Saturday, May 21, 2016

Revising AO1 terminology

If you're revising for Paper 1 and want to do some last-minute terminology work, these are good places to look.

The Internet Grammar of English
The Interactive Grammar of English

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Attitudes to accents

If you're revising Paper 2 of the new AS level, there have been some really helpful articles about some of the topics covered, over the last few days.

This piece from The Guardian on Friday (thanks to @ENSFCEnglish) looks at research carried out by Dr Alexander Baratta into accent prejudice in education and quotes some staggeringly ill-informed views about how trainee teachers should speak. The story is also covered in The Sun (thanks to @paulkerswill).

A couple of years ago, this story about a teacher made news when it was suggested she had been told to 'tone down' her northern accent while working in a soft, southern, shandy-drinking school (thanks to @Lisa7Pettifer for that link).

Elsewhere, Rob Drummond at MMU kindly posted the results of a short survey he had carried out into attitudes towards young people's language and you can find them here.

All of this material is useful for both sections of the new Paper 2 (AS and A level) where you might see examples of texts that represent regional and social varieties, along with debates and arguments about the same topics. The sample paper has a Directed Writing task on issues around people changing their accents and these texts give you some handy, up to date reference points for questions like that.

We've covered lots of pieces about accent prejudice on this blog in the past and you can find plenty of links through this page.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Paper 1: salience & hotspots

Revision of Paper 1 skills and approaches has been on our agenda recently, so here are a few things that we've been looking at.

Given the limited amount of time to read two substantial new texts and write three answers, I think we probably have to be quite disciplined about time on this paper, so it pays to read for meaning effectively and plan cleverly. For our students, I've been suggesting an approach to planning answers that allows for getting an overview of each text to help with the meanings and representations in Questions 1 and 2 and which also starts to focus on the compare and contrast requirements of Question 3. Underpinning it all is a focus on finding examples of language and describing them accurately.

Here's an outline of what I've given our students to work with. I've been quite pleased with the results this week, so let me know if it works for you.

In the short time you have in the exam, you need to make sure every minute counts. Your note-taking and reading of the texts needs to be smart and give you material for your answers to the text analysis (Questions 1 and 2) and the compare and contrast of Question 3.

The approach I’d suggest is to use the first few minutes to read for meaning. That is, get a decent sense of the following:

• What each text is about – the topic that they share
• What’s being said about that topic
• What different views are being offered

You can also make some initial notes to help with the other parts of the questions, such as:

• What kinds of texts they are - genre
• The mode/s they are in – spoken, written, computer-mediated communication
• Their audiences and purposes

These observations can help you sort out some useful starting points for your notes, which can then help you form the basis of your main paragraphs for each answer. Next, I’d suggest finding 5-6 ‘hotspots’ in each text. These are areas in each text that convey the clearest and most useful ideas. These hotspots could be a single phrase, a section of the text (an image, a headline, the opening or closing lines), a sentence or even a pattern of language across the whole text.

These hotspots should mean something and, in some cases at least, represent the topic or views on the topic in a way that you can pull apart. There’s no point just picking a few words because you can label them with terms that you’ve learnt (“x is a determiner and y is a pronoun”); it’s vital to get to grips with language that means something and contributes to the overall meanings in each text.

With these hotspots, you can explore what things mean and analyse the language used to create these meanings. This means thinking about your language frameworks (or methods, or levels, or whatever you’ve called them this year) and your AO1 terms, making sure you are offering a good range across each text. AO1 is not just about grammatical labels (word classes, phrases, sentences, clauses, tense etc.), but also about things like semantic fields, patterns of meaning (contrast, antithesis and juxtaposition, for example), graphology, interaction patterns (especially in spoken texts or ones using features of spoken language), discourse structure, pragmatics and perhaps phonology too.

 As you discuss the language used in these hotspots, try to cover a range of different language points but concentrate your attention on the ones that are most important in creating meanings and representations. For example, if the topic is a famous actor, perhaps think about the ways in which adjectives modify nouns to describe her performances and how metaphor might be used to describe her career. If the topic is an event like a football match or gig, look at the verb choices, the use of tense and aspect to structure events. If the topic is more of an ‘issue’, look at the patterns of abstract nouns and their meanings, and perhaps the overall discourse structure used to present conflicting ideas.

There will be many different ways to do this and if you’ve selected, meaningful parts of the texts, you’ll be able to explain them effectively. Examiners don’t really want to read about a text having “lots of long sentences to make it flow” or “lots of pronouns to make it personal” because these are meaningless generalisations. Look closely at what is actually meant in each text in its given context.

While analysing these hotspots, keep in mind the bigger picture of what each text is doing and what kind of texts they are. You will need to address these issues a bit more in your answer to Question 3, but they will also be useful in Questions 1 and 2. For example, if the text is typical of a particular genre, you know it will generally do certain things (recipes tell you what to do, stories recount events etc.).

 Another important aspect to consider is not just how the topic of each text is represented but how the text creators (writers, speakers, posters, texters etc.) represent themselves and each other. How do they position themselves in relation to the text receivers? How do they present a face or image to the audience and to each other? How does this relate to what the texts are about?

In the example text you’ve been given, spend 7-8 minutes doing what’s outlined above. Read for meaning, make notes, identify 5-6 hotspots and then get writing. Use the remaining time (25 minutes) to draft your analysis of these hotspots, linking them back to the overall meanings in the text to keep a coherent thread running through your analysis.

We've used different texts to practise on, but a good one supplied by a helpful teacher from another school (thanks Wendy!) is this blog about Alan Rickman, which we then used alongside this article about Rickman (well...more about Snape really).

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.