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!

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