Friday, December 18, 2020

Thinking big: planning and structuring Paper 2 essays

This is a guest post from Jon Palmer who is an English teacher and language geek based in Oxfordshire. Thanks a lot to Jon for writing this.

Having read a recent post on EngLangBlog, which discussed AQA Paper 2 Section A AO1 and advised on using sentence stems, connecting phrases and the like in order to help students grasp the idea of evaluation and construction of a guided argument, I made the mistake of responding with a brief mention of how I’ve been developing using AO2 subject knowledge to help plan responses to potential questions and arm my charges with the best possible chances upon entering the exam.  Dan responded with a suggestion that I write a contribution to the blog and - short story shorter - here we are.  Go easy on me: I’m new round these parts.

My planning sessions (always with Year 13) revolve around the class identifying the potential questions that could come up in the exam and explicitly discussing how we would respond to these in the exam.  This is always teacher-led (visualiser is key) and can take several weeks from start to finish.  Because we’re going over course material in order to create our plans, this also forms a part of our revision process, so I’ve found the best time to do this is the first half of summer term.  We should also note that the below is intended to be used in conjunction with, not in opposition to, Dan’s AO1 guidelines.  Using both together will help students understand the requirements and rigour of evaluation.

Considering this, it’s important to establish, at this point, that what we’re not doing here is creating a series of identical essays which pupils memorise and then regurgitate in exams.  If nothing else, having worked as an examiner and marked dozens of essays starting ‘language is not a static monolith’, I have too much respect for my fellow teachers than to make them sit through a whole centre of identical responses.  Moreover, it inevitably doesn’t work.  Exams aren’t designed for that, and neither are Year 13s.

Instead, what we do is try to crystallise the course into the Big Questions that we ask at A-Level Language study.  Identifying these helps us to recognise that, whilst there are many different areas that we study, the interconnectedness of language study and discourses means that there are overlaps, and, whilst questions can be rephrased and different vocabulary used, essentially we are often being commanded to perform the same tasks.  This’ll usually take 10-20 minutes of the first lesson (also useful to assess understanding, knowledge of the course and misconceptions) and will leave us with a list that might look something like this:

Evaluate the idea that…

-    language change is destructive/damaging…

-    language change is accelerating due to technology/social change/movement

-    language can/should be controlled

-    women and men speak differently

-    some accents are better than others

-    world English is a family

-    the language used to (self) represent social groups is significant

-    social groups affect language

That last one, I know, is broad.  But so far, on the A-Level at least, that’s about as specific as we’ve had in terms of Language Diversity outside of gender.  Although the possibility that a question like ‘Evaluate the idea that Occupation Register is anathema to civil discourse’ isn’t zero, I’m confident that, with the choice of questions, it is unlikely that pupils could ever be stung by the choice between two such ‘write what’s in my head’ essays that push them to answer based on knowledge of a specific and limited part of the course.  In general, we know that it’s the interaction between various elements that make language study so interesting, and we should encourage our classes to reflect this in their essays.

So, having done this, we move onto my planning method for arming each student with potential essay plans for their exams.

The idea is that we choose standard discourses that we can use as a planning tool for a generic essay template to cover each potential topic, with the explicit understanding that it will inevitably need tweaking on the day of the exam depending on the exact wording of the question.  As above, it isn’t a case of ‘learn an essay by heart’ but rather the creation of an adaptable revision resource that will pre-arm students with the basic building blocks for ensuring that their AO1 organisation is fully supported by an embedded AO2. It’s a modular system that means that we can insert the relevant paragraphs where we need them in order to create a guided, conceptual evaluative response.

Within the plan each paragraph needs to have the opportunity to explore the area in depth and evaluate, offering support or challenge from other theorists as appropriate.  It needs more than anyone would ever write in an exam so that the right choices can be made depending on the nature of the question.  Each reference to research or theory needs a variety of real-world examples that can be used depending on the argument – we don’t want to be dreaming these up in exams, we want them easily accessible in long term memory.

After coming up with our plans we then practise writing a series of paragraphs and essays using them, to practise how we could modify our approach depending on what’s expected by the question and what our thesis is. In the past few weeks, I’ve trialled using the AO1 techniques from the last EngLangBlog entry and have found that these two approaches to work together excellently. If you haven’t yet used a visualiser, I’d like to take a minute to sing their praises.  Writing an essay out in full, by hand, whilst providing a commentary on my thought processes to classes has been the single most effective change in my teaching in recent years.

