English language and linguistics: from 'A' to BA (31 Oct 2003)

Date: 31 October, 2003
Location: CILT,
Event type: Seminar

Programme | Event report

workshop attendees

Past event summary

This event explored the content of English Language 'A' levels and their relation to first year undergraduate Linguistics programmes. It aimed to bring together colleagues involved in the teaching of English Language at both levels and included contributions from the 'A' level awarding bodies, the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority, HE academics and Local Authority School Advisors. It provided a cross-sectoral discussion forum and was of interest to anyone who is actively involved in English Language teaching and/or curriculum development at both 'A' and undergraduate (BA) level.


10.00 - 10.30 Coffee and registration
10.30 - 11.00 Introduction and some facts and figures on 'A' level
11.00 - 12.30 Language study or linguistics
  • Janet White (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority): Beyond commonsense: the scope of the subject criteria for English Language at AS and A2
  • Keith Brown (University of Cambridge): First year undergraduate courses in Language and Linguistics
  • Joan Beal (University of Sheffield) Bridging the Gap: AS and A level study days
  • Questions and discussion
12.30 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 14.50 How do awarding bodies interpret the subject criteria
  • Tim Shortis (Chief Examiner, AQA B English Language A Level, and Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol): Continuity and Progression issues In English Language A Level
  • Barbara Bleiman (The English and Media Centre): 'Language and Literature. Language within Literature and knowledge about language in the school curriculum.'
  • Questions and discussion
14.50 - 15.00 Tea
15.00 - 16.20 Approaches to studying language in the 6th form and at undergraduate level
  • Andrew Moore (School Improvement Service, East Riding Yorkshire Council) Modelling language for courses in sixth forms and universities
  • Greg Myers (University of Lancaster): A Level and BA English Language Projects
  • Questions and discussion
16.20 - 16.30 Round-up and close

Event report

by Alison Dickens

There are sadly too few opportunities for colleagues across educational sectors to get together to discuss their teaching and to try to demystify the workings of each others’ curricula. This event was one such occasion and to judge by the high attendance and the very positive feedback it went some considerable way to filling this information gap, dispelling some myths and hopefully building some bridges along the way. In a series of short talks the development of English Language at AS and A level and its relevance to Linguistics and English Language programmes at HE level was explored by a range of ‘concerned parties’ – HE and post-16 teachers, members of exam boards, teacher support services and QCA. What became clear as the day progressed, was that there are a number of ‘myths’ or at least misconceptions across sectors as to how English Language and Linguistics relate to each other and how they might be conceptualised in terms of curriculum, assessment, teaching and most importantly in the mind of the student.

Some facts and figures on 'A' level

Dick Hudson (UCL)

To start the day Dick Hudson, UCL gave a brief history and overview of the ‘A’ level exam. He also gave details of the specifications for English Language from each exam board, which can be found at: www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/ec/gce.htm.

Beyond commonsense: the scope of the subject criteria for English Language at AS and A2

Janet White (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority)

Following this general introduction to the ‘A’ level exam, Janet White of the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) set about clarifying the subject criteria for English Language, hereby dispelling the first myth that QCA prescribes the curriculum for English Language!

Janet emphasised that the general aim of the subject is to encourage students to develop an understanding of language which goes beyond their everyday ‘commonsense’ notions of how language operates as a system and in society. However, the subject criteria drawn up by QCA (www.qca.org.uk/nq/subjects/english_lang.asp) are intended to act as a foundation for the exam boards when drawing up their specifications and are entirely voluntary. This, therefore, explains how different exam boards have slightly different ‘takes’ on the subject and why English Language can have significantly different weightings towards a particular area e.g. one programme may have a strong emphasis on developing writing skills while another may foreground study of language systems and variety.

First year undergraduate courses in Language and Linguistics

Keith Brown (University of Cambridge)

Having seen how English Language at ‘A’ level is broadly conceived and more narrowly applied, Keith Brown, Cambridge, demonstrated how Linguistics in HE is, itself, very far from being a small and homogenous discipline (myth 2?). For 2003 the UCAS website records 739 courses which include Linguistics as part of an undergraduate degree including 21 single linguistics and 12 linguistics sciences (www.ucas.ac.uk) The subject centre website records some 63 institutions offering linguistics degrees. The UCAS website also records 617 courses, mostly joint courses, that have English Language in their title and 47 that have English Linguistic studies in their title. The Subject Centre website lists 21 courses in English Language and Linguistics [handout]. When compiling the benchmarking statement for the discipline (see www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/benchmark/phase2/linguistics.pdf) The panel observed that Linguistics is strongly interdisciplinary in nature and interpreted in very diverse ways, as the examples of programmes [handout] from Manchester, UCL and Cardiff demonstrate.

Download handouts:
Examples of programmes (rtf, 55Kb)
Courses in English Language and Linguistics (rtf, 309Kb)

Bridging the Gap: AS and A level study days

Joan Beal (University of Sheffield)

Having compared the ‘A’ Level subject criteria with HE approaches to the subject there was some concern that there are few bridges between the type of Linguistics incorporated into English Language programmes and that taught in HE. However, Joan Beale (University of Sheffield: www.shef.ac.uk/english/natcect/call.html) showed how effectively there can be dialogue between sectors in her description of the innovatory Study and Revision days that she runs for AS and A level students in the north of England. These events are tailored to suit the English Language syllabus that the students are following rather than that more likely to be associated with a Linguistics oriented English Language university course. However, what these days do give students is an opportunity to hear speakers who are a drawn from the academic community, as well as writers and examiners who will be able to take students into more depth than might be on offer in the classroom. Teachers also frequently request topics in areas where they feel they lack expertise e.g. grammar, child language development or discourse. Indeed Sheffield does also offer training days for teachers who are frequently from a more literary background and need to develop their skills and knowledge of language. This may also explain the strong text-based focus of the current ‘A’ level as the following speaker outlined.

