Focusing on Terms, Missing Meanings
Last week I got caught up in a rather extended debate on Twitter about the use of literary terminology by students, provoked by a TES piece Five Complex Terms Every Student Should Know. The gist of the piece was that teachers were wrong to shy away from teaching complex literary terminology and that they were doing so because of a false set of arguments being circulated about their value and impact. There was an acknowledgement that the views expressed in the article would probably not go down well with examiners. I think the piece is wrong about the first thing – teachers are in fact teaching a substantial amount of complex terminology – but absolutely right about the second, that examiners really will not thank anyone for suggesting that terminology is lacking and that specific terms should be taught.
Here are some quotations from the AQA GCSE Examiners’ Report for Paper 2 Literature, June 2017:
Students made huge efforts to use subject terminology and many did so with accuracy. However, at times students were more concerned with the use of technical terms than the effect. Students should remember that critical terms should be used judiciously and must always be linked to effect on the reader/audience.
Students who dealt with AO2 most successfully were the ones who had not been too restricted by subject terminology.
…students are rewarded for their appropriate use of the language of the subject in terms of how they use it to help them to craft a response to a literary text. In other words, what they say about the craft of the writer is far more significant than how many technical terms they include. The specific mention of subject terminology in the mark scheme is there to reflect that students are being assessed on their ability to deal with aspects of craft. A balanced and well-illustrated response to the question will eventually lead students to explore the methods used to present those ideas, feelings and attitudes. Subject terminology is not given any particular weight in isolation; on the contrary, naming of parts can actively impede students, who are being rewarded for their focus on the how an element of writer’s craft affects meaning.
This kind of comment isn’t confined to GCSE. At A Level too, Awarding Body Examiners’ Reports, for as far back as I can remember, have counselled against an over-emphasis on terminology. Use of terms, for their own sake, as mere window-dressing, features regularly in the list of features of the least successful writing. Here are just a few examples from recent reports:
To write impressively does not mean to flood writing with critical, tragic and comedic terminology, often using that terminology for its own sake and not really understanding it anyway. Some students unfortunately wrote in a style that was awkward and cluttered, sometimes making little sense.
AQA B Literature, June 2017
As in Section A, the best responses indicated an understanding of the poems as autonomous creations rather than pegs on which to hang lists of technical terms and, for this section, contextual information.
EDEXCEL, June 2017
Unless terminology is used accurately and as an economic means of making a point about meaning and impact it cannot be rewarded. This is a strand of AO1 which needs careful explanation to candidates who also need to be realistic and sensible about what can be achieved by alliteration, sibilance and the caesura.
It is important candidates ask themselves ‘what is the meaning here and how is it shaped?’ Too many trawl through the lines, mining for rich pickings in terms of terminology, while missing the central meaning
WJEC, June 2017
Now, you could decide to ignore this evidence. And, like the writer of the TES piece, you could suggest that the problem with poor exam performance by students is to do with ‘sloppy’ teaching of literary terminology, rather than with the terms themselves. You could argue that really brilliant teachers will be sure to introduce terms like zeugma, metonymy, epiphora or chremamorphism in relation to their effect and that, as a result students would then be able use them well. If so, you might think that, well used, Latin and Greek terms can only enhance the sophistication of students’ responses.
But, for me, there are a number of problems with this.
1. It just isn’t the case, from the evidence of the exam entries, that students are able to use an extensive range of esoteric Latinate and Greek terms successfully, even very able students being taught in very good schools by very good teachers. Quite the contrary. The examiners obviously see large numbers who simply don’t, by comparison with an extremely small number who do. Where does that leave us? Thinking that most teachers do a terrible job? Or rather, recognising that students are taking away the wrong messages about complex terminology being required to prove knowledge, seeing labelling as an alternative to thinking hard about texts, their meanings and effects and becoming focused on sounding academic rather than genuinely being academic.
What examiners often say is that they would love to see students using the basic language of the subject better instead, to analyse texts and work within its common practices e.g. using well words like ‘explores', 'reveals', 'signals', 'develops', 'symbolises', 'reflects', 'shows features of', 'is characteristic of', 'is of significance’ and so on.