Before I show you some examples, a word on introductions and conclusions.  I’ve found these can be some of the most difficult parts of the essay for students to engage with.  Essay structure isn’t really taught pre KS5 (in English at least) beyond a quick two sentence summary at the end, and maybe a signposting intro.  So, if they write introductions at all, they tend to be vague and task-focussed, maybe looking a bit like ‘There are lots of opinions about X.  I will look at these opinions in this essay and try to decide which are best’.  At best these are pointless, at worst they are obfuscating word salad that can prejudice examiners against anything that follows.  I explicitly teach the formation of thesis statements early in the course. These one or two sentence argument summaries mean that a student can front end their essay with a focussed argument from which the rest of their essay can proceed – helping to secure props for AO1 guidance.  So, for the questions posed above we may come up with a series of statements looking like this:

-    language change is destructive/damaging…

·   Despite negative attitudes toward language change, there is very little to suggest that there is anything negative about the process; the English Language is instead characterised by its diachronic history.

-    language change is accelerating due to technology/social change/movement

·   The changes made to our culture by technology, such as internet communications, easier global travel and the need for lingua francas within multi-lingual communities, do suggest that language change occurs at a faster rate than it did historically, when changes such as the Great Vowel Shift took place over centuries.

-    language can/should be controlled

·   Attempts to control language have, with a few notable exceptions, been unsuccessful, and resistance to these attempts themselves create new forms of language and discourse.

-    women and men speak differently

·   Any perceived differences in language between genders reflects on cultural expectations within society rather than any biological differences.

-    some accents are better than others

·   The nature of language means that it is in a state of constant change; any notion that some accents are more prestigious than others can, at best, only be temporary.

-    world English is a family

·   The collection of pidgins, creoles and koinés that make up World Englishes have far more in common with each other than differences and are better regarded as a family than individual languages.

-    the language used to (self) represent social groups is significant

·   Language use forms a huge part of personal and group identity, and the language used to represent those groups can have huge effects, both negative and positive, on their perception by others.

-    social groups affect language

·   Sociolects are evident in many different social groups, such as socio-economic class, occupation and age, and it is clear that a person’s language use, and by extension their idiolect, can be significantly affected by these.

Once we have a thesis statement, the formation of a coherent introduction becomes much easier: state your intentions, give an overview of the subject in question and signpost your arguments for the rest of the essay. For my more able students I may encourage them to consider how a creative metaphor (again, nothing related to geology) can add cohesion to their essays, and, when fully considered in advance of the exams, can help them to start their responses running.  Successful pupils have generated sporting, literary, performance and masquerade metaphors to introduce their essays.

For conclusions I preach brevity.  Summarise the argument again, discuss some other ideas (if appropriate) and add a final thought.  A couple of sentences, four at the most. Much like this paragraph.

In the spirit of Rosenshine, I’ve provided a worked example for the first plan and reduced my input as I work through some of the questions above.  With some areas I’ve shown what sort of questions I may ask my classes while we write our plans.  These may prove to be more useful – I’ve rarely found any classes to have the same ideas as others – and helping them to individually formulate their ideas is far more useful and productive than prescription.


Language Change

The obvious structure here revolves around Aitchison’s metaphors.  A paragraph each focussing on the discourses that surround each metaphor and evaluating their success.  There are some debates over the usefulness of Aitchison, and a tendency by some weaker pupils to mistake her for a prescriptivist (no matter how many times they’re told…) so these can be planned as ‘attitudes to language change’ rather than framed within Aitchison’s ideas if necessary.  I believe Dan is looking at exploring this area in future, so watch this space.  In the plan below the sentence in parenthesise for each paragraph is the ‘safe’ option.


My plan may look something like – with potential examples in italics:

1 – Damp Spoon.  (Language change is due to laziness).

Support – prescriptivist viewpoints in general, existence of style manuals, people like Lynne Truss, the historical Grammarian movement, Mackinnon’s contrasts. Examples: droppin’ of consonants in speech, glottal stop, h dropping is ‘osptial’,

Challenge – Halliday’s Functional Theory, Lexical Gaps, Deutscher’s model of language change, Examples: Great Vowel Shift (current pronunciation not considered incorrect), rebracketing (‘an eke name’ became ‘a nickname’ whilst ‘a napron’ became ‘an apron’.


2- Crumbling Castle. (Things ain’t what they used to be).

Support – veneration of Shakespeare & Dickens et al, rise of taboo language and swearing (Dr Love’s work on the spoken corpus is useful here) John Humphrys, Goodman’s Informalisation Theory. Examples – can be useful to have a couple of hallowed phrases from literature here – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ (Shakespeare), ‘The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again’ (Dickens), increased use of ‘fuck’ between 1994-2014 as identified by Love.


