Setting up a language investigation
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Delivery guides are designed to represent a body of knowledge about teaching a particular topic and contain:
- Content: A clear outline of the content covered by the delivery guide;
- Thinking Conceptually: Expert guidance on the key concepts involved, common difficulties students may have, approaches to teaching that can help students understand these concepts and how this topic links conceptually to other areas of the subject;
- Thinking Contextually: A range of suggested teaching activities using a variety of themes so that different activities can be selected which best suit particular classes, learning styles or teaching approaches.
Independent language research is an internally assessed, externally moderated component testing AO1, AO2, AO3 and AO5 through independent research into an area of language study which is of particular individual interest to the student. This component is worth 40 marks and represents 20% of the marks for A level.
There are two sections to this component: the investigation and the academic poster which is based on it. This guide focusses on establishing the focus of the investigation, from which the academic poster will come, and ensuring that projects are planned appropriately.
In this unit, students are expected to demonstrate their ability to:
AO1: Apply appropriate methods of language analysis, using associated terminology and coherent written expression.
AO2: Demonstrate critical understanding of concepts and issues relevant to language use.
AO3: Analyse and evaluate how contextual factors and language features are associated with the construction of meaning.
AO5: Demonstrate expertise and creativity in the use of English to communicate in different ways.
Approaches to teaching the content
The independent investigation should be tailored to students’ own interests and areas of strength, and teaching should therefore focus on assisting them to develop their own projects rather than suggesting particular topics or texts.
Students at this level will need considerable guidance to help them: identify sources of data; plan and carry out data collection using methods that are manageable and ethical; focus their investigation using appropriate research questions and/or hypotheses; and analyse the data using all the relevant Assessment Objectives. The learning activities in this guide provide a selection of methods to help students explore the possibilities and identify appropriate methods will help them to get started with their own projects.
Common misconceptions or difficulties students may have
As the language investigation is very different from other types of work carried out on the course, the nature and scope of the project should be carefully defined. Some students may quickly identify a topic they are interested in and tend towards writing an essay on that topic, rather than basing their project on the analysis of the collected data, which is the aim of this unit. Showing them projects from previous cohorts of students (even if from a different specification) can be a useful way of illustrating the nature of a language investigation.
Other students, especially those who also study Literature, may assume that written data is in some way superior to spoken data: in fact, if anything, the reverse is true. Although spoken data can be harder to ‘capture’ by recording and transcribing, its intrinsically unique and spontaneous nature means that it is almost always going to be interesting to analyse.
Conceptual links to other areas of the specification – useful ways to approach this topic to set students up for topics later in the course
The independent investigation is essentially synoptic, and should enable students to demonstrate and synthesise the understanding they have gained in other units. As they analyse their data they should be applying terminology from a range of language levels, exploring concepts about language use and evaluating the effect of context. The most able students can be stretched and challenged to do further reading on the language levels and concepts they find relevant to their data, and all students can learn skills of referencing as well as furthering their ability to write in an appropriately academic register.
Explain that the investigation is a project based on data collected by the student. It is not an essay or a literature review, but an in-depth analysis of the language examples gathered, in which students show their ability to apply their learning to texts perhaps nobody has ever analysed in that way before, and to texts which are personal to the student themselves and tailored to their own interests. It can therefore be one of the most exciting and useful learning activities undertaken during A-level study. It is excellent preparation for university-level study or for many tasks that might be done in future careers.
The basic procedure is:
- Learn what a language investigation involves
- Plan the project
- Collect data
- Analyse data
- Write up report
Set out a timeline for these stages with interim deadlines, to ensure that students do not under-estimate the time needed for the project.
What can an investigation do?
Stress the importance of evaluation and tentativeness in a project of this kind: an A-level coursework project is not going to prove anything beyond doubt! In fact, research in social science (which includes the social aspects of language study) rarely even attempts to provide conclusive answers to anything. What we are doing is investigating questions by looking at particular evidence to see what answers are suggested by the data we have in front of us. The best student investigations are based on testing an idea about language to see if the data collected supports that idea or challenges it.
Invite students to think of theories or concepts they have encountered during the course so far. How could they investigate each of these concepts by collecting and analysing their own data? Possible ideas might include:
- Take a concept, theory or idea about language and see if it seems to be valid in a different time period
- Take a concept, theory or idea and see if it seems to apply to a different group of people (age, gender, social group, culture, sexuality etc.)
- Take examples of a specific type of text and see which concepts about language best explain the choices speakers / writers have made
- Take a concept, theory or idea developed to explain one type of language use and see if it applies to a different context / mode.
