Putting the Facts Straight – OCR/ EMC’s A Level Language and Literature

Some of the media coverage this week has suggested that the draft OCR/EMC Language and Literature specification is dumbing down, pandering to students’ interests and putting celebrities like Russell Brand in the same category as Shakespeare. In response we thought it important to set the record straight and provide some basic, factual information to help inform the debate.

What is the relationship between EMC and OCR?

EMC is an independent charity, providing Continuing Professional Development, consultancy, publications, conferences and courses for English and Media teachers in secondary education. We have been delighted to be involved in a partnership with OCR to develop this specification. In all other respects we remain independent of OCR, providing resources and support as we always have done for KS3, KS4 and KS5 English and Media, for the full range of specifications, both current and future. We have worked with other Awarding Bodies in the past and hope to continue to do so, building on our range of award-winning publications and support for secondary teachers.

Why does the draft specification include texts other than conventional literary ones?

The specification is a Language and Literature specification, conforming to the requirements for this subject, as set out by the DfE and Ofqual. It has yet to be approved by Ofqual but has been developed with all of the subject content requirements and assessment criteria in mind. It is not a Literature A Level.

Why does the draft specification include contemporary speakers like Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman and contemporary non-fiction?

Language and Literature A Level specifications have, since 2000, been required to include both spoken and written texts in a wide range of genres and modes. Spoken texts are in the subject content and specifications have always included spontaneous and semi-spontaneous speech and, in recent years, texts produced on the internet (sometimes referred to as hybrid texts because they have some of the features of speech and others more commonly associated with writing). The inclusion of diaries, letters, speeches, TV and radio scripts, adverts, sports commentaries and so on, is not new. It is part of the ‘language’ part of a Language and Literature A Level.

What makes the study of texts different in a Language and Literature A Level, as compared with a Literature A Level?

The Language and Literature Subject Content (as prescribed by the DfE) signals that this is a course about the study of texts, literary and non-literary, spoken and written. There is a requirement in the Subject Content to study a non-literary text.

These texts are explored using both literary and linguistic analysis. Unlike in a Literature A Level, students learn both the ideas and methods associated with the field of literary criticism and the ideas and methods associated with linguistics and English language. This makes the course highly challenging. Students emerge with finely tuned skills in close reading and analysis of any text, whether it be an extract from Samuel Pepys’ diary, Othello, a poem by Blake, a Jeremy Paxman interview with Dizzee Rascal and Valerie Amos, or a scene in a play by Oscar Wilde (all in the draft OCR/EMC specification). They have to apply their literary and linguistic knowledge appropriately, deciding which concepts and methods are most relevant to the text in question.  The language of a House of Commons Select Committee, with Russell Brand, is not being put up as a challenge to Shakespeare. It is not a literary text and it is not being judged against the measure of whether it is ‘good’ literature, because it isn’t literature. That is not comparing like with like. That is muddling the literary aspect of study with the required linguistic elements of the course. It’s not even saying it is ‘good’ speaking.  That is not what linguists do. It is being offered to students for analysis, as a fascinating example of language use, in the terms used within the academic discipline of linguistics.

What is the thinking behind the kinds of literary texts that have been chosen?

The texts in the OCR/EMC specification have been chosen in conformity to the demands set by the DfE and OFQUAL, with the intention of producing a rigorous, challenging and highly academic qualification that will equip students for any university course.  Students have to study prose fiction and either drama or poetry. The OCR/EMC specification requires prose fiction and both drama and poetry in order to equip students well not only for the range of English studies courses that include English Language but also for pure English Literature courses in top universities.  The texts include some exciting new, critically acclaimed writers – Jacob Sam-La Rose, Jhumpa Lahiri and Jez Butterworth. But the majority of authors on the set text lists are not new – Blake, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Ian McEwan, Charlotte Bronte, Chinua Achebe, Scott Fitzgerald. The inclusion of new writers has not been on the basis of a patronising ‘appeal’ to young people or on the basis of relevance – it’s been on the basis of quality and whether the text stands up to the kind of literary and linguistic scrutiny that is required in this A Level.

What kinds of texts have been chosen for the non-examined component (previously known as coursework) and why?

