English Teaching Online - Teachit's half-termly e-newsletter

The one with all the SPOKEN LANGUAGE STUDY
Summer (2) 2010 / Term 6

Talking it up | Adrian Beard Words, words, words | Tom Rank
Spoken language in the GCSE curriculum | Julie Blake Plugging the gaps | Andrew Buckton
Don't save it for KS4 | Harry Dodds Webwatch | Alison Powell
The lucky dip of slang | Geoff Barton
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Let it be a bit of fun, says Adrian Beard. It's the most exciting development in GCSE English in all the time I've been teaching, says Julie Blake. Too good, in fact, says Harry Dodds, to save for KS4. Grand, says Geoff Barton.

If you haven't yet turned your thoughts to how you might approach the study of spoken language at GCSE, now's the time to get just a little bit fired up about it.


Katie Green

Talking it up | Adrian Beard

Adrian BeardGCSE has always offered continuity (of a sort, admittedly) with A Level when it comes to studying literature, but with language there has been nothing, despite the fact that we have always used the term English Language in KS4. When QDCA were formulating their plans for new GCSEs in English, therefore, I suggested that this might be the chance to at least acknowledge that there is a whole academic route in English that is not literature, and which has been flourishing in all sorts of institutions for the last thirty years. And so we have the study of spoken language: a mere 10% of one option, and it has to be written about (!), but it’s at least a start.

Throughout my teaching career, writing has been something which 16-year-olds both produce and analyse. Speech, on the other hand, has only ever been produced, and often without any recognition that speech might be more effectively used if you actually analyse it. And then more recently the old binary division between speaking and writing has been broken apart by hybrid genres which blend aspects of both in a dizzying array of ever-changing genres.

Each person's life is lived as a series of conversations.

Deborah Tannen

So, let’s celebrate the study of spoken language as a small step towards the study of speech (and its hybrid forms) and enjoy the opportunities it offers us to engage students with something which by and large they are rather good at – communication in its many different forms and genres.

The best way to study spoken language is to think in terms of spoken discourses, and if we take the term discourse in its broadest sense, it can connect with all the aspects of context and culture which are as important to the understanding of written media or drama texts, as they are to spoken data. It is important, I feel, to help students to see that speech isn’t something that just comes out of our mouths (or via a keypad) but that it has its own scripts and conventions, all bound by contexts that are cultural, political, and ultimately power-based. What we say and how we say it comes from culturally modelled and learned conventions – just as writing does too.

School itself is a good place to start, with all its different types of speech events. Then there are media genres, regional patterns, age, technological uses and functions, etc. The more the unit can be based on investigating data the better, and the more each student can have ownership of that data even better still. It should also be clear that spoken language is not something separate from the rest of language use: it forms part of a coherent whole.

When I was asked to come up with some useful terminology for the study of spoken language, I did so with some trepidation. So please don’t let this unit go the way of many others, and become a set of terms to wade through and use regardless. And please don’t let it become a set of national task banks, with worksheets and templates. Instead let it be an integrated part of a course which thinks about discourses in the many senses of the word, which understands the connection of speech to specific people and specific locales, and which can be analysed at many levels of ability.

But above all let it be a bit of fun, something to explore and something which addresses some of the realities of our daily lives and how we lead them. As I am frequently told in the discourse of coffee houses: Enjoy!

Adrian Beard teaches at York St John University, and is a principal moderator for speaking and listening at GCSE.

Spoken language in the GCSE curriculum | Julie Blake

Julie BlakeThe introduction of spoken language study is the most exciting curriculum development there’s been in GCSE English in all the time I’ve been teaching it. Let’s face it, unless you’re prepared to stretch the semantic scope of the word 'development' to include death by anthology, there hasn’t been very much anyway. So where do you start? My advice is always with the question: what do we already know about this? The short answer is almost always 'more than we thought we did', but if it’s longer answers you’re after, here are mine.

We know students enjoy studying authentic spoken language. Collectively, we know this from our work with factual broadcast media products, from our experience of teaching spoken language at A Level, and from our experience of teaching with mini dialogues and listening exercises on TEFL courses. Students enjoy the here-and-now feel of spoken language, the recognisable everyday unpolished nature of it, and the dynamic energy that real dialogues and conversations have. We know presenting this in linguistics transcripts can be daunting at first, but as the GCSE awarding bodies all seem clear, this is not to be 'watered-down A Level'; there’s plenty of scope for creating accessible written representations. We know that audio and video sources work well.