Invite students to make a note of any ideas they are particularly drawn to at this stage.
Put students into groups of around four, ideally including a range of subject specialisms in each group (e.g. one who takes a science subject, one who takes a social science, one who takes art or media studies in addition to English). Ask them to use their knowledge from other subjects and from the course so far to make a list of ways people can collect data which might help them develop ideas about language use and/or test these ideas.
Hopefully they will come up with options including experiment, questionnaire, observation and a few others – if not, gently feed some of these in to the discussion before feeding back ideas in a plenary.
Ask students to go through the list and discuss what problems (ethical and practical) each of the methods on the list might present. What would you have to consider if you were using this method to collect data for your coursework?
Learner resource 1 provides a set of cards outlining the possible methods and the issues inherent in each, which can be used for reference or for students to check their answers.
Learner resource 2 provides some examples of possible investigation titles.
Invite students to identify appropriate methods that could be used to collect data for each of these projects. Invite students to write down any methods of gathering data that particularly appeal to them, and the issues they will need to consider if using this method.
Explain to students that the investigation coursework allows you to follow up any aspect of language use you like, using any kind of texts. This gives you amazing freedom, but where do you start? You can choose to build on something studied in the course so far or apply your knowledge to a completely new area. You can use spoken language or written language, create your own data or use existing texts. The choice is yours.
Outline the planning process. Each student will need to decide:
- What concept or theory do I want to test / apply / extend in my investigation?
- What kind of data am I going to use? - How much data will I need?
- What ethical issues do I need to consider?
- What practical problems might there be with gathering or analysing my data?
Finding data in your life
Explain that the language investigation coursework should be entirely based on the texts you analyse, and its success depends on having good data. If you are going to come up with an investigation idea you will be happy to spend many hours of your life working on, you need to find texts that motivate and interest you. The best investigations come out of a strong personal interest, and many of them involve collecting primary data gathered first-hand by the student. So, spend some time thinking about every aspect of your life and the data you could collect.
Learner resource 3 provides spider diagrams illustrating how aspects of a student’s life and interests can provide sources of data. The chart could be enlarged onto A3 paper and students invited to write beside as many of the shapes as possible ideas for data they could personally collect from that area of their life, and then to underline up to 5 that they feel could be particularly interesting.
Learner resource 4 gives a fictional example of a student with spaces to write in ideas for language investigations based on her life. Extension: suggest possible methods Ophelia could use to gather data in each case and the issues she would have to consider.
Once a source of data has been chosen, it needs to be linked to an appropriate topic area. In the normal course of teaching, teachers tend to provide texts for students to analyse in the context of a particular language topic, so identifying the aspects of language which are relevant to a student’s own data is a new skill.
Present students with three or four texts (as a whole class or in small groups – this would work well as a carousel activity), each of which could lend itself to several areas of language work. For example:
- A clip from a TV chat show, which could be used to investigate face-work or other aspects of politeness, construction of a public identity or gender theories.
- A transcript of a group of teenagers chatting, which could be used to investigate gender, power, politeness or contemporary language change.
- A web page, which could be used to investigate multi-modality, discourse structure, marketization of language or informalisation caused by technology.
- A transcript of a parent and child reading a book, which could be used to investigate power, gender, literacy or general child language development.
Ask the students to identify as many topic areas as they can for each text. As an extension, they could then list language features which could be analysed in each case.
Learner resource 5 provides a list of potential topic areas and encourages students to connect their ideas for data sources to these areas.
Each student should now be able to create at least three potential investigation ideas, linking a source of data to a topic area / concept.
Ask them to write them down clearly.
As an extension, students can list the specific language features they think would be appropriate to analyse in each case.
At this stage, you may wish to move on to developing research questions (Lesson activity 5) or to consider practical and ethical issues with data collection (Lesson activity 3).
Spoken, written and multi-modal data all present a different range of practical issues. Invite some students to each explain one of their ideas for data collection and ask whether they can already see any problems involved in collecting this data.
Learner resource 6 illustrates some of the potential practical issues. Use this to help students check through their own favoured investigation ideas and find solutions. If any of their potential projects present insoluble problems (for example, recording in a court of law is simply illegal!), they will have to be rejected in favour of one of the other ideas.
In case of doubt, the student can carry out a pilot study to check their procedure and equipment. For example, if they want to make a recording in a noisy environment and find that their phone picks up too much background noise, they might be able to get something clearer and easier to transcribe using a DVR and an external microphone.