In the wording of AO2 at GCSE the words ‘relevant’ and ‘appropriate’ are key and offer a good steer in deciding what’s worth teaching in relation to the particular texts being studied. One should always ask:
- is this a key concept or technique for this text and this writer?
- will this term enable students to say something rich, important or interesting about the effect on the reader?
- will this class/student be able to use this term appropriately and relevantly?
These questions offer a good rule of thumb, rather than having a fixed list of terms that all students should know.
2. At EMC, we don’t see students using Latinate and Greek terms well either. We run two annual writing competitions for A Level, for emagazine, one on poetry, the other on the close reading of prose. Sadly, we also see a great deal of writing in which impressive sounding literary terms are used extensively, inaccurately and inappropriately, offering no enrichment of arguments and no greater sophistication of thought. The students who are shortlisted, or come close to being shortlisted, tend to use common, important literary terms very well, use more complex, esoteric terms very sparingly if at all, and instead focus their attention on valid observations, interesting ideas about texts and insightful comment expressed with clarity and sophistication. See the winning entry to the 2019 Close Reading Competition for a brilliant example of this.
Those students who think good writing has to be peppered with zeugma, metonomy, synecdoche and more, usually write very poorly. If it weren’t for the fact that I feel squeamish about quoting examples in public, which seems rather unfair on the individual students, I could offer literally dozens of examples of poor use of terminology from the last few years of our competitions.
3. In academic writing more generally, you don’t see extensive use of such terms either. In books on poetry, in articles in English journals, easily accessed via JSTOR, in critical pieces in broadsheets and journals, in university essays and dissertations, important terms like stream of consciousness, or free indirect style, narrative voice or metaphor are of course constantly being used to powerful effect but not a whole swathe of Latin and Greek words for rhetorical tropes. It’s very rare to see great academic writing swimming in such terms. We did an analysis of the close readings by academics in our Doing Close Reading publication and in emagazine articles and this was born out there too.
4. In many of the debates about subject terminology, I find it strange how little sense there is of what’s very important to know as underpinning concepts for the subject versus small word or sentence-level techniques that can be labelled but are not really worth spending valuable classroom time learning and memorising.
Here are the terms that appeared in the article in the TES, as ones all students should be taught, along with others mentioned along the way:
These terms seem to me to be qualitatively different, rather than being of equal value or importance. Anagnorisis and liminal stand out as being very different from the others. They are words that express complex literary concepts that are of particular use if you are studying either tragedy or gothic texts. The concepts the words embody are important ones. The liminal, for example – states of being or physical things that are on boundaries or thresholds between one thing and another, neither entirely one thing nor the other – is a central feature of the gothic genre. It is talked about by critics of gothic and can be observed in texts in everything from settings and scenery to characters (human or abhuman, alive or dead, awake or asleep, corporeal or spiritual). As such the concept of the liminal, challenging though it is, is a very useful, if not an essential one, if you are studying Jekyll and Hyde at GCSE for example, not just as a label but for what it offers conceptually in allowing you to explore the multiple ways in which borderlines may arise in the text and the reasons why.
Metaphor is an equally important, and pervasive idea in all texts at GCSE and A Level. You couldn’t get very far with the study of literature without understanding the idea of metaphor, and being able to use it in appropriate ways. It’s a major, underpinning idea. It accrues meaning the more texts you read and the more you reflect on its multifarious uses. It is much more than just a label.
By contrast many of the other terms in the list above refer to small rhetorical devices – word, phrase or sentence-level techniques, which can be taken or left to a larger extent and for which there is often a very simple alternative form of explanation. The word ‘paranomasia’ for instance can be described more plainly as a pun, or as word play. In the context of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d opt for word play to describe what Atwood is up to, largely because it’s not just puns (paranomasia), nor is it just a small, easily observable and nameable rhetorical technique – it’s something much more sustained and of greater significance than a one-off device. In using word play, Atwood is exploring the meanings of all kinds of things that we take for granted, flagging up for the reader the misogyny encoded in language choices, playing with ideas about identity, gender and knowledge in ways that make us question the very concepts. This is much more than simply a neat rhetorical gesture or flourish. It is taking words and metaphors that have become stale and unpicking their underlying meanings to look at the very nature of language and identity, or language and politics. It is wordplay as language, theme as well as style.
