Monday, November 28, 2016

Texts in Time - Analysing the Language of the Past

Although many students (and quite a few teachers!) might disagree, analysing historical texts is one of the great joys of studying A-Level English Language. Admittedly, picking your way through the archaic lexis, grammar and orthography isn't always easy - especially with texts written before the 18th century - but once you're in, you enter a different world. 

The trick to analysing such texts well is to avoid saying boring stuff about certain words not existing any more or that they don't have any grammar. Words don't vanish, they just 'fall from mainstream usage' and the only texts without grammar are ones without any words! You need to get a feel for the texts as living things. They were written by real people with real feelings about the subjects they were discussing. More significantly, the words on the page were as relevant to them at that point in history as the WhatsApp or Snapchat you sent five minutes ago. Importantly, language should not be regarded as more or less important - or superior or inferior - based on when it was produced. Simply, it is what it is.

I especially enjoy diary entries and letters from the past because they were intensely personal. They had no intended audience (at least, not a mass audience) and so they were written frankly, honestly and without affectation. They weren't trying (in most cases) to influence the reader. That said, a letter from a monarch to a politician would probably have contained some ulterior motive. 

The other things that trip students up are the attitudes expressed. It's all too easy to write an essay dismissing a text as sexist, racist, superstitious or ignorant in some way, but this can be a misrepresentation. These texts shouldn't be analysed in terms of social attitudes today or how we think today; they need to be considered as a reflection of the time at which they were composed. Back then, attitudes based on gender, sexual orientation, race, social status, religion, the supernatural and so on were different. Centuries ago, there were no such things as political correctness, equality awareness or cultural sensitivity (as we understand them today) operating in the mainstream arena. Often, people were simply writing what was generally held to be true or, at least, acceptable at the time. There are exceptions of course. Nobody could read the vile rantings of a madman like Hitler and dismiss his words as culturally uninformed just because they written almost a century ago. There are some things that common sense alone leads us to recognise plainly as being only evil and wrong. 

More often than not, you can discern much about the text you are analysing by reading the contextual information provided by the examiner and looking at the year of publication or origin. Sometimes you will see that a text was written in or around a significant year. If so, ask yourself if there are any parallels that can be drawn between the attitudes expressed and the point in history that it was written. Above all, just remember that the attitudes and ideas expressed may only seem ignorant or offensive when weighed against today's knowledge and social values. As ever, historical knowledge is important and context is everything. 

The one piece of advice I would leave you with is this: don't be scared of an old text. Trust your revision and remember that the examiner won't ever ask you to analyse something inaccessible. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Talking English

Thanks to the British Library Learning Team for putting on such a great day for English Language teachers yesterday. I'll post a few quick things about it over the weekend and a few reflections on what was said by various speakers, but if you are reading this and were there, hello!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Analysing Graphology

Getting the most from Graphology

Whatever exam board you are studying for English Language A-Level, you need to remember that Graphology is not, in itself, one of the higher scoring key constituents / frameworks when it comes to textual analysis. Observations such as, "The text is written in red because it is about donating blood" might well be accurate, but it's also not rocket science. 

Personally, I like Graphology to be described in terms of Text-Image Cohesion. In short, how visual devices or aids are used to support the text in achieving its purpose, appealing to its audience or how it works in tandem with other key constituents / frameworks of language. Let's look at a simple example. 

An early reader book for young children may have limited text on the page, with a sketch of the scene dominating the space. Here we have text-image cohesion because the picture is replicating the actions described by the simple sentences which comprise high frequency, low register lexis. Already, we have linked graphology, syntax and lexis. Now let's add purpose. 

This meets the needs of the reader as it helps to place the actions described in a more familiar context. The young reader's limited experience of life and language is being taken into consideration and the text-image cohesion adds to their understanding of events and sequencing. 

We can extend this to older readers who may enjoy comic strips or graphic novels. Perhaps the call-outs or text use exclamative forms or incorporate non-standard orthography to create phonological effects (think about Batman's famous fight scenes where punches are accompanied with lexical coinages such as 'thwack!'; 'kaboosh'; 'schlumpf'... The list is endless. Here the text-image cohesion allows us to better engage with the text as a 'realistic' recreation of a fight, or it might create humour in terms of the hyperbolic language which accompanies such pained facial expressions. 

In this example, we have managed to squeeze in orthography and phonology. In doing this, we have elevated the status of graphology to a potentially high scoring point of observation. Why? Because we are not analysing it in isolation, but as a component of the text. Ideally, texts should always be made up of complementary techniques. The trick for candidates is to join the dots between each. 

