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.

About

I’m an English teacher and writer living in Leicester in the East Midlands of the UK. As of Sept 2018, I’m also a part-time research student at the University of Leicester, working towards a PhD in Education. I’m lucky enough to be looking at diversity in YA lit and classroom applications.

I’ve always loved reading and writing – in fact I planned to be an author as a child, until aged about 15 I decided I’d never have any good enough ideas, it had all already been done and decided to teach instead! Writing books about English teaching therefore seems a reasonable place to end up (although, by the way, the good ideas are not all taken, and it’s perfectly possible to still have a writing career today – check out my blog for people who are making it look easy!)

For my published teaching resources and textbooks, check out this page in the Writing section.

Teaching bio:

My BA is in Modern Language Studies (French, German and Italian – Language, Literature and Culture) from Leicester Uni.

My MA is in Gender, Literature and Modernity from Warwick Uni. This course was jointly managed by the English department and the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender (and was very cool!)

I have a PGCE in Continuing Education from Nottingham Uni and QTS by assessment achieved at Beauchamp College in Leicester.

I’ve been teaching since 1996, with the bulk of my experience being with A Level Language, although I have also taught various other subjects. As well as the obvious GCSE and other A Levels in English, these include conversational French and Italian, and Women’s History as part of an Access to HE course. I also have some experience of the IGCSE and IB syllabuses and examining experience for various bodies/papers.

Personal bio:

I’ve lived in Leicester since coming here for university (any students reading this might take this as a warning when looking at universities…). I’m married with two daughters and we have three dogs: two lurchers and a terrier cross, which take quite a bit of walking. I teach only part-time now to make time for writing and other interesting work which pops up from time to time, like teacher training. 

Writing bio:

As noted above, I’ve always loved writing. I’m one of the many teachers mourning the demise of the A Level in Creative Writing. However, I do write for my own pleasure as well as producing textbooks/resources. I’m usually working on some kind of children’s story, as that’s where the joy is for me – losing myself just as a did as a child. (Note also that I still read kids’ books and am a massive fan of YA fiction, even though I’m an educated woman in my 40s – never let anyone tell you a book is too young/easy for you!)

A lot of those books behind me are YA or children’s books, and that T-shirt is from YALC – the YA Lit Convention that’s been running since 2012, when Malorie Balckman set it up as part of London Film & Comic Con.

Want to book me for a workshop? See this page and get in touch to discuss your ideas. I’m happy to come up with bespoke training to suit your needs, if it’s within my specialisms.