Language of the times

7th June 2013 at 01:00


An average piece of work

Why not conduct a test in which students make calculations based on words? Take a page from a children's book and a page from an adult book, then draw up a frequency table showing how many words of each word length are on each page. Find the mean, median, midrange and mode of the word lengths for each page.

Now look at the measures of spread. Students can find the quartiles and the interquartile length of the data, possibly via a cumulative frequency curve. Allow standard deviation for advanced students. Compare and contrast the two pieces. Are there any surprises?

Statistical analysis of text can be as challenging as you want to make it. Go to stanford.io116tMjp for an example of a truly testing piece of work. This 1986 technical report from the division of biostatistics at Stanford University, US, tries to decide from mathematical evidence alone whether or not Shakespeare wrote a (then) newly discovered poem. Some of the mathematics is fiendishly difficult but the tables are diverting.


'Lol' is no laughing matter

Text messaging can be a perilous business. Of the many things that came to light during the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and ethics of the British press, David Cameron's confusion over the meaning of "lol" was in some ways the most revealing. The world now knows that the prime minister signed off his text messages with "lol", believing that it meant "lots of love".

As teenagers everywhere will be aware, "lol" is the very modern acronym for "laugh out loud". But in a world of emoticons and textspeak, where emotions are played out on screen, it is hard to tell whether any real laughter occurs.

Many teachers will have heard "lol" used as a verbal expression in class - and found that it is rarely followed by the sound of laughter. But a prolonged disruption has probably been averted: a "lol" tends not to prove as catching among students as an actual laughing fit.

But does this mean that emotions are being dulled in our real lives? Is this just a trend, or is it the start of a brave new world? Ask students what they think of "lol" as a replacement for laughter and encourage them to consider the limitations of language.

You could conclude with a debate on the latest mobile innovation: a smartphone app that monitors a user's emotional state through their use of language and punctuation - and warns them when they are getting stressed. Teachers can expect to receive constant warnings.


If I were a rich man

F. Scott Fitzgerald is regarded as one of America's greatest 20th-century writers. His novel The Great Gatsby is now required reading in schools all over the world. The central figure of the novel, Jay Gatsby, has become a tantalising role for Hollywood, portrayed by stars including Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears in the recently released Baz Luhrmann production.

But the author, who died in 1940 at the age of just 44, thought himself a failure after his critics sniffily suggested that his work was an unfulfilled prelude to greater literary promise.

The Great Gatsby has an autobiographical element: the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan is believed to reflect a youthful romance between Fitzgerald and a woman named Ginevra King, who, like Daisy, declined to marry him because she felt that he was not rich enough to support her. And, like Gatsby and Daisy, Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were leading lights of the high society of New York in the 1920s.

Students will learn from Fitzgerald's powerful writing style, in which similes are woven like silk through sentences. But lessons can also be learned from the author's life.


- Introduce students to The Great Gatsby with sohnee's pre-reading activities. bit.lyGreatGatsbyprep

- Play abcwpresents' A-Z card-collecting game. bit.lyRealLifeAverages

- Find out how slang has changed over time in a worksheet activity from Georgia Harris. bit.lySlangThroughTime

- Try justinepaul 's activity and surprise your students with a bit of slang. bit.lyLessoninSlang

- Introduce your class to the basics of news writing in TESEnglish's activity. bit.lyNewsReportWriting.

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