The Language Criterion

Saturday 10 November 2018

Interpreting the descriptors for the Language criterion

A question recently posted on this website asked for some guidance on the distinction between the level 4 and 5 descriptors for Language, picking out the difficulty of distinguishing between language that was “carefully chosen” and “effective” (level 5) rather than just being “carefully chosen” (level 4).  The person asking the question made the point that “the only way by which we can determine that any language is carefully chosen is by noting the extent to which it is effective,”  and so such a distinction was not very helpful when trying to decide which mark to give a student for this criterion.  This blog post attempts to elaborate on the answer I gave to the question, while also giving a few samples of writing to illustrate the  different levels in this criterion.

The question posed - like all good questions - prompted thought and reflection. It led me to look back at the Language criterion and really think about how we make distinctions between these different descriptors.  Of course, there is a wonderful irony that the language used in the criterion descriptors seems to lack clarity and can cause confusion and disagreement amongst teachers and markers. However, while there will always remain a degree of subjectivity in the marking of English exams, we must strive for consistent standards when marking students’ work.  While the descriptors can seem vague, they do give us enough information to make fair and consistent assessments of students’ work, while also giving us enough 'room' to allow for the many different ways that a student's language ability can manifest itself in a piece of work.  

The answer I gave to the question posted was as follows:

I agree it is can be tricky to differentiate between some of the criteria descriptors, which is why there remains a degree of subjectivity in the marking of English exams. However, it is always best to look at the whole descriptor rather than just selected phrases and to go for a best fit approach. So, looking at the 5 band, the additional elements - as indicated here by inverted commas - are that the language is "effective" and "precise" with a "high degree" of accuracy in "grammar", vocabulary and sentence construction; register and style are also "effective." With all of those additional elements I think there is enough to go on to differentiate between a 4 and a 5 band student. While a student's writing does not have to be perfect to get a 5, the descriptor does suggest it has to be very accurate with very few errors, while also being precise and effective in style. A level 4 student may be accurate and careful in terms of selecting language but perhaps not as impressive in terms of overall style and precision; or, they may be more ambitious with this latter element but at the expense of some accuracy and coherence. 

The key point here is that when it comes to assessing any of the criteria, we should always follow the IB's guidance that "each criterion is applied independently using a best-fit model."  Therefore, we need to look at the descriptor as a coherent whole, rather than pick out selected words or phrases.  This point is also true of the guiding questions that accompany the Language criteron in every assessment task on the Literature course:

How clear, varied and accurate is the language?

How appropriate is the choice of register, style and terminology? 

To take the first question as an example, "clear, varied and accurate" are qualities we would ideally want to see in coexistence.  Writing that is clear but lacks variety is likely to be simplistic and dull; writing that is varied but not clear will be verbose and obfuscating.  Depending on the nature of the mistakes, "accuracy" may actually be the least important of the three, but frequent inaccuracies will be distracting and frustrating to read, inevitably detracting from expression that is otherwise clear and varied.  As with the descriptors, we need to consider all elements together and, while a student may be better with one aspect than another, aim for a 'best-fit' approach.  

To illustrate this 'best-fit' approach, below are some samples of students' writing that have been assessed from level 2 to level 5 for the Language criterion.  These examples are all introductions from student commentaries on the Higher Level Paper 1 from May 2017 and represent the full range of marks for Language, except for level 1 (a student being given a 1 for Language is very rare as almost all IB students have the ability to write with some clarity, accuracy and some sense of audience and purpose).  While it is never advisable - or fair - to assess a student for language based on just one paragraph of their work, these introductions do illustrate some of the differences between the different levels for language and do establish patterns that continue through the students’ entire commentaries.  Therefore, while there may be a limit to how well these clarify the distinctions between the levels, they do illustrate some of the ways we can differentiate between different students’ use of language.  

Sample 1

Within the poem Blaze the poet uses a variety of literary devices such as imagry, symbolism and many others.  the poet describes the unpredictability of the human mind when making decisions. The poet uses the destructive nature of fire and its ability to consume everything in ones life along with symbolism imagry making various implications that no matter how logical something seems, when put in the right situation you can never determine how you will react.  The poem is about a house burning down, and how a woman makes a mistake that is looked down upon by the whole family.


