Friday, April 01, 2016

Argument & counter-argument

While marking my students' recent work for the directed writing task on Paper 2 of the new spec, I've been jotting down a few ideas about how to address the main areas that need improvement. Apart from some of the stuff I've blogged about recently - making the opinion pieces accessible to non-specialist readers, including enough language knowledge to hit the higher levels of AO2 and developing effective openings and conclusions - one thing that has struck me is this part of the mark scheme for AO2:

Under the 'Performance Characteristics' heading (i.e. the general expectations of what students will be doing to be in this Level, rather than the more specific 'Indicative Content' for each paper), the key thing seems to be the notion of identifying different views, approaches and interpretations.

If we assume that students already need to have "show detailed knowledge of linguistic ideas, concepts and research" (Level 3), then what Level 4 seems to be asking for is a sense of alternative ways of looking at the issue and an awareness that other views exist. In an opinion piece, there is clearly an argument that needs to be developed and the Directed Writing Guidance document on the AQA site makes it clear that "students’ writing will necessarily have the purpose of conveying opinions and arguing a case" while "marshalling points and presenting them in a coherent form". But, perhaps most importantly for Levels 4 and 5, "Students can show that they can deconstruct others’ arguments and present their own".

My reading of this is that a single-track opinion piece which ploughs a fairly narrow furrow and doesn't look up, or around, at alternative arguments or opinions, might find it hard to go much higher than Level 3. I might be wrong... and we probably need to remember that the paper hasn't been marked (or even sat) yet.

Anyway, from looking at my own students' work, I've decided that they need to do a bit more work on addressing different opinions and showing awareness (at least), understanding (preferably) and evaluation (optimistically) of other views.

Style models are good for this and some of these are useful for showing how different opinions can be flagged up and then knocked down. David Crystal does a good job of this in his review of Simon Heffer's (awful) Strictly English:

Heffer hides his tastes behind the idea of what is logical, using variants of the word more often than Spock. "Rules in language are made by logic, not by a democratic vote," he writes. If only that were true: it would save grammarians so much bother. In fact, there is no logic behind his recommendations, other than the usual kind favoured by pedants: if I like it, it's logical; if I don't, it isn't.

By quoting Heffer, Crystal can respond directly to the argument, but perhaps remembering a quotation and then deploying it effectively is a bit of a tall order for an AS student in an exam (although, it's always nice to see it happen).

An alternative approach is a little vaguer, but quite effective in its own way. Lindsay Johns' Ghetto Grammar article, which is a favourite of mine for class analysis, takes a lighter touch:

Some educators take a position of cultural relativism. They assert the legitimacy and value of street talk, or at the very least, the importance of teaching young people to "code switch" - how to differentiate in which milieu it is socially acceptable.

I have no time for such an approach. In my experience, young people find it very hard to code switch. Text-speak, poor grammar and street patois routinely pervade the essays I set them, let alone their conversations with me.

What's interesting about this approach is that it's a bit vague about:
a) who the "educators" are (names would help);
b) how what they say can be defined as "cultural relativism";
c) why Johns' own "experience" should trump these educators' assertions.

On the plus side, it's effective in keeping his (for me, almost entirely wrong-headed) argument on track.

A quick task I'm setting my students after Easter is the one below, in which they look at an idea from one side of a debate (in this case, work we've been doing on dialect and slang bans in schools) and then try to come up with a counter-argument. I'm going to encourage the students to come up with a source, quotation or reference point for each argument too, so they can draw on what they've studied in class and support their views, where possible. I'd be interested to see if anyone else has ideas for different arguments that could be brought in or where else to take this.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Representation and regional variation

One area of Paper 2 of the new AQA English Language AS level I've been trying to address is the focus on how users of language varieties are represented. In the examples I posted in January, stimulus texts taken from stories about schools 'banning' slang and/or dialect touched on how regional varieties and youth sociolects are represented and discussed, so they make a useful starting point. 

