The 'speech act', anyone?

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Iain MacDonald explores his relationship with the new Language and Literature A-level

If you marry in haste, they say, you repent at leisure. Much the same could be said of choosing exam syllabuses. You can get out after two years - a quickie divorce - but it will be a bruising experience if you pick the wrong board.

Ideally you would spend several days getting to know the specifications individually, in some quiet location, with a bottle of decent wine to ease the tension, but last summer's courtships were conducted with unseemly haste - I met my specification over the internet only days before I introduced it to the parents.

At our school we saw this broadening of the sixth-form curriculum as an appropriate moment to move away from offering only English Literature. No one particularly fancied "pure" Language and, as I had had positive experience of the old and much-loved AEB syllabus 623, we opted for the AQA syllabus A in Language and Literature. This, we were assured at the late summer syllabus support meeting, preserved the best features of the old 623. Some poetic licence there.

Gone is the lovely long list of essay options, for a start, and in its place a somewhat bizarre exercise known as recasting, in which students are given a piece of text (it could be anything from a conversation transcript to a piece of satire, admits the support material breezily) and are invited to use it as a springboard to produce another piece of writing with a specified audience, purpose and context. As a party game it is not without its charm, and my group are attacking the exercise with considerably more zeal than their counterparts last year showed embarking on Hardy poetry, but I am dreading the moment one of them asks what exactly it is all in aid of.

The second part of that paper requires students to produce a commentary on what they have written, using an appropriate framework and terminology. Much is made in the specification and support materials of frameworks, which I do not recall by name from 623 days, but which sem little more than the sort of structured approach to analysis students are generally encouraged to use for practical criticism.

The "appropriate terminology" is worth a mention. There is a whole raft of new vocabulary - some of it rather irritating when you have got through half a career of broadly successful English teaching without it. We must speak of lexis and semantic field, for example - nothing so straightforward as vocabulary or language.

Another paper focuses on something hilariously termed "the speech act" (I cannot hear the phrase without hearing Bill Clinton assuring us that he did naat have dialogue with that woman). Here we come across the delights of "adjacency pairs" and "sympathetic circularity". But this may be the grumpiness of ignorance talking. No doubt by the end of the year I will be as pedantic as the next A-level Language diehard.

The remaining two areas of study in the AS are the novel and poetry, one of which must be pre-20th century. The modern options in both seemed narrow and, in the case of the poetry, rather lightweight. In the end we went for Keats, which suited a colleague and seemed to offer some gravitas to counter all that sympathetic circularity, but which left me with a choice of only three contemporary texts. Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory is hilarious and anarchic, but not for the squeamish; The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, an elegantly written account of suffering and forgiveness, is dull in places and not for the squeamish in others; and Toni Morrison's Beloved did not feel like the text to set before reluctant Year 12s, for some of whom English was a fourth option, and whose last experience of the modern novel was Of Mice and Men. In the end adolescent appeal carried the day and I opted for The Wasp Factory.

So off we go, my students, the new specification and I, a fragile partnership with a long road to travel. It was not quite a shotgun wedding; time alone will tell if it is a love match.

Iain MacDonald is head of English at a West Midlands grammar school

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