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. 

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