This is the first of a few guest blogs coming up this week, so thank you to all those teachers and linguists who have contributed their ideas and time. This one is by Neil Hutchinson, a teacher at Kirkbie Kendal School in the Lake District (on Twitter as @Hutchinsonnet). Thanks Neil!
In what has been a surreal and tumultuous ‘Endgame’ lead up to exam preparation with Year 13, like most schools across the country we are having to find our own way to assess our students in the face of cancelled exams. As a result of this we decided to make Paper One an integral part of this, as it does seem the bread and butter of English Language: the analysis of language and structure in unseen written texts has been something these kids have been working towards all of their lives in our subject.
It is so important then that we constantly revise our practice to help them practise this skill. Twitter has a knack of placing you in the middle of a number of converging narratives when it comes to resources. Think of a shared universe of linguistic superheroes teaming up in one megablockbuster. So at the same time Dan posted this thread containing an article about an assault on a woman “on a path” (we’ll come to that later), another fantastic member of the linguistic twitter Avengers, Mr Crawford, whose superhero moniker is @MrCrawford9, posted this excellent entry on his own blog about a method of analysis he calls “Try Something Else”.
I shamelessly adapted Mr Crawford’s idea in combination with the article posted by Dan, and so, like a low rent linguistic Thor (let’s face it I’m more like Falcon hanging on the cape tails of the enhanced) I am answering Dan’s call to assemble and sharing the outcome of this combination of ideas.
I do encourage you to read Mr Crawford’s blog for a more detailed breakdown of the method but in short, I found that if you have students who want for a way in to the analysis of lexis and grammar (particularly grammar) in a given text, this works perfectly. If you have students who struggle to move beyond the obvious in terms of audience positioning, representation i.e. pre-modification and specific adjective choices writer’s make, this works perfectly. What Mr Crawford advocates is taking what, on the surface, seems a fairly innocuous sentence and making changes to it in order to draw attention to what was there in the first place. For example:
The text was taken from The Guardian, and was about the writer’s attempts to overcome her addiction to Diet Coke. I asked them to focus their analysis on the grammatical features of the text. We focused on the text’s sub-heading (known as a 'standfirst' in the media), which read:“I have been obsessed with the sugar-free soda since I was four, spending £500 a year on up to seven cans a day. This is what happened when I tried to quit.”The students said that they had been able to identify grammatical features, including the use of present perfect tense, and adverbial and non-finite clauses, but that they did not know what to say about the text’s use of these features.So, I asked the students to try something else. We swapped one of the words in the sub-heading:“I had been obsessed...”Now, instead of present perfect tense, we were looking at past perfect tense.
By focusing on the altered meanings, the student’s are now well placed to consider the original in a way which they may not have seen first time round. Aside from the advantages of this approach, I found it was also an excellent way to revise subject terminology, spot linguistic and thematic patterns and crucially to write a lot about a little - all essential AO1 goodness.
So what I did was take the original headline in the article:
Teenage girl headbutts man after being grabbed on path
Not innocuous by any means, I know. In fact it was the justifiable criticism posted in response to this headline that makes this an essential piece of journalism for practising analysing representations.
The first thing I had the students do was split their page into four quarters, putting this piece of text in the centre of the crosshairs. I then proposed the students re-write the headline in four different ways. At this juncture you can suggest they focus on using language to alter the representations or simply leave it as vague as “change the headline”. I did suggest they have a go at changing the grammar in at least one of their examples, again to move away from simply looking at lexical choices.
Next I simply put some of their examples on the interactive whiteboard and modelled annotating and analysing.
One example of a change was:
Man tries to grab teenage girl on path, receives headbutt
The first strikingly salient point in this student’s example (thanks Millie!) was the overall grammatical structure carrying a very “online” tone. The omission of a final coordinating conjunction in place of a comma followed by a final verb (receives) and indirect object (headbutt) is something we’re used to seeing pop up on our phones. But instead of dwelling on this we focused more on agency in this construction. The students suggested that in the first clause, the fact that the man is the agent of the verb phrase shifted the story to being about his crime and represented him as the wrong-doer. This formed a pattern with that second clause as “receives headbutt” almost removed the teenage girl as the subject and agent of the headbutt through the passive construction. The student in question said definitively she didn’t think the girl had done anything wrong and therefore wanted to suggest this in the headline. At this point we were able to go straight back to the original and looked more specifically at the agency. The students suggested that “Teenage girl headbutts man”, placing her as the agent seemed to represent her as the criminal in the story. And coupled with the violent nature of the verb “headbutt” this painted a very ugly picture of a young woman who had been attacked. Further to this, they similarly went straight to the second subordinate clause, like they did in the changed example, and suggested that “after being grabbed” similarly removed him as an agent in this assault, once again through its passive nature.