This is not to say that we can't be simplistic in order to bag a few easy points. If a text about an aquarium is predominantly blue and turquoise, it would be foolish to ignore the observation and the reasons for it. Likewise, if a text uses a high incidence of emojis (emoticons, or whatever they're called this week), then make the observation that the text is probably targeting a younger audience familiar with the phenomenon or that it is trying to convey a sense of face to face communication by expressing, visually, ideas that brief words alone cannot convey adequately. 

Graphology can take many forms - even something as obvious as pictorial representations to support instructions on something like a diagram from IKEA. Just try to link your observations to the text as a whole or, at the very least, as something which complements or makes possible another linguistic technique present in the text. 

Friday, October 07, 2016

NEA: investigation ideas part 1

In this, the 1000th post on EngLangBlog (OMG), I'll run through a couple of quick ideas for language investigations based on recent stories in the news or language posts elsewhere.

1. Changing UK accents and dialects. 
The stories in the press and on the radio last week about the Sound of 2066 report were fascinating and worrying in equal measure. The report itself can be downloaded here and is a really good read (and very useful for anyone studying Change and Diversity for the new A level course). It looks at what English might look and sound like in 50 years and traces some patterns that have already been established - abbreviations, borrowing and simplification of sounds - to see what is likely to occur as time goes on.
Here's a nice clip of the report's authors talking about their predictions.
There are several language investigations in there, I think. One might be to consider one or two variables in your own family and the ways in which these might have changed across generations. Another might be to look at these changes in written texts over time: abbreviations cold be a good one as we have used them for a long time (e.g. etc. et al. & err... etc.) but many see them as a recent development.

Another set of investigations (which crosses over with Paper 2 Language Discourses work) would be to examine the coverage of the report. As I (no doubt, tediously) complained about on Twitter last week, the angles taken by various right wing news outlets, were worryingly xenophobic and played on anti-immigration themes. You can make your own mind up about these by looking at the headlines and main thrust of each of the following. Notice a pattern?

Mail (original headline published for this was "Is immigration killing off the Queen's English?"
The Sun
The Guardian

The local media coverage of stories like this is also good to consider. Here's what three regional publications made of it all:


2. Changing attitudes to taboo language
This one has always been a favourite  because it allows you to look at really bad swear words in an academic and mature way ("Ha, that says boobies!"). Every few years, Ofcom publishes a survey of social attitudes to swearing and their latest report can be found here. Looking back at their previous reports (check this blog), you can see some shifting social attitudes towards certain words.

Is this something you could do for your own investigation? An apparent time study (using an age-stratified sample of respondents) might allow you to test how people feel about different swear words and explore some of their reasons for finding them offensive or otherwise. There's plenty of scope for discussion about taboos around various bodily functions, sex and social behaviour, but also a lot of scope for discussion of religion, gender, race and sexuality, all of which feed into other parts of this course.

This article and this one are helpful for providing other angles.

More ideas next week, but if you have any of your own, please tweet them to @EngLangBlog.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Some more Language Change work in progress (or decay)...

Following on from the last post about how I'm approaching the topic of Language Change, here's a rough plan of the question I'm setting as a way to build up skills and knowledge for Paper 2 of the A level and a few ideas that one of my A level classes came up with this afternoon.

We're heading towards an essay question "Evaluate the idea that language change is either a process of evolution or of decay" and we're trying to build a range of different case studies and examples along the way. As well as that, I'm trying to kill two birds with one stone by looking at some examples of older texts in preparation for Paper 1.

What I'm hoping is that this allows us to do some close work on short texts, thinking about how they use language to convey ideas and represent their subject matter (all part of Paper 1's textual analysis focus) and then the same texts can be sources of examples and evidence for the bigger Paper 2 essay questions. One thing that's different between Paper 2 at AS and A level is the absence of any data prompt with the "Evaluate the idea..." cue, so I think it's important for students to have lots of examples and extracts of data that they can use to illustrate their points.

That's the plan... Any ideas/further suggestions/criticisms welcome.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Some Language Change links

We've made a start on Language Change as an A level topic at our college and been thinking about the different phases the language has been through. While 1600 is the cut-off point for texts on Paper 1, it's useful to look back further to see how the language started and the processes it went through to help with Paper 2 and a better overview of the whole topic.

These links from the OED site are really good for explaining the main changes, while the British Library timeline is great for the bigger picture.