Challenge – Milton’s Golden Age, Tide Metaphor. Examples: worth noting that Shakespeare himself is credited with inventing (or at least being the first to write) dozens of words and phrases into the language.  Differences between Chaucer (‘And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche’) or even earlier works (‘If ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot on littel quile’ – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) to demonstrate the changes even between 14th Century and Shakespeare’s 16th/17th. Paul McCartney wrote ‘take these broken wings and learn to fly’ long after any supposed Golden Age had passed.  Newer functions of swearing (again from Love)

3- Infectious Disease. (We pass on language change: we all know how diseases work these days…)

Support – Substratum Theory, Hockett’s Random Fluctuation, Chen’s S-Curve. Examples: Haitch, on tender hooks, slang, contractions.

Challenge- Wave Model, Postal’s Random Fluctuation. Examples: eponyms, anthimeria (changing functions of words) e.g. to google, to text)



Two choices here, you can choose 3 of Tannen’s contrasts or use a basic Deficit, Difference, Dominance plan.  I’d veer to the latter, but it may depend on your group.  Tannen’s contrasts run the risk of pushing conclusions toward a Mars/Venus dichotomy.  I prefer to work through the models in turn but ensure that the plan allows for clear evaluation of each one rather than just writing a potted history.


Attitudes to accent

Here I’d lead the conversation to identify what those attitudes are (as in the planning above with language change).  The conversation will help us to formulate our plan. I may ask questions such as:

What does dialect levelling suggest about attitudes to accent?

Why might convergence or divergence (Accommodation Theory) be something people feel are necessary?

What does Matched Guise research suggest about attitudes to accent?


Social Groups –

In which ways does a person’s occupation affect their language use? Is this permanent?

How does socio-economic class affect language use?  Do people take pride in how their sociolect reflects on their origins?

How does language change with age?  Do people change how they talk when they get older, is it a system of constant change, or is there some mixture between the two?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Guiding the reader: essays for Paper 2

Following on from the last post on essay writing for Paper 2, I thought I’d have a look in a bit more detail at the idea of ‘guiding the reader’ and what this means for essay planning, construction and execution for these questions on Change and Diversity. 

I don’t remember ever being taught how to write an essay in English. That might just be a symptom of my cognitive decline as I’m now over 50, but at least I’ll get a Covid vaccine jab before many of you reading this, so I suppose every cloud has a silver lining. Where was I? Oh yes, clouds… 

Having developed my own essay writing by osmosis over the years, when I came to teach English, I had to start from scratch and work out what essays are supposed to do and how they should be organised. Along the way, I realised there are lots of different types of essay and no one-size-fits-all approach. Plus, it also depends a fair bit on the ‘command words’ in the question. 

If you’re a super grammar sleuth, you’ll also realise that – grammatically speaking – the questions for Section A aren’t actually ‘questions’ at all: they’re commands. I wouldn’t advise refusing to ‘answer’ them, because you can see through the lies beneath the surface of the exam paper and the whole rotten system (you’ll get zero marks and referred to Prevent), but I would advise that you think carefully about the command word you’re given and what that means.

‘Evaluate’ is a word we looked at here and in the last post. How do you evaluate? You need to look at different arguments and evidence for and against the ‘idea’ in the question, weigh up the relative merits and come to some kind of conclusion. 

As I said in the last blog on this, I think it’s important to have a plan in mind (and probably on paper) before you start to write your essay, and part of that plan should be a clear roadmap of where your argument will take you. Writing an essay where it appears that you have just stumbled upon a recently understood idea about language is not a great way to approach this, so I think it’s often a good idea to flag up your main arguments quite early on and then guide your reader through those arguments towards an end point that you’ve already mapped out. 

So, what do we mean by ‘guiding the reader’? I think it can take different forms. 
  1. You can use the whole structure of the essay to take your reader through a number of ideas, directing them to the conclusion you’d like to offer. 
  2. You can use discourse markers to signpost your journey through the argument, indicating how one idea, theory or piece of evidence links to, or stands against, another idea. 
  3. You can use paragraphs to organise your different arguments and ideas, structuring them in ways that present arguments, examples and opinions – along with your own developing evaluation of the idea in the question – so that the reader can see how your thinking is evolving.
  4. You can use the opening and closing paragraphs to define, restate or perhaps even challenge the terms of the question; to make clear your understanding of the ‘idea’ in the question and present your overall argument. 

I’m not a believer in the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way to write an essay, and I’m not about to start pushing one approach here; I’ve set, marked and moderated so many essays over the years that I know there are many different ways to do well (and equally, quite a few ways to do badly). But let’s look at the mark scheme for these questions and think about what is likely to be rewarded. 

