I like teaching English Language at A Level. I occasionally have the yearning for a novel, a play and a series of great poems but there’s something delectable about the dissection of the mechanics of language that appeals to the pedant in me. I love teaching English Language.
It struck me a long time ago, even before the advent of the “Spoken Language Study” at Key Stage 4, that a “drip feed” and, at times, direct teaching of skills that we previously retained for Key Stage 5 would benefit students greatly in their understanding and analysis of texts throughout school. We already teach pragmatics, we just call it insight at Key Stage 3 and, heinously, “understanding” at Key Stage 4! (To read and “understand” the text??!?! There are a number of “ways” or “levels” of understanding. Dumbing down? Hmmm)
So why not teach concepts and methods for studying language earlier in school? I have successfully done this on a number of occasions with a variety of different ability groups – starting mostly with Semantics and the SCAA Triangle approach to textual analysis. (Semantics was removed from the current AQA spec for A Level Language as they assume it is subsumed into Pragmatics – I see what they’re saying – but it’s too valuable a method to discard completely – so I don’t!)
I tend to start by providing students with a title such as medicine, fruit, gardening, the military, war etc and ask them to come up with a list of at least ten words or phrases that would come under those headings. They have to be related by a shared meaning. I then share the specific definition. (All this is done quickly) I have touched on this process in a previous post about trying to craft outstanding lessons here – the context might be useful in visualising this.)
Once we’ve done this we play “The Semantics Game”. Basically this is a set of cards with a load of possible semantic fields written on them and selected at random. (There used to be a set of them on “Teachit” – I know!!) Groups of students then have to appoint one scribe and, in one minute, come up with as many words and phrases as they can in that Semantic field – the group with the most – wins that round. It’s useful to sample the lists at this point to guard against any cheating.
After this point I usually throw a couple of hinge questions at them to see how far they’re “getting” it. Just a couple of lower order right and wrong – see the “outstanding lessons” post here for a look at some examples.
The SCAA Triangle
The next stage is to throw a text at the class. It can pretty much be anything. I’ve used the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, the extract when the choir walks along the beach in Lord of the Flies and any number of sections of Frankenstein. Essentially, any text that you want them to respond to, to demonstrate their understanding of semantics as a way into textual analysis will work depending on the ability group and readability etc.
The SCAA triangle was first introduced to me by a colleague in about 2001. Since then I have never seen it used in any other school or known by anyone that I’ve shared it with. (Sorry if you’re reading this and you know that it’s yours – please let me know and I will credit you.) you can download a copy here: SCAA Triangle.
This is a staged approach to textual analysis that allows students of English to “show their working” in the way that Maths and Science can – working on a word level approach that builds it up to the overall impact of the language of a text – where some students might go straight away – favouring succinctness for rigour and depth.
I would model the process with students or take it one section at a time. The process works like this:
This is a difficult mindset to get into for students who are desperate to identify techniques and terminology but both have to be banned in this section. Encourage students to look for patterns: groups of words with the same or similar meanings (list them); you’ll see phrases like “uses I or you a lot”; and other things about the text that stand out.
This is where everything that was identified in the “Survey” section can be named, e.g. semantic field of…, similes, imagery, metaphor, alliteration, first/second person etc.
This is the “ask why” section. Encourage students to consider what the writer was attempting to “do” by choosing each of these techniques. At this point some of the strands may merge where similarity means that the intended impact is the same.
This is the “get to the point” section. (Geddit? Triangle. Get to the point?) aim to show where the weighting of different semantic fields or linguistic techniques combine to produce an effect that potentially links to wider themes within the text, or may even be a pointer towards what those themes may be.
The next step from here is to use modelling to demonstrate how this analysis technique might support the formal writing of an essay or appreciation of writers’ techniques. It can also support writing of sections of essays and allows some students to see more clearly how to address assessment objectives that concern language can be approached.
In my experience of using and teaching this technique, it does scaffold analysis well, but it has to be done consistently and with a number of sections of either the same text – to build up a picture, or a number of shorter texts. The linear approach doesn’t always suit all students, so it has been important to provide a number of scaffolding techniques that they can ultimately choose from.
As I said before, I’ve never seen the SCAA triangle approach anywhere else. Please let me know if you have, or if you know where it originates. I’d like to credit whoever it was who has supported me all this time.