Discourses: How do I write about Language for a non-specialist audience?

In several of the A-Level English Language specifications, you are required to write about Language topics for a non-specialist or general audience. In the specification I know best, AQA, this comes under the heading of ‘Language Discourses’, because it is the place – in the world and specifically the media – where language is discussed. Many students find this a tricky task, because you are being asked to do several things at once. Perhaps most challengingly, you are being asked to ‘turn off’ your technical terminology and express complex and detailed ideas about language to people who will not be familiar with even the most common jargon that we bandy about in the language classroom.

So, what can you do? How do you tackle this in order to gain decent marks?

Well, the mark schemes make clear that you are assessed on two separate counts:

  • how well you understand and comment on the language issue
  • how well you write

Let’s unpick those a bit.

In order to show understanding of the language issue, you need to talk about some studies, research findings, language concepts or ideas. What you don’t need to do is chuck terminology around like you just snagged a load on a Black Friday deal. It’s perfectly possible to, for example, explain prescriptivism without using the term – and how helpful is the crumbling castle metaphor in that scenario? Or to explain the concept of covert prestige as shown in Martha’s Vineyard by describing what happened in Labov’s study – you don’t need to talk about vowel qualities or prestige at all! But, the fact remains that you do need to show the examiner that you know this stuff – and to be clear to your reader, you need to do more than just name-drop the researcher.

If you want to show that you write well, you need to engage and interest your reader, as well as successfully communicate with them. In my experience, the students who do best in these questions can write entertainingly. They use anecdote and metaphor to help them get the point across, and they remember to make the whole piece hang together well, often linking the final paragraph to the opening effectively. They definitely avoid essay constructions like ‘in conclusion’, and they often address the reader directly.

To be honest, you’re best off imagining your reader as someone you know and writing for them. I’d picture someone who is an adult, who hasn’t studied language but is a smart person who you would never talk down to. Many students find it helpful to imagine they are writing to a parent or other relative, as this avoids writing patronisingly and also allows for the humour and direct address to feel a bit more natural.

How do I revise the Power and Conflict poems?

OK, so this question roughly equals ‘What do I REALLY need to learn about these fifteen (yes, FIFTEEN) poems that I’ve been given for this exam?’ My answer to you is that, actually, you do not need to know quotes for all the poems – but you do need to be strategic about which poems you learn quotes for.

Let’s break this down. As you’ll probably know (so forgive me, but just in case, right?), you’ll get one of the poems in the exam, along with a list of all fifteen, and a question focusing on the theme. This question will ask you how the poets present ideas about X (your theme) in the poems. Your job is then to select a suitable poem that addresses the same theme to compare to the poem on the paper. This means that a key revision task is to work out the main themes of the collection (i.e. what the exam questions could focus on) and which poems belong in each group.

If you then look at which poems appear in multiple groups, you will see which ones are the most helpful to get to know in the most depth. For example, I personally wouldn’t do much with Storm on the Island (sorry Heaney, much as I love your work, in terms of this collection, the poem is not multipurpose enough for our needs – and to those teachers reading, yes I know this is a terrible and functional approach, but why not seek to reduce the load of students where possible?) Clearly, you need to make sure that if you are reducing the number of poems you revise thoroughly in this way, that you have every theme covered, so do check this. Obviously, you might choose Storm on the Island as your ‘power of nature’ poem, and that’s fine – up to you. I’m just recommending that you try to narrow it down, and know why you’re doing it. You can’t just pick the ones you like best!

At the same time, you can’t just dump the ‘less useful’ ones entirely, because (of course) any of them could be the one that the question is about. Obviously, though, you will have that poem in front of you, so memorised quotes will be unnecessary. What you will need to know about is the context and meaning, so make sure that is known for ALL the poems (yes, sorry, all of them).

Textual Analysis: Why use a ‘meaning-first’ approach?

In various A-Level English Language tasks, you’re asked to analyse text. This may be to comment on the meanings and representations created within it, or it may be in relation to a particular topic, such as child language acquisition or ethnicity.

Whatever the task is, many students are tempted to jump on features that they can easily identify and label. I’m here to suggest that’s not the best way to go about it. Starting with meaning is a more productive approach for 3 key reasons.

