My heads a little dizzy
My heads spinning ’round and ’round
Prince – “Time”- Art Official Age
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write this post, but one thing has prevented me: time!
‘Time’ is a curious little noun, it’s defined as the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. You see the problem is teachers really don’t have much of it. Time has prevented me for nearly a year making a set of resources I need!
In April I attended ResearchEd English and MFL in Oxford and had the pleasure of attending Kamil Trzebiatowski (@ktlangspec) session on The linguistic needs of EAL and English native speaking learners. I listened to his talk and went back to my school and began analysing our (AQA) paper 1 and 2 Q5’s (instead of creating artificial tests) for a detailed diagnostic of SPaG. I will blog separately with regards the test and results.
The results so far have made me realise students really do lack sophistication and creativity in their writing and this prevents them analysing texts accurately when close reading.
Recently a friend of mine had a year 11 class and asked students to annotate a poem, one student quickly raised their hand ‘the poet’s used a simile’. When asked to continue and develop their understanding of the poet’s choice the student said ‘dunno, but it has like or as, so I know it’s a simile!’
A while ago I read a blog by David Didau, and the following section (about halfway down the post) really interested me:
The post really made me consider the use of adjectives in writing and off the back of that, I began to make a list of language and literary techniques with the aim of making a resource that explicitly teaches the technique/concept well. All English teachers understand the importance of ‘words’… some are loaded with connotations (positive or negative) others not. An author or writer will convey their attitude, opinion or ideology through these choices, for example:
- Childlike, Youthful, Childish, Young (Childish and childlike implies that someone is immature, but youthful infers that someone is lively and energetic).
- Talkative, Conversational, Chatty, Nosy (Talkative and chatty can mean that someone talks too much; and nosy that someone asks too many questions).
Each one of the above carries a different meaning and can change the overall representation an author is attempting to achieve.
The reason my students don’t really understand the effect of author’s choices is because they simply don’t comprehend the importance behind key choices, if you take out the modifiers (I’ve crossed them out) from this very brief extract from Strangers on a Train:
Chapter 1 The First Meeting
The train rushed along angrily. Guy was thinking about Miriam. He saw her round pink face, her cruel mouth … he started to hate her.
The adjectives and adverbs do more than just describe the scene. They give the reader details about Guy and his feelings towards his wife (and hints at why he wants her dead). Take them out and it changes the meaning, even understanding.
Consider the following extracts from The Forest of Souls, by Carla Banks
(taken from Working with Texts)
These are the types of questions I may ask my students:
- How are words used in each extract to identify people and groups?
- How are they used to identify emotions and physical states?
- How are words used differently to describe the hangings in the two extracts?
- What effects does this create?
Yet all analysis of text needs an awareness of not only the relationship between words and meanings but also the context. If a student doesn’t grasp the context, then much of the meaning will be lost; the fact that the executioners are Nazis is crucial for students to really understand the meaning in the extract.
Below is an extract from The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. I used the description of the party scene with a group. This is a screen shot of the extract I used:
Students were given a question along the lines..
- How has Fitzgerald used language to show opulence?
Of all the choices in the extract a student chose ‘coloured lights’ and went on to analyse the effect. Whilst their analysis of the lights was accurate, their judicious choice of quote wasn’t! Why from a beautifully crafted description loaded with meaning, did they pick the lights? Simple: they understood the effect of sparkly, pretty lights!
Modals and Modality
Recently on twitter I had a long discussion with Diane Leedham (@DiLeed) about the importance of modals and modality in sentences, for example:
- may – represents a possibility of an action – I may need your help.
- will – represents a mode of control – I will need your help.
Jess Mason (@DrofletJess) entered the discussion and uploaded a fantastic resource:
Students cannot analyse a word if they don’t understand its purpose. Modal verbs can be crucial in an extract but are often overlooked by many students. Here are four sentences from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde:
The modal verb ‘might’ has been used some 60+ times in the novel, yet each time it’s used differently. It could show a hint of polite permission, possibility or probability. Yet again, how many students would analyse that one word over many others? Very few of mine would!
My final example is metaphors. A Metaphor is usually associated with poetry and literature, however, we use creative language all the time in everyday language. Metaphors are effective because they allow a further expansion of the author’s intention and make new or further connections between words and meanings. Consider conceptual metaphors such as the meaning behind “up” and “down”:
- Up is associated with happy – ‘I’m feeling up’, ‘boosting one’s spirits’, that
gives me a lift’, ‘peak of health’, ‘in top shape’, ‘on top of the situation’, ‘a superior position’, ‘the height of someone’s power’, ‘things are looking up’, ‘riding high’.
- Down is associated with unhappiness – ‘I’m down/low’, ‘my spirits sank’, ‘fall ill’, ‘declining health’, ‘sinking fast’, ‘under someone’s control’, ‘fall from power’, ‘low
down’, ‘under the weather’, ‘beneath contempt’.
*Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson (1980)
Yet how many of my students would have picked any one of those and analysed for meaning? I would guess none! Often they’d search for obvious or complex techniques in writing, a quick search on google + metaphors gave me “the curtain of night” that’s a typical example of a metaphor my students would analyse. Why? Because they can clearly see that it’s imagery and guess it may be important – it’s an obvious metaphor.
Students could analyse “the curtain of night” to a high level and gain a good mark, so why do I feel they’re missing out on the subtlety of language choices? By year 11, I hope students understand word groups and techniques – but how many of them really interpret the meaning behind choices accurately? How many are really able to understand the importance of clause order, or able to explain any rhetoric device with sophistication?
And I haven’t even got to the effective use of punctuation, sentence types, clause order and paragraphs, POV, perspective, tone (humour, irony, puns etc)… Now you can see why ‘time’ is my issue!
My task for the 6-week break: make a set of resources that teaches a technique, method or terminology with precision and detail using extracts from both fiction and non-fiction that show students the effects of language choices by authors.