Another area though is how fiction represents accent and dialect, often through 'eye dialect': a way of writing words to make them resemble how they are pronounced. It's less precise than using a phonemic alphabet but creates an easy to understand representation of how a regional accent might sounds. Irvine Welsh uses it in Trainspotting, which is set in Edinburgh and through the eye dialect you can hear the sound of the Leith accent coming through:

Third time lucky. It wis like Sick Boy telt us: you’ve got tae know what it’s like tae try tae come off it before ye can actually dae it. You can only learn through failure, and what ye learn is the importance ay preparation. He could be right. Anywey, this time ah’ve prepared.
Another regional variety represented in fiction is the Yorkshire dialect, which features in the work of Barry Hines, whose A Kestrel to a Knave is a classic of working class fiction. In the short extract of dialogue below, you can hear the author's attempts to capture the sounds and words of his characters' voices, capturing also something of their social and personal identity in the process, perhaps in a way that Standard English simply couldn't do:

He stayed in his own half of the bed, groaning and turning over every few minutes. Billy lay with his back to him, listening. Then he turned his cheek slightly from the pillow.
'Tha'd better get up.'
No answer.
'Alarm's gone off tha knows.'
'Think I don't know?'
He pulled the blankets tighter and drilled his head into the pillow. They both lay still.
'Tha'll be late.'
'O, shut it.'
'Clock's not fast tha knows.'
'I said SHUT IT.'
He swung his fists under the blankets and thumped Billy in the kidneys.
'Gi'o'er! That hurts!'
'Well shut it then.'
'I'll tell my mam on thi.'
Jud swung again. Billy scuffled away to the cold at the edge of the bed, sobbing. Jud got out, sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, then stood up and felt his way across the room to light the switch. Billy worked his way back to the centre and disappeared under the blankets.
As the Yorkshire poet, Ian McMillan explains in his piece about Barry Hines (who died last week),  it was something of a rarity for authors to use the voices of working class regional English speakers in a serious and considered way in fiction. For many middle and upper class authors, regional accents were easy markers of social difference to employ and non-standard English speakers were often mocked or ridiculed. McMillan explains how pleased he was to hear his own voice being represented in an authentic and sympathetic way:

I wasn’t only captivated by the characters and the plot, though. What really made me grin and bang the settee arm with my pudgy fist was the way the characters spoke: they talked just like me. Somehow Hines, who died at the weekend, managed to get that minimalist Barnsley poetry down on the page without the apostrophes flying round the paragraphs like racing pigeons.
These text extracts make quite nice examples for analysis and discussion at AS level, because they offer a representation of different characteristics of regional dialects (the use of thi and tha suggesting the Yorkshire pronouns thee and thou, for example). 

Elsewhere, less sympathetic representations still abound and a trip to a local charity shop this week (don't dare say middle-aged teachers never have any fun) meant that I stocked up on old copies of (the extremely rude) Viz comic which I spent a large part of my late teens and early twenties reading when I should have been doing something useful. 

One of the annuals features a strip called The Boy Scouse, in which a young Liverpool boy goes to Scouse Camp (as opposed to Scout Camp - dat's da joke, la) and develops Scouse skills. You can see a bit of it yourself in the extract below:

Unlike the serious examples earlier, the representation of regional variety here is all part of the mockery of a whole group of people, or perhaps the social and regional stereotype around them. 

The pronunciation (th-fronting stopping* in dat, g-dropping in avoidin and shopliftin & /t/-glottalisation /l /substitution** in gerrin), along with local expressions such as la (used like lad or mate, according to this link) and the syntax of colloquial spoken English such as the 'tail' ("Dat'll go great...dat will") are one element of the shorthand used to create the stereotype of the Scouse scally, along with the curly hair, references to unemployment, crime and anti-social behaviour.

The strip itself could be a good way into a wider essay question about how some regional dialects (and/or sociolects) are portrayed negatively in popular culture, as well as a useful wider discussion about the ways in which (often offensive) social stereotypes are easily tapped into through the representation of a particular way of speaking.

*Edited on 27.03.16 to amend th-fronting to th-stopping (cheers to @Nickking6)
** and t-glottalisation to /t/ to /l/ substitution (from Clark & Watson's work here, as suggested by Nick)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Opinion pieces: doing the knowledge with style

Over the last week or two, we've been working on the Directed Writing part of Paper 2 and thinking about ways to make the opinion pieces both rich in language knowledge - so the reader is actually informed and educated about language - and able to grasp the main ideas without being a specialist.

Having set a task on the language of social groups in which quite a few students erred on the side of catchiness and style over language content, with a few swinging the other way and writing things that were more like essays than articles, I put together the following as a worksheet for the best part of a double lesson. We're going to use it next week and see if we can get the opinion pieces a bit closer to what I think the mark scheme can reward.

Obviously, there's more to this kind of writing than just aiming to hit the different bands on the mark scheme and I'd encourage students to read as wide a range of opinion pieces - op-eds in papers, online articles like those on Comment is Free and Indie Voices and perhaps a few pieces from better blogs (eg Deborah Cameron's brilliant Language: a feminist guide) to get a real feel for the ways arguments and opinions are structured and shaped, but in the classroom we probably need a bit more scaffolding, so here it is...