I mentioned pattern spotting was an area we wanted to revise and this method unlocked this perfectly. We went next to terms of address. Sticking with the changed example I asked why they stuck with “teenage girl” as the original did. The rest of the class suggested that in the changed headline the pre-modification of the noun with the adjective “teenage” in the changed headline represents her as brave and courageous in the face of the man’s assault. Indeed the juxtaposition between “teenage girl” and “man” demonstrates an unpleasant imbalance of power again representing him as an older criminal and she as a child victim. However, because the original seemed to offer a polar opposite set of representations, this pattern didn’t hold up in the original. Instead because the girl was being held up as the instigator of the incident by the BBC, “teenage” carrying now the socially negative connotations of “chav” or “delinquent”. This was a gift in revising pinning our analyses down to audience pragmatic awareness. They even paired these negative connotations with the traditional newspaper headline format (as opposed to the online style in the changed version) and suggested the target audience would be your older, more conservative reader of BBC news stories, who may hold more negative views about women. All agreed the BBC had a wide ocean of fans, so they let the linguistic construction of the headline guide them as to who, in that vast sea, would be drawn to the line cast by this headline. Going back to terms of address they were also able to suggest that the noun “man” in the original did not suggest an imbalance of power, as in the changed version, but instead through its lack of modification and dispassionate, bland and unemotive tone pointed towards his innocence rather than guilt.
I think this was one of the more illuminating discussions in the lesson. The fact that the same set of lexemes can have polar opposite connotations depending on their position in a sentence and crucially, their presentation through the prism of contextual factors is AO1 and AO3 gold.
Want more? Well let’s turn our attention to the verb phrase the student added. “tries to grab” rather than well...his possible role in her being “grabbed” in the original threw up some interesting discussion. Many said it makes the headline almost funny. I asked them if that would be true if it simply said “man tries to grab teenage girl”. They all agreed no. We go back to the pattern of the online tone that comes about with the inclusion of the last clause, “receives headbutt”. They suggested that because the “tries to” is there it makes him seem incompetent and someone who bit off way more than he could chew. Again emphasising her strength, her bravery. Celebrating her as a hero, not a victim. Placing it at the beginning gives the reader permission to laugh at this incident before we even find out about the headbutting, which arrives with a clunk at the end like the punchline to a very funny joke. How online in its patterning! These ideas are implied in the original. The story hasn’t changed. He tried to grab a girl, didn’t succeed and got his comeuppance. The class were actually horrified that the BBC didn’t have the nouse to take the same angle.
So why didn't they? Well they decided, because it is 2021. And many still believe uppity women are perhaps getting a little ahead of themselves in calling for change. Remember contextually this story appeared in the same week as vigils were to be held in opposition to violence against women as a result of the Sarah Everard kidnap and murder. And we all saw how the status quo reacted there. Instead of seizing upon that and using this story as an opportunity to chime in with the chorus of women who have decided to stand up against injustice, the writer of this article instead simply replicated a thematic pattern when representing women: that they are to blame for their own abuse at the hands of men. Remember that’s men. Not “attacker”, a noun the BBC could have used.
Finally in this changed headline, the student kept “on path”. Exploring this prepositional phrase in close detail revealed that both headlines seemed to highlight that these incidents of violence were occuring in open spaces, in public. Typical genre fair in newspapers is to feed into moral panics. The key difference being in my forward thinking student’s headline the message is clearly ‘women, watch out for men’ whereas the BBC seemed to be saying ‘men, watch out for teenage girls’.
This wasn’t the end of the lesson. In fact this wasn’t the only headline we looked at. We then explored a couple more, constantly going back to the original and making informed judgements about the language used to create meanings and representations.
The irony is if you click that link in the article now, the headline you actually get is:
Teenage girl fights off man who grabbed her on canal path
The next part of my lesson was focused on analysing what the BBC had changed it to and why. How they were now positioning us to feel about the girl (removed “teenage” eh? Hmm) and how they were positioning themselves as a voice in this debate.
The first thing they noticed? The subordinate clause has been changed to a relative clause. Now the BBC were laying the blame squarely at his feet and coupled with the more politically motivated “fights off” as opposed to the violent “headbutts” (I know some still have issues with “fights” but that is a debate for a sequel perhaps), seemed to be reading the same script as the countless women protesting for the basic human right to walk down a canal path without the threat of being assaulted. The linguists won. Would my students have noticed a relative clause first time round? Honestly, I doubt they would have. Thank you Dan and thank you Mr Crawford. I encourage you all to try something else.