As stated in the descriptor for level 2,  "errors and inconsistencies are apparent" from the very beginning of this response, with the lack of a capital letter at the start of the second sentence and the misspelling of imagery.  In terms of the language being "clear" and "carefully chosen", the qualifier "sometimes" fits this response well, as does the "to some extent" qualifier when it comes to register and style being appropriate.   The student is trying to write in an appropriate way but is hindered by some clear limitations in terms of their language skills. 

Sample 2

The poem Blaze by Christine West captures a woman's experience of the spreading of a fire in her house and what she is left with after it has been extinguished.  West attempts to emphasise the power and the degree of significance a single experience may hold and how it is capable of changing an individual’s life by enabling them to see what they were once oblivious to.  In order to explore this idea, West manipulates the use of imagery and tone which encapsulates the woman’s gradual realisation of the emptiness that her life seems to hold.


In terms of language being clear, carefully chosen and accurate, this response is clearly a step up from the previous sample.  No qualifiers are needed - this is clear and accurate writing, although there are "some lapses."  There is some clumsy sentence construction and vague expression, features that continue throughout the response, so "accuracy in grammar, vocabulary and sentence construction" is "adequate" (level 3) rather than "good" (level 4).  Furthermore, this also means register and style are "mostly appropriate to the commentary" rather than being "consistently appropriate" (level 4).

Sample 3

The poem ’Blaze’ by Christine West is a riveting, impactful piece that sparks contemplation on our perception of destruction and new beginnings.  It tells the story of a fire that sets a woman’s kitchen ablaze as she is occupied talking to the insurance man, and goes on to depict the aftermath of this event.  West transports the reader through a journey of complex emotions, and asks the reader to confront thought-provoking questions. She explores the concepts of mundanity in our everyday lives, the beauty that can be found beneath destruction, and the idea of new beginnings.  


Compared to the previous sample, there is more ambition evident in the way this student is trying to construct sentences and use language to convey their thinking.   Language is "clear and carefully chosen" and, as well as being more ambitious, the student also has more control over their grammar, vocabulary and sentence construction, so it is "good" rather than "adequate"  here.  Register and style are also "consistently appropriate."  So why does this get a 4 and not a 5?  What you may detect in this introduction is a tendency to overwrite and some awkwardness in expression, aspects that continue throughout the response.  Therefore, to look at what it does not do from the level 5 descriptor,  language is not always "very clear, effective, carefully chosen and precise" and  register and style are not always "effective."   Of course, this is still a student who can write very well, in line with the qualities outlined in the level 4 descriptor.  

Sample 4

Patterns of existence can become predictable to the point where we fall into a routine, such that we are barely aware of sleepwalking through life.  Such is the state in which Christine West’s housewife protagonist begins in West’s narrative poem, ‘Blaze’. The speaker chronicles an event in suburbia, a house fire, and a woman’s life directly before, during, and after the disaster. Written in six similarly-sized stanzas, the banality that might have permeated the poem is undercut by the lack of rhyme scheme and formal structure to the story, implying that all is not quite right even before the fire occurs. Through this, West is able to explore the underlying, robotic darkness that lies behind the perfect suburban life, and impress upon the readers a story of one woman regaining her autonomy and a connection to her identity.


This introduction  - and the response continues in this vein, if anything getting stronger   - certainly fits the descriptor for level 5.  It is not perfect (we might quibble with the phrase "robotic darkness", for example), but an 18 year old student's writing, done under timed conditions, does not need to be perfect (whatever that means) to get full marks in this criterion.  Compared to the previous sample, this response demonstrates greater precision with vocabulary and more effective choices with sentence construction.  There is a more sophisticated sense of audience and purpose, evident in the more nuanced and very "effective" register and style.   

As stated above, there are clearly limitations in using a single paragraph from a student's work to illustrate a level descriptor, and we should never award a mark before reading a student's whole response as there will invariably be inconsistencies in language use, especially under timed conditions where students often grow in confidence and fluency as they progress.   When we use the term "best-fit" that means a holistic approach to the student's entire answer, not just the criterion descriptors.   

With that in mind, you may find it hard to make distinctions between some of these samples and you may disagree with some of the comments and assessments.  As such, we welcome your comments on any of the above or any other observations/advice you may have about assessing students' language.



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