Should We Study Current Events in Language and Literature? A Partial Reaction to the 2018 Subject Report

Thursday 25 October 2018

The subject report for the May 2018 examinations was recently released.  I read it every year because it gives us insight into the course and it gives us insight into the examinations themselves.  I like the tips and the pointers.  They help remind me of things I must and should consider when teaching the course.

But I also have some real beef with this year’s report (found on MyIB).  I am exaggerating my frustrations so that I can get a blog post out of this, but hear me out.   

Very early in the report, the author(s) state this:

“…that there has been some shift away from issues, central to the programme, about how language is used, how it shapes our perceptions, how it may persuade, enlighten or entertain, etc. In some centres, it seems, the emphasis is being placed instead on recent events in the political sphere at a local or international level and, more generally on global issues such as environmental concerns and on debates about gender roles, etc” (2).

When Gap publishes an advertisement in 2016 that portrays little boys as “scholars” and little girls as “social butterflies,” you can bet your last buck that my students are going to be debating gender roles!

The author(s) continue this line of thought:

“While one can well understand how such topics [current events] are attractive for both teachers and students to work on, it is very important that the aims of the programme – and of the WT component in particular – should not be lost sight of, putting candidates at a disadvantage when it comes to assessment of their submissions” (2). 

Sorry IB.

I’m not putting my students at a disadvantage by creating a unit about Asian representation in the media using resources around the film Crazy Rich Asians (a current event). I’m not putting my students at a disadvantage by creating a unit of study that unpacks the media around the referendum for the UK to leave the European Union (a current event).  And I’m not putting my students at a disadvantage by creating a unit of study that asks students to critically think about the language we use to discuss migration and refugees (a current event).

This must be a serious concern though because the report keeps pointing it out:

“We must recall that this syllabus is not a study of politics or sociology or current events, but is a Language and Literature course, so that the central issues of how language is used, how it shapes our perceptions, how it may persuade, entertain or enlighten, should be kept to the forefront” (10).

I think I finally get it.  We as teachers might be doing this wrong.  Here’s what I mean by that: I think we have to deal with current events like #MeToo in the classroom.  If it doesn’t happen in a Language and Literature class, I don’t know where it belongs.  But we have to make sure we write and talk about it in a way that honors the aims of this course.  How does the media present the #MeToo movement?  What ideologies exist in news articles about #MeToo?  What words and phrases are used in headlines about #MeToo?  Why do newspapers frame the topic from a particular perspective?  What effect does that have and why?      

These are the hard questions we must ask students.  These are the questions they must be tackling in their Written Tasks.  And that’s where I have an issue with the subject report.  I am keeping language at the center of the course! 

I think what is being said is that too many students are submitting Written Tasks about a topic or current event instead of about how language is used to present it.  That’s a real problem.  Repeating that idea three times in the subject report means that I hear what the IB is saying loud and clear.  It’s impossible to miss.  They’ve provided very useful, practical, and necessary advice: make sure that language is at the forefront of all we do.  Students need to remember that when submitting their Written Tasks for example.

I also know that I teach teenagers, not graduate students.  If your students are anything like my students, they do what the IB says not to do all the time!    

That’s where I come in.  I tell them no and I tell them no very early in the process.  I do this often.  No. No. No. No. No.  I tell them to re-think ideas without hesitating.  I tell them their idea won’t work when they propose something for a Written Task or a Further Oral Activity. I do this because I know they are talking about a current event and not analyzing the language and images used to present it.  It isn’t an author focused argument connected to audience and purpose, style and structure. 

Of course, once I’ve said no, I support and guide them to where they need to get to, asking them questions or encouraging them to provide me with a new plan that takes my feedback into account.  Revision is an important part of the writing process and revision occurs early and often in my class. 

When done well, Written Task(s) tackling current events can turn into amazingly creative and thoughtful pieces of writing.  They have real voice and purpose because students care about the subject matter.  But they also analyze and interpret the language and images used in connection to representation or gender or identity or any number of things that the IB might deem a current issue.  Yes, some fail at it, or do it with much less sophistication, and that’s okay too. 

So, although the subject report says I shouldn’t work with current events, I’m going to deliberately ignore them.  We can’t not talk about race, war, gender, migration, class, fake news and more.  I want to give my students the place and the space to discuss, analyze, and be critical of the language and images the media uses when presenting these topics.  I see it as my very small contribution to the IB mission, to hopefully “help to create a better and more peaceful world” and to help students “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

There are other (sometimes great) recommendations for the IOC, Paper 1, and Paper 2 in the subject report.  I encourage you to read it to get those tips and ideas.  But just as we teach our students to be critical consumers of texts, we should be too, even if the text is from the IB.



Tags: Tim, blog post, subject reports, 2018, examinations, current events, current issues

Comments 11

Lesley Croft 26 October 2018 - 02:46

Well said David!