Because there is no data to analyse in these questions, the main descriptors of AO1 that we need to focus on are the second bullet points in each level. 

These are: 
  • Level 0: nothing written 
  • Level 1: present material with limited organisation 
  • Level 2: express ideas with organisation emerging 
  • Level 3: communicate with clear topics and paragraphs 
  • Level 4: develop a line of argument 
  • Level 5: guide the reader 

We can also look at the 2019 lead examiner’s report on these questions to see what was said about entries that year:

There’s quite a lot of help provided here and what it shows is that the AO1 and AO2 are quite closely linked in questions like this. The better your structure and the more coherent your organisation of an answer is, the more chance you have of dealing with the ideas and reaching the higher levels of AO2. I mean, you have to know stuff as well and have examples to use, so there is also that… 

It’s evident that the intro paragraph needs to be clear and effective if you’re going on to write an evaluative response and I’ve often told my students to use the intro to define their terms and show their understanding of what the question involves. It’s also important to actually spell out your key arguments early on, rather than leave them to the very end. The detail of your argument will come as the essay develops, but get your main points in here as that will allow you to prepare your reader for what’s to come. 

One clear point from much of the advice published in the examiner reports is that to get into levels 4 and 5 for AO2, you need to have an essay structure that allows you to look at different arguments. How can you do this? One idea might be to structure your answer so that (after your intro paragraph), you look at one argument in one paragraph and another, competing argument in the following paragraph.

That can work, I think, but what you would also need to do is make sure that you don’t leave the evaluation of those ideas until the very end of your essay. In other words, you might need to slot in an extra paragraph after these two paragraphs to weigh up those ideas and show that your argument is more than just a series of different points that you’ll tie up at the end. 

An approach that I think I prefer, but won’t be to everyone’s tastes, is where the evaluation of different ideas is done in each (slightly longer) paragraph. The benefit of this approach is that you can weigh up the different ideas as you go and show a developing argument taking shape. It also allows you to guide the reader in a way that shows where you are heading in your evaluation of the overall question and where these ideas might fit. 

To an extent, what you do will depend a bit on how comfortable you are about the question that’s been set, the knowledge you have at your disposal and the angle you’re going to take. What might this actually look like? Let’s look at some examples. I’ve trawled through three years’ worth of exemplar responses on e-AQA (you can find these yourself if you are a teacher and have an e-AQA log-in, by looking at teacher support materials and the feedback session from 2017 – 2019) for these questions and extracted what I thought were some interesting and potentially useful ways of writing effective paragraphs, using discourse markers and showing an evaluative and thoughtful approach to the idea in the question. 

If we do the simple stuff first, here are a few discourse markers and cohesive devices that worked well. Some are pretty obvious and others perhaps less so. Largely, they are adverbs and prepositional phrases deployed at the start of paragraphs to provide focus and link one paragraph to another. In a few cases, they are adverbs/adverbial clauses that are used in a kind of deictic sense to sequence events and ideas in relation to each other. 

  • Firstly 
  • Secondly 
  • Additionally 
  • Furthermore 
  • Overall 
  • Nevertheless 
  • However 
  • Again 
  • In conclusion 
  • To conclude 

  • For a long time, x was… 
  • Since the early days of x… 
  • If we consider x… 
  • When looking at x… 
  • While some have argued x… 
  • In many ways, x is… 

  • An argument that people make about x is… 
  • There is much debate over x… 
  • Another country with different attitudes towards x is… 

Turning to other ways of guiding the reader, a few that I thought worked particularly well are reproduced here (and in a few cases, slightly edited or tweaked). What we’re looking at here is not the AO2 content (that’s been stripped out) but the AO1 elements that help the writers of these essays structure an answer and guide the reader. 

Example 1 
This is quite a nice way to start an essay on language diversity. 

Attitudes towards non-Standard English are often very negative. While many people believe x, the linguistic evidence suggests that y is actually the case. As a result of this, it’s impossible to agree entirely with the [idea in the question]… 

What I like about this approach is that straight away there is some kind of challenge made to popular perceptions of language and you get a sense that, using linguistic evidence, this student will be offering some real insight. There’s also an implicit challenge to the terms of the question, suggesting that while the idea might be one that can be debated, it’s not quite that simple. 

Example 2 
These are actually three separate examples, from three separate answers. 

One way in which [the idea in the question] could be viewed as true is… 

When evaluating if [the idea in the question] is true, it is important to consider… 

When arguing against [the idea in the question], one key idea… 
On the other hand, it is important to consider… 

These might not look particularly striking, but they represent an issue in style that I think is quite important to think about in essays like this. They appear open-minded and tentative in their approach, and we get the impression that the student is considering different perspectives and their relative merits. It’s the start of an evaluative approach, I think, and a useful model to develop. 

