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Language, linguistics and literature at school

Researchers at Middlesex University frequently engage with staff and students at school, and recently the research has had a significant impact on course content at Key Stage 5 contributing to the development of AS and A levels in English, Creative Writing and Film. 

Building on his extensive research and close working with examination awarding bodies, Dr Billy Clark, linguist and associate professor from the School of Media and Performing Arts, has contributed to the development of a new A level specification for the OCR awarding body.  Teaching for this new specification will begin in September 2015, and is set to significantly improve the way students learn about the English language.

"English language A level is a relatively recent course, initially offered in a small number of schools in the early 1980s," explained Billy.  "Since then, the course's popularity has soared.  Around 25,000 students now take the English Language A Level each year and currently around 45 percent of English A Levels taken are either in English Language or in English Language and Literature." 

As a senior academic regularly working with school teachers and students, Billy was able to see first hand the students' experience from Key Stage 5.  He worked with students and teachers at school and in Higher Education, with colleagues in awarding bodies and other organisations including the Higher Education Academy to explore course content and student experience in both sectors.

"It became clear that many of the students taking A Level English Language and moving on to study English Language or Linguistics at university found a mismatch between what they had studied at school and what they experienced at university," he added.  "We worked with colleagues across the sector to share understanding, to develop a closer connection between work at A Level and in BA programmes, and to provide a smoother transition between the two.

"More recently, we became aware of a different kind of mismatch for students who had taken A Level English Language and Literature at school. Some students reported that undergraduate courses often kept work on language quite distinct from work on literature with very little work within particular modules which approached language and literature as an integrated subject. 

"Our recent research projects explored the current landscape and made suggestions for improving the student experience at both A and undergraduate level. More broadly, we have been developing a way of thinking about English as a diverse but unified subject, with a focus on texts as the key unifying aspect of the subject."

Recently, Billy has worked with other higher education consultants to contribute to the development of the new specification for A level English Language offered by the OCR awarding body. A distinctive feature of this new specification is a focus on 'hands-on' investigation based on developing understanding and application of key ideas in linguistics.

The course material has been well received by teachers, and Billy continues to speak at teaching conferences, providing guidance and advice, presenting new ideas for classroom practice based on his research.  He frequently hosts 'language detective' seminars in schools and colleges, encouraging students to think about how their examination of linguistic topics resembles the work of detectives, looking for clues and aiming to develop a systematic investigation of particular phenomena. 

He adds it is becoming a way of getting students involved and interested in linguistics who wouldn't normally be: "While girls often outnumber boys in language classes, activities such as the UK Linguistics Olympiad – a national student competition solving linguistic data problems - are attractive to both boys and girls.  This work has been seen as making a significant contribution to developing interest in language among girls and boys."

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