Conceptual understandings

The conceptual understandings specified by the Subject Guide are easy enough to understand in general terms - but what do they mean in practical teaching terms? What do we actually focus on in order to give our students a firm grasp of what these concepts have to do with language in the real world?


... How’s that for a mnemonic?

See the Language B Subject Guide pp.20-22 for the full, developed explanations of how the IB views each of the conceptual understandings - but let's explore each of them in a little more detail, through critical questioning.

Here are the definitions as given in the Subject Guide, in blue ... and if you click on the icon, you'll find some provocative questions to help explore each concept.

These are arranged so that you can project them using Presentation mode - thus providing a basis for initial discussions with the students.


… language should be appropriate for the person(s) with whom one is communicating

> But how does one work out what audience is intended?

- pattern of lang?

- assumptions of knowledge?

- conventions of e.g. humour & irony?


… language should be appropriate to the situation in which one is communicating

> What is ‘appropriate’ language?

- concepts of register & style ?   formal / informal?

>  How do we define ‘situation’ ?

= means of publication?

= overlap with purpose?


… language should be appropriate to achieve a desired intention, goal or result when communicating

>   What is meant by ‘purpose’?

>   Can there be multiple purposes to a text?

>   How do we actually detect purpose(s) ?  


… language is used in a range of ways to communicate a message

> How is ‘range’ to be studied?

- same message in different texts with different phrasings ?

- different phrasings within a single text?


… differences exist within a given language, and that speakers of a given language are generally able to understand each other

> What sort of variations?

- Regional variations?

- Slang?

- Jargon?

- Dialects?

> What is the purpose of studying this field of knowledge?

> And how much time should be spent on it? 


Material appropriate for the study of conceptual understandings occur all over the site - understandably, if the conceptual understandings are indeed so fundamental to the handling of language!

However, the following pages are particularly focused on introducing, explaining and discussing conceptual understandings:-

Analysing a pamphlet ... a short pamphlet is analysed, focusing mainly on Context + Audience + Purpose, and also on the choice of text type, applying conceptual understanding

Water & cheese ... comparison of two publicity texts raises important questions about the concept of 'Variation' - why should texts be written in different ways, how do we recognise such differences, and how do Audience and Purpose influence the choice of register, tone, and text type?

A packet of TEA ... publicity material, again, rich with indications about Audience and Purpose, and particularly Context (in the sense of background assumptions and and understandings, which allow for subtle implications and associations)

The Hill We Climb ... study of Amanda Gorman's poem at Biden's inauguration leads to a consideration of how all five conceptual understandings are relevant to analysing how the poem is written, and why...

Sitges ... in the process of practising how to organise and write a factual description, the issue of choosing details to suit your Audience comes up (check out the bottom of the page)

Junk mail ... two junk mail messages provide the basis for an exercise in critical thinking, but this includes close attention to Context and Audience ... an example of the necessary link between Conceptual understandings and Critical thinking...

The following pages provide a wide range of texts suitable for exploring the concept of Variation:-

Language Dos & Don'ts ... discusses what is meant by 'appropriate' language, but see especially this handout:-

Dos & Don'ts Language Varieties ... useful for introducing and exploring the basic issues of 'varieties'

L1 interference ... discussion of how first languages influence and modulate English ... with examples for analysis

Charlie's thoughts ... from the novel Flowers for Algernon, two extracts which illustrate the difference between 'primitive' and 'sophisticated' language use - how we recognise such difference, and where it comes from

BEV variety ... Black English Vernacular, analysed ... showing how 'incorrect' varieties are actually very coherent in their own grammatical structures

Dinner supper tea ... deals with variations in names for meals in the UK ... comprehension exercises exploring fine distinctions, followed by Critical Thinking exercise about language and social class

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