Example 3 
These are simple but effective examples from two different essays. 

[Linguist A] describes [language feature] as x and it could be argued that… 
On the other hand, [Linguist B] describes it as y… 
One variety of language that can be explored is… 
However, a factor that needs to be considered is… 

While these aren’t earth-shatteringly original, they are effective ways of introducing different views. 

Example 4 
These are taken from two separate answers. 

For a long time, x was the case… However, in recent years, y has happened… As a result of this, z has been proposed… 

Many would claim that A is not the case any more… Instead they would argue that B is more likely and that [the idea in the question] is open to challenge… 

Both of these offer an evaluative template that can be developed as the essay goes on. I quite like the way that the first one uses a narrative overview to explain changes in thinking about linguistic issues and how positions have adapted as a result. And with the second example, there is also a sense that ideas have had to evolve. 

Example 5 

All of the above arguments might lead us to take a view that… 

This strikes me as quite a neat way of starting to evaluate ideas in a paragraph, with the added suggestion that we ‘might’ not want to follow the view we’re being led towards and might want to choose a different view. 

Example 6 

On the surface, it could be argued that… As stated however, this view only looks at the surface and it could be argued… 

This stands on its own merits, I think. I really like the feeling that the idea we’re being offered in the question is only a superficial one that can be finessed and explored with some real linguistic knowledge. It suggests we’re going to learn something from what follows. 

So, to conclude (and let’s be prescriptive here: don’t say ‘Conclusively…’ when you open your final paragraph), what have we got here? There’s a fair bit to unpick and think through and you might need to work out an approach that works best for you as an individual, but I hope there are enough ideas and examples here to get you started.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Planning and writing Paper 2 essays

Recent appeals for help and discussions on Twitter have prompted me to think a bit more about Paper 2 Section A essays and how they can be approached, so I’ve put together a few thoughts here. I can’t claim any great originality or insight but you might find a few of these things useful.

I’ve had a look back through older blogs for this specification and highlighted a few areas that you might want to look at alongside this one, so they are listed here:

What's the difference between discuss and evaluate? 

Understanding the links and connections between change and diversity

Topics, areas and overlapping on Paper 2

What to do with your knowledge for AO2

I think one of the first things to work out is what you are being expected to do for this part of the paper. You’ve got about 45 minutes to plan and write an essay on either Question 1 (Diversity) or Question 2 (Change) where there’s also a fairly good chance there will be overlap between the two topics areas (after all, diversity and change are intertwined). That’s not a huge amount of time, but it should be plenty to show what you know and – more importantly – to answer the question that’s been set.

You are being given an idea to evaluate. That means you’ll need to do more than just offload everything you know about everything to do with change or diversity; you’ll need to focus clearly on the idea you’re being presented with, assess its merit, discuss different positions, select the most helpful examples and evidence for those positions and come to a conclusion.

Unlike questions where there’s data (ie texts to analyse – Paper 1, Qs 1&2, Paper 2 Q3 - or data sets to discuss and link to an idea – Paper 1 Qs4 &5) the AO1 is mostly assigned to the structure and clarity of your essay, so it’s not about labelling and describing language, although you do need to use a ‘linguistic register’ in your answer. To my mind, that means subject specific terminology eg sociolect, dialect levelling, RP, descriptions of sounds and grammar features in your examples. You need to guide the reader and have a structure to do well with AO1.

Ideally, you’ll use your planning time to work out a roadmap for your answer and that will mean having a clear end point in mind. I don’t think it’s a good idea to just ramble through different ideas and then chance upon a conclusion; it’s really important to have a clear destination in mind and guide your reader through the arguments to get there. As you’re being asked to evaluate, you are being asked to decide for yourself – based on the linguistic knowledge you have and the evidence you produce – what you make of the idea. And yes, I think that involves offering an opinion. How else do you evaluate something?  You will need to make a judgement.

So, what will your roadmap look like? You’ll need to look at different ideas along the way (that’s what Level 4 of AO2 requires you to do), so that means thinking of the most appropriate arguments and examples to explore. One useful tip might be to think of examples that can be used to argue both sides of a debate and illustrate different perspectives on the idea being presented.

For example, in the 2019 question ‘Evaluate the idea that language variation has decreased over time’, you could consider the role that technology has played in language variation. On one side, it could be argued that technology has led to a huge upsurge in variation: groups of people – gamers, bird watchers, hackers, conspiracy theorists and music nerds - find new communities online, spend more time in those virtual communities and, as a result, their language diverges more from the norm. That’s an increase in language variation.

