On the topic of Topics

Thursday 10 December 2015

Why are Topics such a major feature of the Language B Subject Guide? What should be the significance of Topics in devising a programme of work for English B? And how important are Topics in the assessment procedures? In the May 2015 session, the feedback from schools about the English B HL Paper 2 was mostly very positive. However, there was a small minority of teachers who were ...er... uneasy about how the Topics had been addressed in the paper. In essence, people pointed out that the Subject Guide lists a total of 8 Topics (3 Core and 5 Options), and then adds between 8 and 12 aspects under each Topic. During the course, as we all know, we have to cover 2 aspects of each of the required 3 Core and 2 Options - which means a total of 10 aspects. How, the uneasy people asked, can they prepare their students properly for the exam, when the five questions set may not - indeed, almost certainly will not - have anything to do with Topic material studied during the course? This inevitably means, it was argued, that students would have had to 'come up with a lot of the ideas themselves' in the exam.

But that really is the point - it is entirely accepted that students will have to think on their feet and come up with relevant general knowledge to support whatever task is needed in the question chosen. Apart from anything else, the Subject Guide makes it clear that factual knowledge, as such, is not assessed in any of the Language B assessment components. From the examiner's point of view, candidates can quote any figures they like in support of, say, a debate for or against the use of robots in factories - and no examiner is going to check whether those figures are actually accurate, or from reliable sources. Examiners too can not be expected to be universal experts on whatever aspect of e.g. 'Health' any teacher out there may have decided to study with her students.

In short, don't worry - there is not the slightest chance of predicting what precise aspects will be dealt with in the exam, and those who mark the exam are likely to be as factually uninformed as the students! "But...but..." you stammer, "how then do you prepare students to handle the Paper 2 tasks? And anyway, what's the point of studying the topics?"

Students should be prepared to handle the exam on the basis of common sense plus general knowledge. In one way, the 'new' (i.e. since 2013) Paper 2 is no different than the 'old' Paper 2, where there was no reference to Topics, and it was accepted that questions could be about any subject matter at all. Instruct students to select questions on the basis of, firstly, the text type, that they know they can handle well; and then, secondly, the subject area, about which they have some general background knowledge. In the end, Paper 2 is about the ability to write English clearly, to organise ideas methodically, and to produce a recognisable version of a conventional type of text. Knowledge of the subject matter may be helpful, but comes a long way last - in fact, may be positively damaging, as with Economics students who completely forget the point of the question while displaying how much they know about supply / demand mechanisms !

And the point of Topics during the course? I have been told on good authority that the whole concept of topics was introduced because it had been observed that Language B teachers in many languages sometimes tended to teach language through persistently banal subject matter - 'What did you do this weekend?' ... 'Do you have a pet?' ... 'What food do you like?' ... and so on. So, it was made mandatory that Language B classes should spend some time at least talking about serious topics.

Which doesn't seem like a bad idea!


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