Talk to people about themselves and they will listen for hours.

Benjamin Disraeli

We know it creates opportunities for hands-on 'making' projects. With audio recorders on most mobile phones and laptops, the opportunity is there for students to collect samples of data from their own lives. There are ethical issues to be considered – we don’t want bullying interactions, for example, or people being recorded without their explicit consent – but this is valuable work to do for the lives young people live in an uncritical YouTube world. The 'making' lies not just in recording the data, but also in transcribing it, a practice which can work wonders for developing the observational skills to improve analysis.

We also know it allows us to shape the work to real student interests. When the focus of study is how attitudes to language operate in society, or how the dynamics of conversation work, we are free to select data from just about any context. The fact that at least one awarding body is prepared to support students collecting data in their community languages, rather than a world of monolingual English they may have less access to, makes this a curriculum development with enormous potential not just to engage all our students in our subject in a new way, but also to celebrate our collective multilingual diversity.

Whenever I’ve taught spoken language at A Level, students have come to class bubbling to tell me how their new knowledge helped them understand what was 'really' going on in a conversation overheard on the bus. Teaching about attitudes to spoken language variety can change the way students see themselves: their accent and dialect something to respect in themselves and others, not write off as 'not proper'. Why would I not be rushing gleefully towards a new scheme of work?

Don't keep it for KS4 | Harry Dodds

Harry Dodds

It’s good that the study of spoken language is now embedded in GCSE specifications – it will at least get some attention. However, I think it’s too important a part of a pupil’s whole experience of English to be dealt with purely as another GCSE hurdle – it ought to be part of the curriculum from Year 7 onwards.

Four informing principles:

'Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.' Jerome Bruner
We should acknowledge that the divisions between key stages are arbitrary and more to do with administrative convenience than with defining what pupils can learn.
Pupils bring with them a sophisticated, if unarticulated, body of knowledge about their use of spoken language, and that constitutes a legitimate area of study.

‘Knowledge about’ spoken language is useful in its own right, but shouldn’t supplant the need to engage pupils in the use of as much spoken language as possible, and in as many contexts as possible.

Things to do:

In Year 7, ask pupils to identify the language communities to which they already belong, or have belonged – home, primary school playground, street/peer group, possibly even church – and to describe the distinguishing features of each linguistic context. They would articulate linguistic knowledge that they probably weren’t even aware that they had and could use. No reason not to tell them that they’ve been exploring the ideas of idiolect and sociolect – nothing conceptually beyond them there.

Move from here to looking at how their own experience suggests that Grice’s maxims apply to their own conversation.

They would find exploring politeness theory and positive/negative face illuminating, too.
Move from there to look at the ways in which others use language – accent and dialect, initially, moving on to introduce ideas of the differences that contexts make. Looking at the spoken language of the sports commentary should be accessible and interesting enough.

Look at the ways in which language use changes according to speakers’ roles and relationships. Draw on their own existing experience.

Explore the difference between real and represented speech – compare transcripts of real speech with scripted dialogue. You could use materials drawn from comedy here – Blackadder would be good, simply because so much of the humour is rooted in the language choices characters make.
Keep them talking – lots of group work, presentations, discussions. Get them to discuss the effectiveness of the spoken word in helping them learn.

Think ‘oracy’ before you think ‘Assessment Objective’.

Possible approaches:

http://www.naldic.org.uk/ITTSEAL2/teaching/SpokenLanguage.cfm – this is EAL-focused, but informative.

The National Oracy Project – Google for it. A search on ‘A model of learning from the National Oracy Project’ is particularly helpful.

The lucky dip of slang | Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton When I started teaching A Level English Language – rather too many years ago to dwell on – some of our funniest lessons were spent delving into the lucky dip of slang. (‘Slang, n: informal language consisting of words and expressions that are not considered appropriate for formal occasions; often vituperative or vulgar’ – wordnet.princeton.edu).

These lessons would almost write themselves, and they were rich in linguistic curiosity, illumination and slightly guilty laughter.