On the other hand, technology has also reduced variation by putting more of us in touch with each other than ever before and allowing us to converge in our language styles with people whose language styles might in the past have been very different. That’s a decrease in variation, but both of these have been brought about by technology.

You will need to do more than just discuss ideas broadly, so where will the language knowledge, the theory, the case studies and the examples come from?

Well, you could look at what Susie Dent talks about in her Modern Tribes book about the in-group language of different occupations and social groups to discuss the first point. You could bring in ideas from Lave and Wenger to discuss ‘Communities of Practice’ and you could explore the ideas of jargon and slang from linguists like Julie Coleman, Tony Thorne and many others. What about examples? Modern Tribes is jampacked with them and I’m sure you’ll have a few too, from your own work on language varieties.

And that’s just one aspect that you could explore. Language variation is a really broad area and you might decide that it would be interesting to look at gender variation changing over time. Were those stereotypes about male and female language ever true? If so, how have they changed as social roles have changed? What about the increased focus on non-binary and trans identities in recent years?

You could bring in age-related variation, dialect levelling, accent change and even – because the world is quite literally your oyster - world Englishes. So, as you can see, selecting the most useful material is a big part of doing well in an essay like this. And that will be different material depending on what you’ve been taught and what you’ve researched and studied yourself. Not everyone will answer the question in the same way and there will be loads of different ways of doing well.

In the next post, I’ll suggest a few ways of ‘guiding the reader’ and showing that you’re evaluating. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Using the Lexis podcast to inspire Language Investigations

Here's a thread I did on Twitter about how you might want to use the Lexis podcast to help with your NEA Language Investigations.

It's that time of year again when students are starting to work on NEA language investigations. We've covered some areas on @LexisPodcast that I think would be good for investigations, so here are a few ideas.

You’ll need to think carefully about how to formulate your own aims and research questions (IMO that’s more important than a title), where your data is going to come from and how you are going to analyse it, but these topics might appeal…

Back in episode 2, we looked at the language of & about protests. There’s been a summer of protest – BLM, ‘statue defenders’, anti-maskers, Extinction Rebellion, antifa facing down fascist militias – so plenty of data to explore.

You could look at the reporting of protests in the media, the language of the protesters themselves (Lisa looked at BLM placards and slogans in that episode), the representation of different sides, including the police.

In episodes 1 and 2, we talked about accents & accentism. More widely, there have been debates among teachers and educators about standard & non-standard English in schools. Why not look at the ways in which certain accents & dialects are represented?

That could be through news stories about varieties of English or by analysing the language used in accent reduction advertisements, YouTube channels or comments online. We interviewed Rob Drummond, Devyani Sharma and Ian Cushing about these topics.

Language policing and censorship have been issues we’ve come back to a few times. Whether it’s racially offensive terms or people choosing their own pronouns (and the backlash against that), language debates are always in the news.

The ways in which these are reported & commented on can make really good investigations. You could employ critical discourse approaches to explore how different arguments are put forward & how language itself is represented.

But also, you could look at how language changes over time. By selecting some texts from different time periods (social media messages, media texts, letters) you could explore the changing frequency of taboo terms and their alternatives.

Tony Thorne was our interviewee in episode 9 and we had a great chat with him about the language of the pandemic. You might have had enough of this by now – I know most of us have – but there’s masses of data out there to analyse…

How the pandemic has been represented over its lifespan, how key politicians and scientists have spoken about it to the public, how different social and ethnic groups have been scapegoated. I could go on, but I’ll just get angry & depressed.

But there’s so much you could look at around the framing of the whole issue, the slogans used, the reporting of the language even. Tony had some excellent stuff to say about covid vocabulary and it wasn’t as depressing as you might think!

In episode 7 we talked to Philip Seargeant about emojis. How are these used in different messaging and social media apps? Is there a notable difference between age groups? Who uses them more or less and for what ends?

Kelly Wright’s work on the representation of race and ethnicity in sports journalism sparked some interesting discussion in episode 6 and we spoke to her at about the same time as a PFA report on representation of footballers was published.

This is a fascinating area to investigate and there’s great scope for you to build your own mini-corpus and explore the language of representation here, whether it’s with a focus on the terms used to describe black athletes compared to white…

how women are represented compared to men, how Paralympians compare to able-bodied athletes… there’s a lot to think about. Gathering data, selecting a database for your own mini-corpus analysis, exploring key words & their meanings, can all be productive.