Dowload full report by Joan Beal (rtf, 11Kb)

Continuity and Progression issues In English Language A Level

Tim Shortis (Chief Examiner, AQA B English Language A Level, and Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol)

In his talk Tim Shortis from the exam board AQA set about clarifying the nature and purpose of ‘A’ level English Language and dispelling a misconception that appears to be prevalent in HE, namely that it provides a natural progression to HE Linguistics. The latter was aptly and ably demonstrated by a postgraduate student (Sarah Barker) who had made the transition from ‘A’ level English Language to a single honours Theoretical Linguistics programme and found that most of her first year was very much uncharted territory. Indeed, some of her peers fell by the wayside as they tracked their way through the hazardous terrain of Grammar, Formal Logic and Phonetics. By her second year she did find herself back on the more familiar ground of subjects encountered at ‘A’ level (sociolinguistics, language acquisition and discourse) and ultimately felt that the journey was worth the struggle. It was, however, extremely useful for HE colleagues to hear from Sarah and Tim that the ‘A’ level does not set itself up to be a Linguistics course but rather tries to build on the limited language work at GCSE introducing students to new ideas about language structure and variety and helping them to communicate more skilfully in speech and writing.

'Language and Literature. Language within Literature and knowledge about language in the school curriculum.'

Barbara Bleiman (The English and Media Centre)

In her talk Barbara Bleiman looked at the ways in which study of English Language can impact on other areas of the curriculum. She referred us to previous attempts to raise the profile of Language in the curriculum through the ILEA (with an emphasis on language in a multicultural society) and the LINC project which sought to provide teaching material on how language works in the world. The revived interest in teaching about language through the National Literacy Strategy has, she argued, tended to focus on how to use language better (this also features large at ‘A’ Level) and can result in an overemphasis on inauthentic (decontextualised) sentence analysis to the neglect of other methods of appreciating and studying language e.g through reading. For this reason she considers that English Language and Literature make ideal bed fellows to help students apply some of the theories and skills they are acquiring in Language to their readings of literary works e.g. approaching Othello through conversation analysis. Indeed in the Advanced Extension Awards students are offered texts that can be approached from a variety of perspectives, literary critical, linguistic or a combination of both.

Dowload full report by Barbara Bleiman (rtf, 23Kb)

Modelling language for courses in sixth forms and universities

Andrew Moore (School Improvement Service, East Riding Yorkshire Council)

Interestingly, while HE Linguistics is looking to English Language to ‘train’ their students in basic Linguistics, ‘A’ level English Language appears, according to Andrew Moore (Andrew Moore's Teaching Resource Site: www.universalteacher.org.uk), to be looking to HE to provide a research literature that is sound and up to date. Many ‘A’ level students have the option (or, indeed are obliged to) complete a small ‘research’ project for which they collect and analyse linguistic data. What is becoming clear, he argues, is that students are either choosing topics for which there is little existing literature or topics for which the research has not been updated (and which, therefore, can be unreliable). He would like to see some concordance between what students wish to research and what is being researched in the universities.

Dowload full report by Andrew Moore (rtf, 31Kb)

A Level and BA English Language Projects

Greg Myers (University of Lancaster)

Some initiatives to achieve this concordance were outlined by Greg Myers’s (University of Lancaster: www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/staff/greg/LLASprojects.htm) who began his talk by considering the difficulties of how to consciously build on English Language ‘A’ level in an undergraduate programme without developing a programme that is seen as simply repeating work done at ‘A’ level. This seems, he says, to be most likely in the area of student research projects which are a key feature of both ‘A’ level and undergraduate learning. He notes that the topics chosen by students for research at undergraduate level are frequently the same as those previously selected by ‘A’ level students, probably mirroring the topics most often encountered in their ‘A’ level syllabus. However, these often represent a fairly restricted view of the field (much emphasis on issues of language and gender or language and power) and frequently are not based around a very clear research question or are not easily adapted to academic research. Here, he argues is where the difference between the purpose and place of the project can be located and developed. Whereas at ‘A’ level students have worked on projects to help them engage with the theory and to develop the ability to construct an argument, at HE level, they need to progress towards developing the ability to both frame and amend their research question. Students also need to engage with issues of ethics when collecting and using language data, an issue not tackled and largely not relevant at ‘A’ level. They also (and this may account for some of the gaps in the literature mentioned by Andrew) need to develop the ability to assess the feasibility of their research in practice.


To sum up, then, this event was very much a meeting a minds, or at the very least a meeting of curricula. There has been much optimism in HE circles about the positive impact that ‘A’ level English Language will have both to recruitment onto courses that incorporate Linguistics and to students’ linguistic preparation for these courses. The day demonstrated that while some of this optimism might be built on sand one of the core aims of the ‘A’ level: ‘to develop an interest and enjoyment in the use of English’ can help provide a key building block for language study in all its variety at undergraduate level.