Imagine this short piece of dialogue at a breakfast table.
Participant 1: Morning.
Participant 2: Good morning.
Participant 1: Tea or coffee?
Participant 2: Coffee please.
Participant 2: Can you pass me the jam please?
Participant 1: Raspberry or strawberry?
Participant 2: Either.
(Participant 1 passes strawberry jam.)
Participant 2: Thanks.
Participant 1: Juice?
Participant 2: I’m ok.
Participant 1: Are you sure?
Participant 2: Yes
In scenario 1, imagine the dialogue takes place in a family home and participant 1 and 2 are parent and teenage child. Scenario 2, we move to a hotel restaurant with a waitress and customer. Finally scenario 3, a flat where participant 1 and 2 are in a relationship but had an argument the night before. How quickly the dynamics of the imagined conversation, and the inferences and implications of the same utterances change when there are subtle amends to the context in which the dialogue is produced or received.
Every text – spoken or written, fiction or non fiction – has a unique context. A context which is rich and complicated, a context which is created by the interplay between producer and receiver, and one which absolutely should not be ignored. And so I get frustrated when students are asked to write their own text, or analyse someone else’s text without first starting with a recognition and appreciation of this. How many times do you see students trying to apply a checklist of techniques to engage, persuade, or create tension without any consideration first of what the text actually is? How and why, for example, writers create tension is completely different dependent upon whether it is a ghost story, an autobiography, a piece of journalistic writing and so on – the possibilities are endless. And within each of those genres, there are all sorts of other possibilities depending on the intentions, attitudes and beliefs of both the producer and receiver, and in fact, determined by where the extract of analysis or intended writing is to appear within the text. Any production of language is informed by a myriad of considerations and it’s not quite as straightforward then, as asking students to identify or analyse what techniques the writer has used to create tension, or asking them to write an effective piece of descriptive writing. It would be like expecting a chocolate cake without telling the baker what flavour you wanted, and then being surprised when you got a carrot cake. The same piece of writing can suddenly go from appropriate to inappropriate with a swift change of audience.
Of course the real issue is that competent readers and writers will often add this contextual knowledge intuitively. As accomplished users of language, we have a huge range of experiences we can draw on to fill in the gaps. As English teachers, we have all been exposed to a massive variety of different types of writing, and the subsequent knowledge of register that we have is therefore vast. But we cannot assume all our students also have this knowledge. Those students who have not come across academic writing in any form, have not sat around a dinner table and listened to conversations which involve debate, have not had access to newspapers and magazines, let alone novels, plays and poems, are exactly the students who don’t have the cultural capital that is required to fill in any gaps that we may overlook in our teaching activities. And in our methods to teaching analysis or writing, we do often skip the vital step needed to close this gap for many of our students. There are always going to be those students who when you ask them to write for a particular audience, purpose and genre can draw on their real life knowledge to adapt their writing. But even those students need to start by understanding where the text ‘sits’. Even at KS5, I see A level English language lessons where analysis of texts starts by identifying language methods rather than thinking about the context of the ‘text’ they are looking at.
A short trawl of resources for Touching the Void confirmed a general pattern. They all demonstrated (to a lesser or greater extent) detailed and precise identification of a range of linguistic methods used to engage the reader or create tension, and there was some attempt in some resources to link the reason for the use of these methods to broad comments on audience and purpose. But imagine how much richer those analyses would be if the activities or discussion of the text had really allowed students to explore the context of whichever extract they were analysing. Lots referenced a general audience – I would dispute this. Obviously to some degree it is written to be accessible to a general audience but think about real life. Personally I would never choose to read Touching the Void, whereas my sister who is an avid mountain climber and self-confessed adventure seeker would absolutely pick this up from Waterstones. And then think about the difference between me reading it and my sister reading it. I could definitely appreciate the terror and fear that Joe Simpson would be feeling, and the language certainly helps me imagine that. But my sister, who has put herself in potentially similar situations and is far more aware of the technical aspects of climbing, brings a whole different level of understanding and prior experience to her interpretation of the same piece of writing. And we can’t ignore the fact it is an autobiography – students should be able to consider and understand how this has affected the writing. This was not an account which was recorded at the time -it was written after the event with Simpson being fully aware he was writing what would be an edited book written to both entertain and inform. His portrayal of his experiences has had layers of time and reflection added to it, and this recognition adds a whole new dimension to a student’s analysis. I could go on…but I guess what I am advocating is that we don’t ignore or rush through the beauty of language use in our desire to meet assessment criteria, tick language analysis boxes or write exam style responses.
I think before starting any piece of writing or analysing any text, it is every student’s entitlement to be given time, and our guidance as expert users and readers of language , to explore that text’s context. Surely their own writing and analysis will be so much richer because of this.
Practical activities and texts to follow next!