Move with the media

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Media education in English has outgrown writing 'news' reports on Romeo and Juliet and repeat showings of Kes, says Geoff Barton

The English teacher's repertoire has included media education for a long time now. I used to delude myself that I was "doing media" when I showed the video of Kes or, with some monotony, asked my students to compare the front pages of a tabloid and broadsheet newspaper. I would sometimes ask pupils to report Juliet's death in The Verona Times, or to rewrite a scene from the class reader as a radio play. I liked to think that this was cutting-edge stuff.

The revised national curriculum for English takes us significantly beyond all that. It requires pupils to explore the moving image and to learn about media techniques such as storyboards and sequencing. Most of us will welcome this. English has always been about exploring both the medium and the message and so it seems entirely appropriate to update that tradition to reflect new media forms. It is worth reminding ourselves that what is required here is not a diluted media studies course. This is media work as a central part of English, not as a separate area of study. For me, that English tradition suggests three broad areas of focus.

The first is language. This surely has to underpin everything we do in English lessons and should include the distinctive language features of different media texts. Some examples:

* How is a cricket commentary on radio different from a commentary of the same moment in the same game on television?

* How do advertisers develop product names and what are their connotations?

* How are accents used as voice-overs for particular products in commercials and why are we likely to find, say, a northern accent promoting bread or beer, but not linked to a stylish car or mobile phone company?

This area of study is likely to prove especially useful in developing pupils' awareness of register, written and spoken language, standard English and the way media forms often subvert expected patterns of language use.

A second focus is the media form itself. The revised Order provides an opportunity to demystify and explore some media techniques. For example:

* How does a director use music to build tension?

* How does animator Nick Park use facial expressions, gesture, and bodily movement to characterise Gromit, who never speaks?

* How do storyboards help a director construct a multiple storyline and plan the type of camera shots needed?

* What are the essential ingredients in an effective website?

This can be a fertile area for lively English work. It is about active production, not arid analysis. As well as examining "real" texts, pupils should create their own storyboards, test different soundtracks with clips of film, build websites, make leaflets, sift through junkmail - and use the experience to reflect on the processes involved.

This is where the challenge of resources is greatest. English teachers will need access to a range of media texts not readily to hand such as transcripts, screenplays and storyboards.

It is, for me, one of the most exciting parts of the new emphasis on media. I have spent hefty parts of my life as an English teacher unearthing new text to read in class. I cannot leave a supermarket or doctor's surgery without a handful of free leaflets. I have been known to rifle through neighbours' skips if I thought there might be an old copy of Anglers' Weekly lurking at the bottom.

But now we are being strongly nudged in less familiar directions. How about the language of e-mails and text messages? Or movie scripts in their various drafts, from storyboard to shooting script? Or transcripts of weather forecasts on ITV and BBC Radio 4 (a good one for register study)?

There is a need here for all kinds of texts not usually found in the English stockcupboard. I suggest a few internet starting-points in the box (right).

Our third focus of media in English is an easily neglected one. It is part of a moral tradition of English teaching and might be described as media ethics. We might invite pupils to discuss:

* How far should newspapers be free to report a person's private life?

* Are teenage magazines irresponsible in their portrayal of sex issues?

lHow is an age of digital television changing our viewing habits - and is it, ironically, diminishing our choice?

* Does violence on screen help to create violence in society?

In 1933 F R Leavis and Denys Thompson wrote in Culture and Environment of the need for pupils to study newspapers and advertising. It is an approach that has been much derided, cast as a wish "to inoculate us against the infectious corruption of their virulence" (Jon Davison and Jane Dowson, Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School, Routledge 1998).

Our aim is not to teach against the media but to develop the kind of critical response that enables pupils to consider media forms with confident detachment. This does not detract from all the other important elements of the English curriculum. Rather, it is a natural development of the range of texts and processes we already employ the essential literacy skills for a media generation.

Geoff Barton teaches in Suffolk and is a Fellow of the English Association E-mail:


Media and moving image texts:

*How choice of form, layout and presentation contribute to effect, for example: font, caption, illustration in printed text; sequencing, framing, soundtrack in moving image textl How the nature and purpose of media products influence content and meaning, for example: selection of stories for a front page or news broadcast

* How audiences and readers choose and respond to media

Range of reading:

* Media and moving image texts, for example: newspapers, magazines, advertisements, television, films, videos


*The forms for writing should be drawn from different kinds of stories, poems, playscripts, autobiographies, screenplays, diaries

Some internet starting-points:

* The best jumping-off point for news and research:

* Good source of movie information, including

* Movie trailers that you can download:

* Excellent source of movie news and discussion forums:

* Comprehensive listing of internet radio stations: http:realguide.real.comtuner

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