A torture of terms
Monday 28 October 2013
Questions I have heard asked at Language A teacher training workshops frequently concern the use of specialist terminology. “Do students need to use specialist literary or linguistic vocabulary?” “How much of it do they need?” “Which terms in particular?” “Is there an IB approved definition of the literary terms?” And so on.
That schools focus on the use of specialist vocabulary is natural. The Language and Literature guide makes specific reference to the need for students to use literary terms appropriately in its advice relating to papers 1 and 2 and to part 4 of the course (assessment objective 2). The anxiety surrounding the choice of terms to use and their definition is also understandable given that there is no ‘IB approved list of terms’ in the guide, or elsewhere. To give such a list would be restrictive in a way seemingly out of keeping with the Language and Literature course, which aims to help students to learn how to perform textual analysis, not learn to parrot back lists of mindlessly absorbed content.
Then, there is a problem with agreeing the meanings of literary terms, even as they are used within one language. One need only look at the various interpretations offered for the term ‘motif’ by various English language using bodies for an example of this (e.g. Wikipedia, literary-devices.com, literarydevices.net). Finally, even when a teacher makes a decision about what terms to adopt, the question arises, how to teach them? Is it OK to give students a list, or direct them to a dictionary of literary terms? Or is it better to completely avoid giving students early access to glossaries in case they make the all too common error of listing and giving definitions of terms, rather than actually analysing text?
My personal experience has led me to believe that there is little point in deliberately withholding terminology. It feels wrong, somehow – like trying to teach people woodwork without giving them access to woodwork tools. However, I have also found it better not to introduce the literary terms out of context. After all, the intention is that students learn the skill of analysis, which includes knowing how to use the tools of analysis appropriately; simply handing them a list of terms without demonstrating their use extensively is almost certain to be ineffective. To continue the woodwork analogy, no woodwork teacher would hand students a box full of chisels, saws and hammers and then walk away.
I prefer to constantly model the analysis of text, beginning with personal reactions, then building in terms as they become needed in the discussion of a work. I generally ask students to compile a list of terms for themselves, adding to their list as they become confident of their ability to use terminology in analytical expression. Another approach which can help is setting students ‘reverse engineering’ exercises: for example, ask students to try commenting on an imagery rich text without actually using the word ‘metaphor’. This kind of exercise is fun to try, and drives home the reasons for using specialist vocabulary. The intention is always to show students a practical application first and foremost; decontextualized games with sets of terms can follow once students have adopted the habit of using technical vocabulary to enhance analysis, rather than as a substitute for it.
Whatever the method adopted, students need to develop the patience to keep absorbing text with an open mind, not seeking an absolute interpretation, but accepting and exploring all interpretations that arise. Perhaps the first step in becoming a successful literary critic is recognizing there is no tool which can guarantee a ‘right’ answer; in literature, the process is everything.