We focused on accent change in our Northern accents special in episode 8 and talked to Georgina Brown about new research about (maybe) new accents. So often, accents are linked to prestige and social expectations, so could this be a focus?

You could look at particular sounds, think about how they are used by different speakers in different social situations and think about their social meanings. Accent studies at A level can be trickier than others, but there’s scope for a good investigation if you think carefully.

In episodes 3, 4 and 10 we’ve talked a lot with Devyani Sharma, Shivonne Gates and Lucy Jones about language variation and identity. You could take any of the work they talked about – their own research or studies they’ve mentioned – as a useful starting point.

MLE, language performing different social identities and questions about how we change our language in different contexts can all lead to studies where you collect your own data and offer your own questions.

That’s enough to be going on with for now… If you have any other ideas, based on what we’ve done so far, let us know!

Monday, August 31, 2020

Intersections and explorations

One of the key messages from the feedback on Language Change and Diversity on Paper 2 over the last few years has been that students who understand the interconnected nature of the language topics* often have a better chance of hitting the higher levels of the AO2 mark scheme than those who see them in separate boxes. And this makes a lot of sense when you look at the kinds of questions being set and - more broadly - the nature of language and its users.

To paraphrase and oversimplify decades of sociolinguistic thinking, the first wave of work in the 60s and 70s tended to look at the language associated with and used by different groups in society, the second wave looked at social networks and how connections and associations between people and groups impacted upon language use, before the third wave came along and looked at how language is used by people to perform different aspects of their identities by drawing on linguistic repertoires and pools of language features. You'll find many better worded and more developed explanations of these trends in sociolinguistics text books, but as a general picture of where thinking has been going, it's a start. 

What this feeds into for Paper 2 is that if you view language use in a kind of essentialist way (ie that working class people use x kind of language and middle class people use y kind of language because of the social classes they belong to) you're probably not going to appreciate the more complex nature of our identities as language users. After all, we are all more than just products of our environment and the categories we can be placed into. Aspects of our identities - gender, ethnicity, occupational and social groups, for example - all have an impact on how we use language and we perform these aspects of our identity in different ways depending on who's around us and what we want to achieve. I probably didn't think a great deal about 'performing my whiteness' when I was teaching in a largely white college, but I thought about it more - and about my students' performances of their own ethnicities in that college and later on, elsewhere - when I worked in a largely African-Caribbean college. Sometimes, we start to think about these things and realise that aspects of language we had perhaps taken for granted are part of a much bigger and more complex picture.

It's also why a lot of us teaching the course keep reminding students that while the topics* for Paper 2 - occupation, gender, world Englishes, region etc - have their own knowledge base and bodies of research, there are some key strands that link them all together. It's this overlap or intersection of different aspects of language that can be really interesting and the exploration of these overlaps can lead us into some of the higher reaches of the mark scheme when it comes to assessing work.

Let's take a couple of recent programmes about language as cases in point. Radio 4's Woman's Hour recently aired a segment about accents. You can find it here: From about 33 minutes in

In this programme, the contributors talked about how their accents had been commented upon, criticised, belittled and mocked by others. While it was sad to hear this and the emotional and professional impact it had had on these women, it wasn't new: we hear about this all the time and accent bias is something you're bound to look at on the course at some point. Where it became more interesting is where the prejudice about accent (usually - but not exclusively - seen as a feature of regional variation) started to intersect with issues such as class and gender. Were women particularly discriminated against because of their accents? There certainly seemed to be an aspect of all of this behaviour that suggested that women's voices were fair game for criticism in a way that men's voices often aren't. 

And what about social class? Is it worse for a woman to sound working class than a man? And what about working class women in certain occupations such as teaching and lecturing? This is where an understanding of wider ideas such as attitudes to standard and non-standard English, different attitudes to linguistic variants (how someone might say bottle, grass, or use different words for greetings - hi, hey, whassup, alright) across the world and a grasp of the shared patterns across different topics really comes into play.

A second programme on Radio 4, called Code-switching, also illustrates some of this. While code-switching and style-shifting are fairly common areas to study on the course, the different angles in this programme are particularly fascinating. The host, Lucrece Grehoua takes us through some of the ways in which the Black people she interviews view their use of language in relation to predominantly white and middle class workplaces, how they feel about adapting their language and the different tensions between between ethnicity, class, occupation and gender. For a lot of people of all ethnic and social backgrounds, converging and diverging are just things we do all the time, so it's really interesting to hear people dissecting their own language use in such fine detail and at such a meta-level.

Again, this is the kind of discussion that helps to illuminate a number of different areas of language study and allows you to see how so many of them link up. Have a listen and see what you make of it.

