managed to find:
NUT magazine
Blurb of son's book
Letter from school
DPD missed delivery note
CD cover
Sainsbury's Active Kids token

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Revision posts for 2013 coming soon...

I'll be adding short (and, hopefully, sweet) revision posts in the next week or two for ENGA1 and ENGA3. One good way of keeping up to date with new stuff on here (and from other sites and blogs) is to follow @EngLangBlog on Twitter.

If you're looking for top tips on previous years' exams, then just click on the exams link in the labels list on the right hand side of the screen.

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...