Studying Spoken Language at GCSE: The Challenge of the New Specifications: Carol Atherton Outlines Some Possible Approaches to and Resources for the New Element of GCSE English

Article excerpt

Language--from A Level into GCSE

There are some aspects of English that hold a particular appeal for those of us who are a little bit ... um ... nosy. For a number of years now, I've told prospective A Level English Language students that the course is best suited to people who are good at eavesdropping - who tune into other people's conversations as soon as they hear a snippet of something juicy. Recently I've also advocated lurking on Internet messageboards. Fascinated by a good flamewar? Can't stop earwigging on the school bus? Then English Language is the subject for you!

Teachers of English Language at A Level are used to getting their students to explore spoken language--to analyse conversational features such as turn-taking, politeness, minimal responses and topic shifts, and comment on the relationships between speakers. From September 2010, the analysis of spoken language will also become part of the GCSE course, as students taking GCSE English Language will have to carry out a Spoken Language Study as one of their new controlled assessments. This is something that many teachers are likely to find daunting. In the past, students have been assessed on their own Speaking and Listening work, and have had the chance to discuss and explore the skills needed in this part of the course. However, the subject knowledge encompassed by the Spoken Language Study might seem to be much more specialised. Those who teach A Level English Language may struggle to simplify topics and methods of analysis that they are used to teaching in much more detail. And then, of course, there are the practicalities of controlled assessment itself to consider. Even though the Spoken Language Study accounts for only 10% of the overall GCSE grade, it might well be looming disproportionately large in teachers' minds as they prepare for the new courses.

The new GCSE specs

The GCSE specifications differ widely in how they approach the Spoken Language Study. Even though the outcome is broadly similar--a piece of written work of between 800 and 1000 words--the awarding bodies vary in how much time they expect students to have spent preparing for this assessment, and in the kinds of tasks they require them to complete. At the upper extreme is OCR, which recommends about fifteen hours of preparation time and allows up to four hours for completion of the controlled assessment: conversely, WJEC recommends eight hours of preparation and allows two hours for assessment. Topics covered range from the relatively straightforward to the considerably more sophisticated. One of WJEC's options, for instance, is 'How spoken language is adapted to different listeners' which might involve exploring the ways in which people speak to young children or older family members. (1) AQA, on the other hand, includes an option on multi-modal talk, in which students should have the chance to explore how 'new technologies blur traditional distinctions between speaking and writing' and how 'online identity is established and negotiated.' (2) Such a task may well appear to need a level of specialist knowledge that will take some time to acquire.

The nature of all of the tasks set is governed by QCA's requirement that GCSE specifications in English Language must enable learners to 'understand the impact of variations in spoken and written language and how they relate to identity and cultural diversity'. (3) Most of the awarding bodies signal their commitment to the latter by recommending that schools find ways of contextualising the Spoken Language Study that will make it relevant to their students, drawing on their own linguistic knowledge and encouraging them to explore how language shapes their identities. AQA, for example, recommends that 'Candidates should be encouraged to investigate topics that are of personal interest to them and collect their own data when possible'. (4) Edexcel's guidance notes recommend that students should explore 'the language they hear around them' and examples taken from 'sources such as YouTube, TV or radio interviews, radio phone-ins, soap operas or the British Library audio archives'. …