Part of your job in the Directed Writing task is to explain linguistic concepts to a non-specialist audience.

This means that
a) you need linguistic ideas to explain and
b) you need to develop a way of making them clear and intelligible to your readers.

In practice, this means you will need to do the following:

  • explain who people are and why you are quoting them or referring to them 
  • give a clear explanation of a technical term (and show an example of it in use) 
  • untangle different ideas and make them more straightforward for your audience 
  • present different arguments and identify where they are coming from 
  • show an overview of issues from which you can then select relevant examples 
  • demonstrate language practices in use with examples that your readers will understand 
  • show your own line of argument and guide your readers through the topic 

In the example below (taken from here), there are some important linguistic ideas and technical terms, but it’s not very accessible.

How would you deal with it to make it more relevant and clear for your target audience?
What are the key bits to focus on?
Which bits can you ignore, summarise or just mention very briefly?
How would you make this relevant to a reader of a broadsheet newspaper in the UK in 2016?

Penelope Eckert (2000) studied the language use of American high school students who called themselves Jocks and Burnouts. These two subcultures were associated with sharply contrasting personal styles. Jocks participated enthusiastically in extra-curricular activities, played sports, served on the school council and hoped to graduate to college. They took the school as their community and hence the basis of their group identity. In the 1980s, when Eckert did her research, they wore smart designer jeans, the girls used candy coloured make-up and the boys had short hair. 

The Burnouts, in contrast, did not participate in school social activities and resisted the corporate identity of the high school and what it stood for. They wore bellbottom jeans, rock concert T-shirts, sweatshirts and auto-plant jackets, and expected to work in local industry when they were older. They were more likely to be out at an all-night party in the town than at the school dance. There were differences, too, in the language styles (pitch, pronunciation and grammar) used. Eckert sees these two subcultural groups as representing two different kinds of response to the school institution, and as involving students in alternative ways of negotiating their individual identities, their ‘meaning in the world’ (Eckert, 2000, p. 41). 

She suggests that Jocks and Burnouts are two different ‘communities of practice’, each involving students who have come together to share ways of doing things and ways of talking, beliefs and values, as a function of their shared engagement in the activity. Individual identity is constructed in collaboration with others in and around these communities of practice. 

How would you then link what’s here to some of the ideas that you covered in your own opinion piece about the language of social groups? Which areas would link to this and provide you with a paragraph before and a paragraph afterwards?

The flipside of this is that you also need to have enough language content to secure plenty of AO2 marks, so you need to do more than just recycle generalised, common sense ideas about language in your piece.

The following extracts are accessible and clear but don’t really tell the reader much that they won’t already know. How can you build on the ideas here with some relevant language studies, references to research and linguistic concepts?

For each of the sections below, think of a relevant linguistic reference and a way of integrating it effectively into the article.

Many people use language in different ways because of the different social groups that they belong to. For example, you could argue that people who are members of one social class (e.g. working class) would use language in different ways to those in a different social class (e.g. upper class). 

Class is one factor in language use, but not the only one. All of us belong to different social groups that relate to our age and activities we engage in. One such group might be young people - a group everyone belongs to at some point in their life – and young people generally use language in different ways to their parents’ generation. One style of language is slang and this is often used by young people to show their own identity and signal their membership of a particular group, as well as showing their distance from others outside their age group. 

The activities we engage in are also an influence on our language patterns. Those who work in certain professions or who engage in leisure activities with others are likely to develop a way of speaking that is different. Doctors, teachers, police officers and lawyers all develop their own ways of using precise, technical language. 

We don’t just behave in fixed ways with language though and often we might choose to alter our style of language to show that we are closer to others (or to distance ourselves from them). An example of this is when the Chancellor, George Osborne used more colloquial speech when addressing Morrisons workers at a warehouse while campaigning in the 2015 General Election. Instead of pronouncing better and got to with the usual ‘t’ sounds, he used a ‘d’ sound and elided the sounds of separate words to create gotta.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

AS Directed Writing - finding style models

Section B on Paper 2 of the new AQA AS-level sets a directed writing task which means that students will need to get used to writing in a different way about language topics. In Section A of the paper, they will be writing an essay in response to some stimulus data and a "Discuss the idea..." essay prompt.