There is one area of the draft specification which is quite new and that is the non-examined unit. Here, OCR and EMC have chosen to focus on a non-fiction text (part of the DfE Subject Content). We have created a long list of set texts to choose from, with the requirement that students select a text of their own (published in book form), as a comparison. They will have to find an analytic angle for comparison and write their own individual essay, drawing on what they have learned in the course as a whole and selecting appropriate and apt analytical methods and ideas in order to do that. The text list for the prescribed text includes familiar non-fiction classics like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent and Truman Capote’s ground-breaking ‘new journalism’, In Cold Blood. However it also includes some exciting, less familiar texts. These include Twelve Years a Slave (Solomon Northup, 1853) and Anna Funder’s Stasiland (Guardian First Book Award 2003,  Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction 2004). The list also includes some works of journalism and internet non-fiction but only texts that have been published in book form because they have received critical acclaim. The texts have been chosen with a language as well as a literature focus, in other words because they would lend themselves to close linguistic analysis, as well as literary analysis, alongside another text.

What is the value of a Language and Literature A Level? How is it viewed by universities?

Contrary to some reporting in the press, Language and Literature A Level is highly regarded in the universities and many students studying it go on to study English in its various forms in the best universities in the country. Moreover, as they progress through the system, some of these students, who go on to become teachers of English in schools, are much better equipped than their counterparts who have only studied Literature to teach the language elements of the KS2, KS3 and KS4 curriculum, where expert knowledge of grammar is increasingly required. A Level Language and Literature students will know their way around issues of syntax, morphology, pragmatics, lexis, phonology and discourse better than most; they will be able to explain to you the complexities of Russell Brand’s use of syntax in the House of Commons Select Committee, his use of polysyllabic, Latinate lexis, his rather surprisingly formal address, the pragmatics of his exchanges with the chair, his meta-level references to the nature of the discourse and the use of humorous (possibly nervous?) plays on words both by him and the Chair of the Committee, either to play to the public audience or to soften the formality of a highly formulaic procedural form of dialogue. What they will not be doing is suggesting that Russell Brand is better or worse than Shakespeare. That is not the point of studying him.

What happens next?

The draft specification will be submitted to Ofqual in June. Ofqual will, we presume, follow its own strict procedures of ensuring that the qualification complies with the DfE Subject Content requirements and the Ofqual assessment requirements. EMC firmly believes that the specification meets all of these requirements in full and is a high quality, demanding A Level specification.

You might also be interested to read what David Crystal has to say on the subject on his excellent blog.

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7 thoughts on “Putting the Facts Straight – OCR/ EMC’s A Level Language and Literature

  1. Thanks so much for this – the radio 2 ‘coverage’ of this topic on the Jeremy Vine show on Wednesday afternoon made me see red, with various people spouting away who clearly hadn’t absolutely the remotest clue about the concepts involved and the fundamental fact that Brand’s language was the subject of linguistic analysis, not literary criticism. The sad thing is that this kind of high-profile reporting gives the public, and especially the poor parents of young people contemplating A level choices, totally the wrong impression.

  2. Worthwhile you doing this – the ignorance or mischief-making of the press and the opportunism of some of our politicians know no bounds. Perhaps next year you can use newspaper coverage and commentary on the new specification contents as source material ….

    I should perhaps say that this is a personal view.

    Good luck with this,

  3. Many thanks for a thorough explanation. I fully understand concerns about being ‘in bed ‘ with any exam board and the need to remain independent. it’s essential to have recent , relevant , engaging modern texts too! this is the 21st century and students expect more – text means lots of things not just books. thanks

  4. There was a more informed response on Radio 4 this morning as the ‘Thought for the Day’. It should be available on iPlayer. It was on at about 7.45am.
    That talk would also make interesting material for analysis! It was a text carefully crafted for a listening audience.

  5. Reblogged this on Sue Dymoke and commented:
    Thanks to the English and Media Centre for their splendid rebuttal. This exciting new course should be welcomed by everyone who is committed to teaching English as a vital, dynamic form of expression.

  6. Pingback: Letter to The Sunday Times in support of OCR/ EMC A Level English Language and Literature | English & Media Centre

  7. Pingback: Letter to The Sunday Times in support of A Level English Language and Literature | English & Media Centre

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