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?

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