You only have to open a good slang dictionary and the fun begins. One of the best is Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Modern Slang (Bloomsbury), a veritable treasure trove of unexpected vocabulary, with a particularly rich seam of Australian slang.

Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking.

John Maynard Keynes

These words and phrases help us to map the sprawling and often unexpected underbelly of human attitudes towards crime, sex, drugs, bodily functions and the many other lexical favourites of slang.

I could fill the whole column with examples, but we’re afraid the spam filters might latch on to us, so – homework time – go and research it for yourself.

What an insight such language use gives us into topics that often don’t often officially get in through the classroom door. And after the cheap laughs and brief distaste at some of the lexical items, we can get into the more meaty business of exploring why it is that some people in some groups in some contexts use expressions like these sometimes.

It gets us into the giddying richness of spoken language. I’ve occasionally felt that we allow ourselves to get unnecessarily hooked on the technicalities – the stuff about how pauses and hesitations are represented in transcripts, or the way scripted drama differs from spontaneous language, and so on.

Let’s occasionally assign our students the roles of that fascinating and slightly dark movement of Britain in the 1940s, Mass Observation, when thousands of volunteers across Britain would keep diaries of what they saw and heard – an extraordinary collective diary of the people by the people (see Britain: Mass Observation published by Faber). Get students collecting fragments of spoken language, exploring the way usage shifts by age, gender, region and our allegiance to different groups and gangs.

Let’s set students a slang challenge. Choose an obscure word – say ‘loon-slatt’, an obsolete name for an old Scottish coin worth thirteen pence halfpenny, the proverbial amount of the hangman’s fee (interesting in itself, don’t you think?). Then set the challenge. During conversations at home or in the common room or on the bus, students have to smuggle the word into their usage as if it’s a trendy new piece of slang meaning ‘good’ or ‘cool’. An example would be: "I saw the new Shrek movie last night and it was amazing, really loon-slatt." They report back on what happens.

Quite whether this would get the approval of the new government’s wish to ensure that all pupils experience ‘the best that has been thought or said’ I’m not sure. But we are doing something deeply educational and culturally important here that perhaps we allowed our language work sometimes to miss: celebrating the glorious ever-changing zesty richness of the language we speak.

As my Uncle Ernie would have said: "Grand."


Words, words, words | Tom Rank on behalf of NATE

Tom Rank
First you can’t get them to be quiet, then they won’t talk – and now it seems we have to to persuade them to write about talk. Well, what goes around comes around – I’m old enough to recall when our local authority English Adviser could support projects that didn’t just have a narrow focus on targets such as getting more A* to Cs (or: points mean prizes). The National Oracy Project was one such (until the last Conservative government closed it down) and I can still remember a Head of Department who made clear his opinion that he wasn’t there to listen to what they had to say – they were there to hear what he had to say. I recall, too, that his sports jacket was embellished with a badge for AEC buses – it seems he had clear views on public transport too. Now hold very tight, please, as we have yet another route change for the GCSE bus.

Confronted with yet another set of examination developments, I turned, as any NATE member can, to the March copy of English Drama Media. (However recently you have joined NATE, your subscription gives you access to the complete archive of periodicals – such good value!) Carol Atherton’s article on ‘Studying Spoken Language at GCSE’ not only got me up to speed on the differences between specifications, she also has some excellent practical suggestions, such as studying teenage slang or the range of dialects in the school locality. As well as well-known websites such as the BBC’s Voices and the British Library’s Sounds Familiar, Carol alerted me to a site I’d not come across before, the International Dialects of English Archive, which contains recordings from around the world. She suggests listening to two contrasting accents and asking students to make notes, as they listen, on their perceptions of the speakers. What might someone’s accent tell you about their personality, intelligence, social class or level of income? Even better, if you can, to ask students to make and comment on their own recordings. Today computers, cheap digital voice recorders and even iPods make this very simple. Using the excellent free Audacity software, students can edit their recordings, add commentaries and even post them online as podcasts. If you’d like a bit more help with this, take a look at the case studies on podcasting on the NATE site – they include simple help sheets and even a slide show to get students started.

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.