The sample material on the AQA site has one task (you can find it here and a student response to it with examiner commentary here) asking students to "Write an opinion article in which you discuss the issues surrounding people changing their accents". The stimulus text is a short extract from the Mail Online looking at media celebrity Donna Air changing her working class Geordie accent to something closer to her posh boyfriend's accent and it's pretty clear that this is not the kind of article that students will need to write for themselves, because a) it's very light on language issues (and AO2 is worth half the marks here) and b) it's a very short extract.

We've just been looking in class at possible style models for opinion pieces and come up with a few possibilities for the kinds of articles that appear in the broadsheet press or on their websites, and which offer some solid language content as well as arguing a case effectively. Here are a few ideas:

Julia Snell in The Independent responds to the Sacred Heart School dialect row: plenty of serious language content for AO2 and some nice shaping of an argument for AO5.

Michael Rosen in The Guardian taking on grammar pedants and those who teach a "right and wrong" way of dealing with grammar: a strongly argued piece that picks up a debate from elsewhere and explains the ins and outs of it, making language ideas accessible to a non-specialist but interested reader.

Robert Lane Greene in The Economist's language blog looking at accent prejudice: a range of linguistic references integrated effectively into a clear explanation of the main issues for a non-specialist audience.

In many ways, the kinds of opinion piece that appear as potential Media Texts for the old ENGB4 and Language Interventions for ENGA4 are also worth a look. Various examples of these have been collected here and here on this blog.

If you have found any others that you think are worth a look, please let us know via @EngLangBlog.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


One of the big topic areas on the new AQA English Language AS level (and the A level) is Language Diversity, in which we look at how language varies from person to person and place to place. Much of the work done on this topic has focused on spoken language - accents and dialects, for example - but language can vary in written and electronic forms too.

Twitter has proved a really useful way of both producing and collecting this kind of data and more is explained in an article looking at the work of Brice Russ at Ohio University, who examined the language in some 400,000 tweets, looking initially for how people in different parts of the USA used either soda or pop to describe fizzy drinks.

Gabriel Doyle explains some of the ways in which Twitter can be used to chart change in language and how changes in language spread in this lecture clip.

Rachael Tatman, blogging from the Northwest Linguistics Conference in April of 2015, also noted how Twitter cold be used to identify not just lexical but phonological differences in how people used Twitter: in other words, the ways in which people used different spellings on Twitter to represent the ways they spoke with an accent:

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns.

So, how is this relevant to those us doing English Language at A level? Here's the plan...

With #TwitterTwang we'll try to gather data from UK A level students using Twitter and a few helpful teachers. Over a 3-4 week period before the end of the Spring term, we'll identify a handful of ways in which data can be elicited in similar ways from students in different places and ask each group of students to hashtag their tweets with #TwitterTwang and a number to indicate where they're from (Essex as 1, Leicester as 2, Hackney as 3, Southport as 4, East Norfolk as 5 etc.). We can then make use of the data collected to see if there are patterns in regional dialect and/or accent apparent in the tweets.

I'm still thinking about different elicitation techniques and open to ideas (so please tweet me @EngLangBlog) if you have good ideas or think mine are rubbish, but here's the tentative plan:

  • a post-lunch tweet to describe what each student has had for lunch
  • a Gogglebox-style tweet/series of tweets about a programme that everyone agrees to either watch at a given time or on catch-up (e.g. Britain's Got Talent, The Voice, Take Me Out etc.)
  • a tweet about a picture/photo that we can all agree on an share
If we can agree on exactly which of these (or all?) to use, we'll have something to start with. We then need to identify a time to get this started. One of the best things about using Twitter for this is that we don't necessarily have to deal with the data as it comes in but can catalogue it using the different hashtags and save it for later. We could even use it for different things (language change, gender, individual tweeting styles) as the course goes on, or use it to compare with data in future years to see if language styles change.

Anyway, that's a start, I hope. If we could work out a plan in more detail through @EngLangBlog that would be great.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Accent and Dialect essays

We're coming close to the end of our work on Accent and Dialect for the new Paper 2 of AQA AS specification and thinking a bit more about the kinds of questions that might appear and how to approach them. One area that we've considered is the issue of why certain dialects (and/or accents) seem to be valued more highly than others, so for this we have been looking at news stories from a few years ago about so-called 'slang bans'. You can find a load of them gathered here as links.

In response to the question, "Discuss the idea that some dialects are viewed more favourably than others" (which we came up with ourselves), we've used short extracts of data from different schools (such as Sacred Heart in Teesside and Colley Lane in Halesowen) for the AO1 part of the question and as a springboard into the wider issues and discussion for AO2.