One of the dangers of teaching multiple small devices (and the terms for them) is that it encourages students to engage in labelling things, rather than observing things in the text that are significant and then looking for ways of describing them. So there may well be an example of zeugma, metonomy or andadiplosis in a text but how often is it really significant? If a small rhetorical trope forms an important pattern or stands out in a text, (as for instance with oxymoron in Romeo and Juliet), then it may be worth spending time on. But often in the case of something like metonomy, it takes the form of ‘dead’ metaphors, not worthy of comment, for instance ‘the crown’ for the monarchy, or ‘die by the sword’ for dying by violent means. It is much rarer for this to be the freshly minted use by a writer for a particular effect that’s worth spending time on, commenting on and learning the term for.
One final issue I have with the TES article list (liminality, anagnorisis and metaphor excepted) is the fact that the attention paid to naming small rhetorical devices sends students scuttling off to look at and think about small things, even where this is inappropriate. In a modern play, or a substantial narrative text, it is unlikely to be helpful to focus a lot of attention on word-level techniques, unless they are part of a sustained pattern. So symbolism is likely to be really useful (in a sustained pattern of imagery across a play or a text), while a single example of zeugma or anadiplosis far less so. Teach symbolism as your more significant and helpful term – and spend lots of time reading examples of it, exploring its different uses and understanding what it contributes in different texts, rather than causing ‘cognitive overload’ by teaching endless difficult names for small devices.
This is nothing to do with dumbing down, low expectations or not wanting to teach high level thinking in the subject. The reverse. If you focus on noticing what’s significant, engage in discussion that explores complexity and ambiguity rather than shutting it down, and encourage students to say what genuinely strikes them as interesting about texts, the language in which to express that can come much more naturally and convincingly. Here is just one example of student writing of this kind:
The way that parenthesis is used is similar to rest of the novel in some ways, as it keeps up the sense of a conversation. For example, Enaiat says ‘I’ve already said – if I’m not mistaken’ and he says ‘and one of the most appropriate (so I believed).’ This shows his uncertainty to his memories. Also it reminds us of the age that he is narrating and that it was long ago when it happened. It shows us the unreliability of his memories and it reminds us that the book is a work of fiction. Also it is a constant reminder that Enaiat is telling Geda about his experience.
This is written by a Year 9, in a class working on EMC’s Teaching a Novel work in our research project, It’s Good to Talk.
The emphasis in the classroom was on talking and thinking about significant ideas in the text – what were characteristic features of the narrative, how these related to the subject of the novel, what the students felt and thought about the events and the way the narrative was told. Words and concepts were there, floating in the classroom air, spoken as they seemed useful, brought in to illuminate and provide a means of expressing thoughts. There was no emphasis of any kind on ‘using terminology’. But, hopefully, most people would agree that this 14 year old is, in fact, using the terms of the subject very well indeed. There are lessons for all of us in this.
One final caveat to what I have said, in response to the inevitable accusation that may come that this is ‘anti-knowledge’ or indeed ‘anti-language.’ It’s not. There’s nothing that makes my heart sing more than a brilliantly written student essay or article sent into emagazine, that makes you forget you’re reading a student’s work. But it’s about judging what’s most important, what’s most useful, what’s most appropriate, and what students being introduced to the world of literature and literary critical practices aged 11-19 are able to use with the greatest success. If I (and examiners) were seeing brilliantly insightful writing that used such terms as anadiplosis and zeugma to powerful effect, I might change my mind. If the literary critical writing I read – and I read a lot of it – were drawing on them extensively, I might change my mind. If I found myself using them, or needing them in my own writing or admiring them in the writing of my colleagues, I might change my mind. As things stand, a judicious approach concentrating on major concepts (and useful terms to describe them) along with discussion of what you notice and how you can describe and analyse it simply and clearly, seems like the best advice for students.