In this blog, I’m here to discuss what constitutes terminology in English, clarify what examiners’ are advising and offer some guidance moving forward.
Since the reforms to both GCSE and A Level English, one particular element of mark schemes has lit up revision sessions and departmental meetings alike: subject terminology.
From responses that display a surprising familiarity with obscure rhetorical strategies (parataxis, anadiplosis, polysyndeton etc.) to those that insist on calling similes metaphors and vice versa, I’ve seen students and teachers grapple with precisely which terms to use.
Debates about the level of subject terminology abound over Twitter and, as some rightly raise, highly specialist language is required in Science and a range of other subjects. So, why all the fuss about English?
Given its newly-enhanced position within mark schemes across examination boards, it is easy to see why subject terminology is a flash point for worry and focus.
Teachers are keen to ensure students demonstrate their knowledge; introducing a new, more complex, more precise term seems a simple way to elevate a perhaps more straightforward response. Even for teachers though, there remains a lack of clarity about which of these complex terms to introduce.
From a student’s perspective, when combined with the other things students need to revise, it can become stressful to remember a newly-introduced Latinate term over the more familiar terms of Key Stage 3.
Often these terms employ prefixes and suffixes that can be confused; this can also be the consequence of often deriving from Latin or Greek, making their meanings less immediately clear from their spelling, flummoxing even the keenest of spellers.
An obvious drawback of employing these more complex terms is the possibility of mislabelling. A complicated term used incorrectly can help to derail the accuracy and thoughtfulness of a candidate’s response.
Avoiding unnecessarily complex terminology can also aid in making the response clearer and more precise; think about how a doctor avoids saying “lateral epicondyle” when they could just say “elbow.”
However, the greater danger in using more unusual terminology is that, in doing the work of remembering the term, candidates can forget the meat of the task: interpretation.
The new GCSEs and A Levels weight heavily the idea of explaining the impact of a text. Our qualifications focus on developing a student’s ability to examine a text in depth and explore a writer’s use of linguistic and literary methods.
As one Examiners’ Report put it neatly: “subject terminology is useful in helping candidates understand how texts work but can sometimes leave them feeling that they have done enough when they have identified a feature rather than using such identification as a springboard for explaining the impact.”
Even at A Level, we find examiners making similar comments cautioning for literary technical terminology to be used with care, instead focusing on candidates’ ability to develop well-argued responses.
This is not to say that teachers should not introduce aspirational, precise terminology but that teachers can exercise their professional judgement. After all, our examiners noted that sometimes students “quoted examples of linguistic and structural features but did not use subject terminology to identify those features.”
Having the right language to enhance a response can be a tricky line to walk. For example, I introduced the concept of ‘anadiplosis’ to my Year 10 class while studying Much Ado About Nothing because it was handy for exploring the structure behind Beatrice’s use of comedy, as well as helping students be more concise.
That said, I only introduced the concept of synecdoche when it truly felt a class needed more precision to explore imagery effectively. Terminology is only useful when it offers easy precision or helps to clarify a concept; as a teacher I favoured the phrase ‘triadic structure’ over ‘list of three’ because it emphasised the structural nature of the device rather than the slightly less important number but I wouldn’t penalise students for employing the more familiar term.
Common across our Examiners’ Reports this summer (always really useful resources, as I explore in my blog on ‘Tips for making examiners' reports work for you’) was the idea that subject terminology is a much broader camp than teachers and students seem to believe.
Examiners are asked to think quite broadly about what constitutes “subject terminology” and words like ‘characterisation’, ‘simile’, and ‘verb’ are more than appropriate.
In response to the June GCSE series this year, examiners noted that some candidates employed “obscure and arcane subject terminology which rarely enhanced their response. Examiners were more excited by rare sightings of a correctly identified verb or adjective than references to parataxis and hypophora.”
At GCSE, adjectives like ‘precisely-selected’, ‘integrated’, ‘well-chosen’ are selected for the top two levels in the mark scheme. There is a focus on the care employed in choosing terminology, rather than an insistence on ‘complex’ terminology.
As one A Level Examiner’s report identified, literary technical terminology “is not a necessary prerequisite for a candidate’s strong performance.”
What examiners look for is analytical ideas about the text expressed with depth and some insight, in language that is appropriate to the task. For some candidates, that might mean deploying these more specialist terms; for others it might mean employing more standard terminology – as long as the response offers an interpretation of the text with requisite detail and analysis.
For more debate on this important topic The English and Media Centre have published a blog post written by Richard Long about some of the current frustrations with subject terminology and definitely worth a read.
When it comes to subject terminology, remember that ensuring the ‘basics’ are key. Having the appropriate vocabulary to differentiate parts of speech, types of figurative language, and structural features is the foundation for all students. In addition to linguistic and structural features, terminology includes language about literary concepts such as ‘characterisation’, ‘narrative voice’ and ‘plot’.
Most importantly, the complexity of terminology can vary depending on the students’ ability. What is taught should be rooted in your professional judgement and in the students’ genuine understanding of the term.
I find this comment from one of our GCSE reports this summer to be a really useful guiding principle: “Candidates should be encouraged to regard ‘subject terminology’ as the language they choose to express their response in.”
If you have any questions you can submit your comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also sign up to receive email updates or follow us on Twitter at @OCR_English.
Isobel Woodger, OCR English Subject Advisor
Isobel joined OCR as a member of the English subject team, with particular responsibility for AS/A Level English Literature and AS/A Level English Language and Literature (EMC).
She previously worked as a classroom teacher in a co-educational state secondary school, with three years as Second-in-Charge in English with responsibility for Key Stage 5. In addition to teaching all age groups from Key Stage 3 to 5, Isobel worked with the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education as a mentor to PGCE trainees. Prior to this, she studied for an MA in Film, Television and Screen Media with Birkbeck College, University of London while working as Learning Support Assistant at a large state comprehensive school.