In terms of how to structure an answer, we've worked on the principle that it's best to address the essay question straight away in the opening paragraph with something along the lines of "The idea that some dialects are viewed less favourably than others is probably true and this is often the result of some privileged forms of English - accents such as RP or a dialect such as Standard English - being valued highly by influential and powerful parts of the population..." before going into the data in more detail.

The data is there, I think, to provide you with the chance to explore different features of language and to be able to see examples that might link back to the wider question, but it's also there to help you get a few AO1 marks early on, so get linguistic on its ass. Use your understanding of language frameworks such as vocabulary, grammar and phonology to describe and label the features of dialect that are apparent, and think too of the wider implications of what the school is doing by presenting this in the way that they do.

Once you've worked on the data, the next job is probably to make some links from what's there to the wider question - the idea under discussion in the title - and from there into the range of knowledge about the topic that you have built up by studying it and reading about it.

AO2 isn't all about naming theorists and quoting case studies, but they are important and they often give you a peg to hang a bigger idea on. So, in a question about dialects, it makes sense to think about studies that have looked at non-standard English (Trudgill and Cheshire), studies that have explored different pronunciations (Petyt and Trudgill), studies and surveys about attitudes to accents (Giles, Ryan, ITV Com/Res, YouGov) and any particular examples you have found in your own research or experience. If you've done a study on the dialect of Manchester, Newcastle, the West Country, Essex or Birmingham, you'll have examples you can use of the features of the dialect but also media representations of it. Use them: they will help make your answer more individual and interesting. Equally, if you have a personal take on it - you have been judged for your dialect (and let's face it, if you're from Essex you probably have) or told to "put T-s, T-s, T-s in your mouth" as I was when I moved from school in London to Wiltshire - mention it and offer your considered linguistic perspective on it.

Another part of AO2 is to show an understanding of the wider language issues, so think about the role of Standard English and why it has such importance. Where is it from? Why does it have an important role to play? Does having a standard make us assume that everything else is sub-standard? These are all possible avenues to explore.

Anyway, that's a start, I hope and I'd be interested to see what others are doing for this.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

English language: the civilising force?

David Cameron's recent comments about the importance of the English language to people moving to, or already settled in, the UK have led to some interesting articles about the value of the language and its use as a political football. Many of Cameron's comments were directly addressed to one section of the community who have been given a kicking in the media in recent times: Muslim women. Cameron's logic goes like this, according to The Daily Telegraph: "one of the main reasons why young men are vulnerable to radicalisation is the "traditional submissiveness of Muslim women" (Cameron's words), which prevents them from speaking out against the influence of the radical Imams". So, is English a powerful force for integration, or is language being used as yet another stick to beat a minority group?

Many of the responses to the ideas concentrated on the fact that at the same time as Cameron is pushing for English to be learned, he has managed to slash budgets for ESOL teaching, thus reducing the chance of non-English speakers actually learning the language. Others noted that along with an encouragement to learn English, the threat of deportation was also lurking. They pointed to the line "We will now say if you don't improve your fluency, that could affect your ability to stay in the UK". Tied to the apparent encouragement for Muslim women to learn English was also a threat to punish them. And why single out Muslim women? Would English ex-pats who live in Spain but don't speak a word of the local language beyond "cerveza" be deported by the Spanish authorities for not speaking  a word? And would the knuckledragging keyboard warriors of far-right organisations - born, bred, and supposedly educated, in this country - be sent back to their mums for not being able to spell "Go hoam immagrnat"?

Finally, Anita Anand noted that the UK government website couldn't actually manage to spell "language" properly in its own tweet. D'oh!

Obviously, English can be a unifying and integrating force for good: if we can all talk to each other, the argument goes, we can all start to get along. But the imposition of English on people has a long history of problems. English is not just a language of the world because it's flexible and absorbent (like your favourite kitchen roll) but because it has often been accompanied with political and social systems that have forced it on others, often at the end of a gun. There's nothing intrinsically better about an English speaker than someone who speaks French, Cantonese or Yoruba, but many still cling to the colonial belief that English can be a "civilising force" on Johnny Foreigner.

But English can also be something that allows people to feel part of a wider community and that's why so many people want to learn it - in the UK and beyond - and one reason why teaching English as a second language is so important. If Cameron were really serious about the power of language, he wouldn't be singling out one group of people or cutting funding to ESOL and the FE sector that are so vital in its provision.

Edited to add:
Frank Monaghan has written an article here which is worth a read.