My, now rather tatty, copy of Language A: language and literature guide, first examinations 2013 has just fallen open on the page with the IB mission statement. The first sentence says '...develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.'

I cannot see how avoiding current events and important issues in the world, reported through the media, can achieve this goal. I openly encourage my students to know what is going on because I think it makes their work much more authentic. That mysterious word that keeps coming up for the Written Task.

Lesley Croft 27 October 2018 - 01:27

I mean Tim!

Tim Pruzinsky 28 October 2018 - 00:50

Hi Lesley,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I appreciate it!


David McIntyre 29 October 2018 - 06:20

This is a great post, Tim.

I think that there may be something germane about what is written in the report (as you suggest). It is important to recognise that the course is not about the teaching of 'stuff', which is never, anyway, assessed in the course. Rather, teachers and students should understand that the course is concerned with representation. However, your point is not lost. On the contrary, if the IB's mission statement and learner profile is to be promoted through teaching and learning (as opposed to, say, sticking a poster on a wall), then we surely lose an opportunity when we don't use contemporary issues - simultaneously of their time and enduring - to consider how social and cultural life is represented, constructed, and challenged by alternative representations.

I find, too, some fascination in the report in the context of a new course for 2019. In the documentation I have seen to date I think there is less of the post structuralist emphasis from the original course. The demise of WT2 questions, for example, leaves a gap (in my opinion) where students were 'coerced' into particular important modes of thinking. Simultaneously, the new oral component explores texts and works through a 'global issue'. This may be contentious for some. I like the idea, as long as the emphasis remains on the representation of ideas and issues. And, this brings me back to your post: I agree with you entirely. Teaching the course through the lens of contemporary events is hardly problematic. It seems, rather, essential in a values-driven curriculum. There needs to be emphasis, of course, on representation, but treating language and social reality as if they are separate entities is a bit like saying that clouds have no relation to rain.

Thanks for this timely post.


Tanja Vogt 2 November 2018 - 11:51

Hello Tim, thanks for your post. As the author of the German Language & Literature site I found this really interesting as generally the way the English Lang&Lit course is taught has a great impact on how teachers in the other (smaller) languages do teach it. Language is used in all political debates and current events and analysing HOW language is used in order to promote views and ideas in such debates is surely something that should have its place in a language A course. I do like the way how you link language and current events, I never thought you are teaching politics. Maybe the author is referring to submitted work where students do not manage to make this necessary link to language and talk only about the political issue itself... I think this subject report may confuse some teachers, so your blog is great.

Tim Pruzinsky 4 November 2018 - 23:36

Hi Tanja,

Nice to hear from you and thanks for leaving this comment! I especially appreciated the reminder about how English Language and Literature has an influence on how other L/L courses are taught.


Salina Sankar 5 November 2018 - 01:58

Hi Tim
I cannot but agree with the points you make. All of language is both political and social and we miss critical teaching moments if we ignore how language is used to coerce individuals and communities.The Language course provides teachers with several opportunities to "“help to create a better and more peaceful world” and how would we do this if we are not analysing the language of fear mongering, comparison of migrants to cockroaches.. , the language of war ...and the list is endless. I believe we would be failing as teachers if we do not place these issues front and centre of our teaching and examine how language is manipulated to promote these ideologies.


Tim Pruzinsky 6 November 2018 - 07:51

Hi Salina,

Thanks for sharing your comments here. It's always great to hear from subscribers.


Lesley Croft 7 April 2019 - 11:22

I would like to add something regarding my previous comment and Tim's original post. I am in the process of marking WT1 SL which has many issues, although only one more year of formally submitting these tasks. What I am seeing often is a student writing about an issue, such as gender or discrimination, rather than making links to how language constructs opinion or ideology or injustice. It does seem that students have been allowed to express themselves showing their interest and knowledge in something topical in the political arena but are not being guided into understanding how the English language and its use impacts such events.

David McIntyre 8 April 2019 - 07:45

I see this becoming an issue with the new Individual Oral, Lesley. Time and experience may prove me wrong (it often does!), but I think that students have a huge amount to do in ten minutes, and struggling student will, I think, be drawn to a discussion of imminent Armageddon (or something similar) rather than the ways in which it is represented in (no longer one but) two texts. I have always liked the written tasks, but the marking criteria less so. And, whilst I think the revised course has many new, exciting opportunities, I lament the loss of creative opportunities that are assessed (even where it can seem perverse to mark a student's poem out of 20). Thanks for sharing your view.


Lesley Croft 9 April 2019 - 03:05

Hi David, I see your point about the new IO. I am thinking it will have to be quite precise in order to get them to talk about language as well as a global issue. I will have some time to think about what exactly I will do and I'm anticipating that this site will be my savior! Will the students need to be sociolinguistics to tick all the boxes?
And yes, I agree, I am quite uncomfortable marking a student's poem out of 20.

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