The approach I'm taking at the moment is to look through the changes to lexis (word formation), semantics (meaning changes), grammar, phonology and orthography/graphology framework by framework, stopping to focus on a few more detailed discussions of things like semantic reclamation and political correctness along the way.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Welcome to 'NEA', the component formerly known as 'coursework'

One of the new things in the A level, as opposed to the AS level, is the appearance of coursework. Except we're not supposed to call it 'coursework' any more and that's probably got something to do with political arguments about the validity of internally-assessed work in a high-stakes testing regime...but I'll save that discussion for another day and maybe some bright spark out there could do a language investigation into the semantic pejoration of the term 'coursework' in media discourses around education.

But anyway, here's a thing I've put together for our returning AS students, now embarking on the 2nd year of the A level course. It's not a complete explanation of what's involved in the Non-Exam Assessment (NEA) but sets a few starting points and offers some ideas for what you can do before you really get started.

We're not officially starting our NEA work until nearer Christmas (and just to mention Christmas seems obscene at this time of year!) but we'd like students to think ahead a bit and get some ideas ticking over.

You can find plenty of other ideas about language investigations from the blog here.

As part of the second year of your A level course, you will have two exam components and one that is called Non-Exam Assessment (i.e. coursework).

The aim of NEA component is to allow you to explore and analyse language data independently and develop and reflect upon your own writing expertise.

It requires you to carry out two different kinds of individual research:
a language investigation (2,000 words excluding data)
a piece of original writing and commentary (750 words each)

Language Investigation 

A project that involves you researching and investigating an area of language, setting your own questions, collecting your own data and then analysing your data and writing it all up. It’s not quite like anything you will have done before for English and requires a good chunk of time, some clear understanding of how language works and - perhaps, most importantly -  your own initiative. You will get more detailed information about the investigation as the term goes on, but will find it helpful to think about potential investigation topics as you look back at work from last year and develop your understanding of new topic areas this year.

A Language Investigation might look something like one of the examples below – which are based on topics you cover on the course – but could equally be about something we do not do on the course. As long as there is a language element to it and you can convince your teacher that it is a viable project, you can do it.

Example investigations

1. A study of the language techniques used by Great British Bake-Off judges when commenting on the cakes produced in the final rounds of the competition, focusing on politeness, directness and possible gender differences.
2. An investigation into the language of female boxers during interviews to see if stereotypes about female communication are true for these women.
3. A comparison of the language used by three children of different ages when responding to the same task, focusing particularly on the stages of development they are at and their ability to use vocabulary and grammar.
4. An investigation into the ways in which different political parties and pressure groups represented the EU during the 2016 referendum across their campaign literature.
5. A study of ways in which local newspapers in 3 different areas represent their local dialect and accent in reports about varieties of English.
6. A comparison of how Maybelline adverts change over a 75-year period in their representation of female beauty.
7. An investigation into the messaging styles of 3 different age groups when using WhatsApp.
8. An investigation into the ways that the language of Twitter arguments differs from those carried out face to face.
9. An exploration of the different language techniques used by three supermarkets to represent their values to the general public on their official websites.
10. A study of the linguistic techniques used by rugby commentators in a radio commentary compared to an online commentary from the BBC website.

This is not an exhaustive list and there are endless possibilities to explore, but you should be able to see that some of these link to areas you might already have studied, while others pick up on A level-only topics.

What you can do now

Think about potential language investigation topics (and possible methodologies i.e. how you might approach the topic) as this first term goes on
Start collecting data: saving articles, bookmarking links, making a note of interesting radio, TV or online shows
Start discussing ideas with your teacher
Read the material in your A level handbook (and in the OUP or CUP course textbooks) for ideas about how to approach the NEA

Original Writing

You will need to produce one piece of original writing based on one of the following three areas:
the power of persuasion
the power of storytelling
the power of information

The topic choice is down to you (in discussion with your teacher) but you must have looked at a range of style models and chosen one to comment on in more detail as part of your commentary. Again, you will do some of this in class, but it is a good idea to think about the kind of thing you can write and might enjoy doing. Some suggestions for original writing tasks might be:

The power of persuasion
A piece of investigative journalism.
A speech delivered on a controversial topic.
A letter to an MP.

The power of storytelling
A short story.
An extract from a biography.
A dramatic monologue.

The power of information
A piece of travel journalism.
A blog focusing on social issues.
A piece of local history.

Each folder submitted should contain:
a piece of original writing
an annotated style model
a reflective commentary references (paper and web-based)

What you can do now

Read and write. Find stories, articles and speeches to read. Practise writing in different styles. Use the time in class for Directed Writing tasks as part of the exam components to experiment with form, style and voice. This is one of the few areas on any A level that allows you to write what you like.