The supervising teacher must ensure that all students are gathering data within appropriate ethical limits. A separate guide to ethics is provided, but at the most basic level, data collection must:
- only be collected with informed consent, unless it is already publically available
- respect participants’ privacy and confidentiality
- give opportunities for participants to withdraw from the study at any stage and have their data removed.
Learner resource 1, in the Potential Problem Section includes specific practical and ethical issues for each method of data collection, which can be used for reference at this point.
Once the students have had some time to think through their ideas, ask them to submit a plan for their favoured investigation idea in note form (the equivalent of a university ethics approval form). Sign it off as their supervisor when you are happy that they are working within the ethical guidelines.
In scientific research, two variables are always identified. The independent variable is the factor that is being studied, and that the data should relate to. The dependent variable is the factor that is measured.
In the case of language research, the independent variable may be age, gender, social role, context, date, audience, purpose – whatever it is that is affecting the language being used.
The dependent variable is the language that is used – to be precise, whatever language features turn out to be different because of the change in the independent variable.
So, for example, in an investigation into gender differences amongst teenagers, the independent variable will be gender. The dependent variable will be language features, which might include slang terms, taboo language, hedging, modal verbs or emotive words.
It is not always necessary to conceptualise A-level projects in this way, or to use this terminology, especially the more open-ended and qualitative ones, but for some students it may help them to be clearer about what they are doing. What is important is that they know:
(a) What am I comparing with what in this data? (the independent variable)
(b) What features am I looking for? (the dependent variable).
For example, if a student wanted to collect language from a 5 year-old girl and a 7 year-old boy, they need to realise that this will not be a manageable project since it will be impossible to know what effects are caused by age and what are caused by gender. They need to isolate a single variable to make the data comparable – only age or only gender.
Some student investigations may basically be case studies, because they are looking in depth at the language of one individual, one specific group, or one type of text in a very open-ended way. This is perfectly acceptable, but the student may need extra help in identifying features to analyse.
Learner resource 7 gives some examples of sources of data and asks students to think about what they could compare them with to produce a valid investigation. This activity is best done in pairs or small groups. There will be more than one answer for each, since there are multiple possible independent variables.
Extension: ask the more confident students to list any features they think might constitute the dependent variable (in other words, how would the language be different?).
A research question is an extremely useful way of ensuring a clear focus for an investigation, and can also serve as the title for the project, either retaining the question format or converted into a noun phrase, e.g.
What effect does gender have on the language of Art teachers in a comprehensive school?
An investigation into the effect of gender of the language of Art teachers in a comprehensive school.
Titles need to be submitted to the OCR Coursework Advisor for approval once students have finished the planning stage of their investigation.
If Lesson activity 4 has been completed, it should be a relatively simple task to create a question which sums up the focus of the investigation.
Learner resource 8 provides some guidelines into the phrasing of research questions and gives students some examples to practice on, along with some opportunities to revise terms and ideas from earlier in the planning process.
It is not essential to create a specific hypothesis for a language investigation. Some projects are essentially open-ended and there is no previous research to indicate what will be found. However, when the nature of the data and the theory or concept being investigated lend themselves to the writing of a hypothesis, this is a very useful way of focussing the analysis closely. In fact, if a student has a well-conceived hypothesis, based on an existing theory or concept, the analysis will practically write and structure itself!
Unlike a scientific hypothesis, which is always a single statement, linguistic hypotheses are frequently bullet-pointed to include a list of language features that are expected in the data. These points can then be used as subheadings for the Analysis or Results section of the final report.
Learner resource 9 provides a worked example of creating a hypothesis and a blank table for students to synthesise and apply all their knowledge about linguistic research so far.
Now that all the essential decisions have been taken, students are in a position to draft the introduction and methodology sections of their investigation report. These should be drafted before the main analysis of the data is carried out, although of course they can be edited later if necessary.
To develop students’ IT skills, you can show them how to use word-processing software to create defined section headings, and optionally to customise the style of their headings. This then enables them to automatically create and update a Table of Contents for the report. Guidance 1 and 2 resources give helpful guidance, if you are using Microsoft Word.
In the Introduction, students should explain:
- The general area of language they are investigating, and why they have chosen it.
- What theory/theories or concept(s) they think will be relevant.
- The general nature and source of the data they are collecting.
- The language levels they expect to be relevant.
At the end of the Introduction they can outline their research question and hypothesis, if they have one.
In the Methodology, the student should explain:
- The method they are using to collect their data
- The practical issues they have had to consider
- Any ethical issues they have had to consider, and how they have resolved these.
- How they plan to go about analysing the data.