George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion)

A Level Language teachers are well used to this kind of study. I had the pleasure recently of visiting Louise Astbury’s class at Oldham Sixth Form College for NATE’s learning platform project. As part of a unit on language and power, Louise had recorded a number of programmes such as The Weakest Link and Hell’s Kitchen USA. The College had access to eStream, which stores recordings and splits them into easily annotated ‘chapters’ for students to select and annotate the features they observed – allowing them to collaborate in groups by accessing the videos from college or home. I’d forgot just how cruel that Anne Robinson can be! YouTube is a less sophisticated alternative source.

There’s plenty more about spoken English at NATE Conference (9-11 July). Research presentations on Friday cover topics such as children’s discussions and classroom talk and there are seminars on the British Library’s resources on language. ‘Goodbye to the Cat on the Mat’ looks at a new web-based resource for language teaching at KS3-5. Not to be missed – call 0114 255 5419 to book a last-minute place!

Plugging the gaps | Andrew Buckton

Andrew Buckton ‘Spoken language’ is obviously a key component of ‘social communication’. It’s hard to separate ‘speech’ from ‘language’, or either from ‘communication’. However, ‘speech’, ‘language’ and ‘communication’ are looked at separately and are recognised as individual areas of difficulty for students who have Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) in the National Strategies Inclusion Development Programme (IDP).

No one would be excused for finding navigating the IDP – a CD ROM-based ‘toolkit’ to support teachers who work with students with SLCN – almost impossible, which is a huge shame. The purpose of the CD ROM toolkit is to support teachers in meeting the needs of pupils with language difficulties, and the materials, once found, can be very useful. It is certainly worth a frustrating explore if you or your SENCo has a copy that you can get your hands on.

There is nothing so annoying as to have two people talking when you're busy interrupting.

Mark Twain

The new unit on Spoken Language gives students the opportunity to focus on how speech and language are used in everyday contexts to communicate. This presents itself as a fantastic opportunity for us to help pupils with SLCN to get to grips with some of the more difficult aspects of spoken language that most children learn through the normal course of their development.

In particular, this unit is a great opportunity to spend time focusing on developing students’ verbal reasoning skills. Fundamentally, this is the ability to understand what has been said and then to work out the implication of what they have heard.

Another key area of focus can be non-literal language, such as inferred meaning, idioms, jokes and sarcasm.

Finally, students can be taught about using language appropriately in different social situations, such as turn-taking in conversations, learning how to start and end conversations, understanding intonation, volume and style.

The IDP suggests teachers audit the speech, language and communication skills of the students in order to find out the areas that the students have gaps in, as each may have very different needs. If, for instance, you are aware of some students who have very poor auditory memory, you can support them in getting more out of the spoken language that they hear through giving them visual prompts. This could be as simple as some photographs from Google images.

Whatever the student’s main area of difficulty, strategies can be put in place to help them understand spoken language better and therefore be more able to access and complete this unit.

The more we teach students about spoken language, the better they will understand how we communicate, and many students with SLCN could really do with these opportunities to plug some developmental gaps.

Webwatch | Alison Powell

I know some colleagues are starting to shake in their boots (or sandals – hurrah for the sunshine!) about the prospect of the new GCSE spoken language units, but really, there is nothing to fear. We are assured by the exam boards that this is not a case of learning long lists of complicated terminology. Students will be able to gain top grades without knowing that ‘hedges’ can refer to anything other than leafy boundaries.

What they will need to be able to do is to explore their own talk, recognise how we modify talk for different contexts and analyse how we use features of spoken language in our multi-modal conversations. And there are plenty of useful sites around that should help unwobble your wellies.

The Open University’s Word4word is a lovely place to start and offers, amongst other things, a downloadable language survey kit, a guide for conducting effective interviews and example conversations to listen to.

An alternative to that is the Introduction to Conversation Analysis by Professor Charles Antaki of Loughborough University. This offers a slightly more detailed guide to how and why one makes a transcript.

The BBC has lots to offer spoken language students. There’s the iPlayer for a start, providing a plethora of audio to analyse. Then there are the transcripts for a number of radio programmes, including You and Yours and Case Notes, as well as several TV shows, for example Horizon. The BBC Voices site provides a wealth of recorded interviews, all focusing on accents and dialect in the UK, as well as a word map and a section on language change.

As for multi-modal talk, well the list could go on and on ... The real problem will be getting past your school's firewall.  This list of social networking sites at Wikipedia might help.

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