Get back to work, you lazy slackers.

With the new academic year starting, I thought it might be a good idea to post a few short blogs. Today, I've been thinking about work and the Paper 2 Language and Occupation topic*. 

The lockdown has led to a lot of talk about how we work, what work means to us, how it oils the wheels of the economy and how it generates new language. So, while we've had lots of new expressions emerge from how many of us have had to change our working practices - WFH (Working From Home), Zooming (using the Zoom app to hold meetings), Zoombombing (like photobombing but with other people's Zoom meetings) and Toxic Productivity (the pressure to work at full tilt throughout the lockdown) - we've also seen a lot of language used to discuss and represent work. 

As you probably already know, all the topics* for Paper 2 (gender, social groups, ethnicity, region etc) can be as much about how language is used to represent different groups as it can be about how people use language. So, for example, when looking at language and gender, you might look at supposed communication differences between the sexes but also look at how language constructs ideas of masculinity and femininity; for language and social class, you might focus on sociolect and education, but also how language represents different social groups through terms like chav, posh, townie or pleb.  

Up until now, I'd found language and occupation a slightly trickier proposition for a representation focus than many of the others. There's always been discussion of business jargon and arguments about plain English in the workplace, and they've been set before as part of the AS exams already, but that's about all I could come up with. 

What's been interesting in recent months is how work, as an idea, has been discussed and represented. One good source for material is in the media coverage of the government's messaging about safety in the workplace (and of course, for teachers, catering staff, classroom assistants, students and admin staff, schools and colleges are among these places of work) and how that messaging has been pitched to represent work in different ways. Of course, a major part of this messaging has been about how safe it is (supposedly) to return to work, so there has been a lot of reassuring language used, but coupled with that has been a creeping implication that if we don't get back to the office soon, sandwich retailers and coffee shops will go bust, the economy will collapse and will it all be our fault. As the reassuring messaging about schools, offices, public transport and bowling alleys (?) is rolled out, other messages are fed to us too.

In many ways this is indicative of how I think a lot of government policy during the pandemic seems to have operated: first an idea is pitched to a sympathetic media outlet who run it and see what the reaction is; then the proposed policy is re-calibrated or pulled, depending on how it has been received. 

Try this tweet from The Sun, for example: 

Elsewhere, the return to work was described in various terms in other media outlets. Try a few of these for size...

  • ...the Government tries to entice people out of their lockdown habits and reboot the economy (the Daily Express)
  • "I think there's a limit, just in human terms, to remote working. And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress." (Government Minister Grant Shapps, quoted in the Daily Express)
  • ‘The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,’ says Dame Carolyn, who speaks for almost 200,000 firms. ‘They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business. (Daily Mail)
  • The UK economy could lose almost half a trillion pounds of output if workers fail to return to their offices, a study estimates. (Douglas McWilliams, a former chief economic adviser to the Confederation of British Industry as reported in The Guardian) 
  • 'Go back to work or risk losing your job': Major drive launched to get people returning to the office. Ministers warn that continuing to work from home could make staff ‘vulnerable’ to being sacked (Daily Telegraph)
  • Brits must return to offices to stop city centres becoming 'ghost towns', CBI boss warns (Evening Standard)
What's interesting about these from a language analysis point of view is that we can see a mixture of positive representation of the office environment and thinly-veiled threats that not returning to work might result in being sacked. If you were pulling a few of these extracts apart, you might think about some of the following:
  • verb choices - entice, spark, foster - offering the language of encouragement and positivity linked to the office
  • semantic fields of financial cost
  • home working being represented as having 'limits' and 'risks'
  • modality doing a quite a lot of work about what might happen: could lose, could make staff vulnerable, must return
There are all sorts of good reasons why people might want or need to return to the workplace - doing things you can't do from home, mental health, the social side of the workplace, pinching other people's mugs and biscuits, the injection of money into the office economy etc - but I think we need to look carefully at the ways in which all this is framed and represented to us, and some focused language analysis gives us the chance to unpack some of the different agendas at work. Along with this, it's also very helpful for paper 2 if you want to think a bit more about how language represents occupation and its changing nature as a result of the pandemic. Maybe you could start to find your own examples to look at as part of a mini-study of the area, or even pick it up as part of a language investigation. It's unlikely that the data will dry up any time soon - furloughing looks like it will come to an end in October and different workplaces will be featured in various government campaigns and media onslaughts - so there will be a lot to look at and a number of different viewpoints to consider.

(*Topics are not really the preferred term here as they are all linked and related, but we often teach them as topics before making the bigger connections.)

Monday, April 06, 2020

Embracing Independent Study (at home!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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...