1: Selecting the most meaningful features

This may seem obvious, but when people jump on the things they can label most easily, they’re usually not thinking about how meaningful they are in relation to the question – and that matters, even when the question is just ‘what meanings and representations are created in this text?’. In fact, when that’s the question, don’t you want to be talking about the most important meanings and reps anyway? Surely if you jump into “‘dog’ is a concrete noun and this shows that the writer is judging the subject negatively”, when ‘dog’ is kind of a throwaway metaphor that just happened to be on the first line and therefore the first ‘technique’ that you (and 3,972 others…) noticed, that’s not particularly impressive?

2: Actually having something to say about your chosen features

If you start by looking for what’s meaningful in the text, you’ve got clear comments to make straightaway. Again, this is much more effective than being stuck at ‘ok, it’s an abstract noun, but so what?’, which can easily happen if you randomly choose (especially grammatical) features based only on the fact that you can label them. Going for meaning first basically avoids feature-spotting, which is what happens when you don’t know what to say about the features/techniques you’re finding.

3: Understanding meaning allows deeper analysis

Being more selective from the start should take you easily beyond straightforward description and into higher-level interpretation and analysis, which is rewarded more highly in the mark schemes. Ideally, if you’ve thought carefully about the text as a whole before selecting examples to talk about, you can link those examples to patterns immediately and show how these features contribute to the wider representations being created by the text.

And if you’re worried about not being able to label things, remember that there are always several ways to do that – that’s why we have language frameworks/ linguistic methods. Each one approaches the text in a different way, so you might have a lexical or a grammatical or a semantic label you can apply to the phrase or word you want to talk about – you don’t need them all at once.

So now what?

Hopefully, you now have a clearer sense of why we advocate looking for meaning first when analysing. The tricky part can be reminding yourself to put the labels in. You may find it reassuring that it’s something of a process that all Language students go through:

  1. too much AO1 focus
  2. not enough AO1
  3. just right

(a bit like Three Bears analysis – too frameworky, not frameworky enough, Just Right)

When you’ve just learnt a load of new terms, it’s natural to seek to use them and to make that the focus of your analysis. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to good analytical writing. Once you’ve accepted that and switched back to a meaning-first approach (as this is what comes more naturally to us), it’s normal to then start forgetting to use the terms. The trick is doing enough analysis practice to get yourself through those early stages and into the sweet spot at the end where there’s enough of both AO1 and AO3.

Why can’t I write ‘it makes the reader read on?’

and what on earth do I write instead?

As teachers, we’re pre-programmed to sigh – or roll our eyes – when students write or say that fateful phrase ‘it makes the reader read on’. But here’s the thing: when we’re talking about things like chapter ends, cliffhangers and clever titles, writers DO choose things to keep us reading. After all ‘page-turner’ or ‘I couldn’t put it down’ is a compliment for a book, right? So why is it such a banned phrase in GCSE English?

The trouble is, when we’re analysing, we’re looking at the micro level – or at least we’re supposed to be. The way to show you can do this is to comment on the effect of the features and words the writer has chosen, and the problem with ‘it makes the reader read on’ is that it isn’t specific enough to show your skills.

What I mean by this is that this fateful phrase – and others like it (‘it puts a picture in the reader’s mind’; ‘it makes the poem flow’; it helps you understand the writer’s view’) – doesn’t tell you anything about the feature, word or phrase you’ve chosen to comment on. It could be said about anything good in a text. And if that’s true, it’s not worth your time saying it.

Look at this simile: “solitary as an oyster” You may recognise it as describing Ebenezer Scrooge in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol. If you say it ‘helps us understand his character’ or it ‘makes the reader read on’, you’re not showing the examiner anything about your understanding of this image. It could just as easily be said of any other character detail.

However, there are various more specific things you might say that would help you – and earn marks – such as ‘the simile suggests that Scrooge is closed off to people’, or ‘Dickens uses this image to show how Scrooge may have something of value inside him, like a pearl in an oyster’. Either, or both, of these points are valid interpretations of this simile – and could be credited in a question about how Scrooge is presented (or similar relevant topic).

The key is: make what you’re saying specific. Does it explain THIS quote/ image/ feature? If not, have another think.