Language & TOK

TOK in English B

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is inherent in the teaching of any language, and so TOK is naturally and inevitably involved in the teaching of English B. Why?

The teaching of English B should regularly involve considering how language has meaning. And what language does to meaning. And how the meaning we intend will change the language that we choose. And how the language that we choose may have meanings that we don't intend. And how all of these issues affect the way that language is used to deal with the world - and how language may change the way we think, and so who we are. I suggest that all of these issues involve Theory of Knowledge (TOK).

This area of the site aims to address all of these issues.

NOTE - The IB expects that teachers in all subjects will be aware of TOK issues in their particular subject, and should be prepared to address these as an on-going element of teaching the subject. This is not the same as being responsible for teaching the whole TOK course as specified in the Subject Guide. Each school will have their own arrangement for teaching the TOK syllabus as a coherent course.

As a Language B teacher, you may be asked to take part in the formal course, and in such a case, you will discuss with your colleagues what should be dealt with. The materials in this website are primarily designed to help you with inserting TOK ideas into your normal teaching.

TOK Guide

For guidance, you should primarily refer to the Theory of Knowledge Guide (first assessment 2022), which is the current master document.

See TOK Guide 2020 , for a summary of the elements directly relevant to English B, with commentary.

The page  TOK Knowledge Questions  introduces the examples of key questions provided in the TOK Guide, under the section concerned with Language. The four categories of questions (Scope, Perspectives, Methods and tools, and Ethics) are delt with in subordinate pages.

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Overall approaches

Here are three ways of looking at the matter of how we can approach TOK in the teaching of English B.

Making sense

The most usual meaning of 'make sense' is the intransitive usage of 'be sensible, convincing, understandable' - as in...

"It makes sense to leave as early as we can"

If we add 'of', and use it transitively, the meaning changes to 'work out, decipher, grasp' - as in...

"I think I can make sense of these IKEA instructions"

But if we interpret the words literally, we can interpret 'make sense' to mean 'construct meaning' - as in...

"When we speak, we have to make our own sense, and when we listen we have to make the sense of others".

Overlapping questions

The way that language handles meaning is extremely complex, and so by asking different questions, we find ourselves addressing different underlying concepts. Let me show what I mean...

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"What does this word 'good' mean ?"

A language question ... asking about vocabulary when we come across a word we haven't met before

"What does the author mean by using the word 'good' here ?"

A reading skills question ... analysing the precise effect of a word in a language context

"What do we really mean when we say 'good' ?"

A critical thinking question ... asked when we want to probe more deeply into the assumptions and arguments which make up the ideas contained in a word

"What is meant by the word 'good' ?"

A TOK question ... aiming at exploring the different interpretations there might be of a word or concept

** This set of questions is available as a critical thinking exercise suitable to be projected for students to think about in class - see the bottom of this page.

Language & Fields of Thought

Another way of making sense of all of this is expressed in the following diagram :-

Or, more specifically, in the following table :

Language > < Thought

(Philosophy, TOK)

Language > < Learning

(Education, pedagogy)

Language > < 'processing'

(thinking skills)

Language > < Thought

Philosophy has much to say about language, particularly in relation to the ways that language can express degrees of truth. These issues are summarised and debated in the process of studying Theory of Knowledge.

Language > < Learning

To a large degree, education functions through language - language is the predominant vehicle by which teaching is carried out. Accordingly, the way that language is used in education has an important influence on how teaching fails or succeeds - not just in relation to what philosophy tells us about language, but also in the way that language helps us think, and relate to each other. The section of the site Language of Instruction deals with this whole issue in some detail.

Language > < 'processing'

Language is intimately related to how thinking happens - it not only enables us to communicate what we think, it is fundamental to how we formulate what we think in the first place. It is an essential, inescapable part of the processing of thought. Much of the material in this site deals with the many varieties of such processing, but the most explicit material is in the section Thinking

English B is placed at the centre of the diagram above, where the main areas of Philosophy, Learning and Processing overlap, because in the process of acquiring a new language, the interactions between the main areas are particularly exposed.

This is not to say that English B teachers should be adding a crash course in Wittgenstein to the list of things that their weaker students can't handle! This Grand Scheme of Things is intended for teachers to keep in mind ... and to exploit when the opportunity arises. It should also be noted that the table above is arranged with the more theoretical at the top and the more practical at the bottom, and that basic thinking skills can be addressed even with students who are linguistically weak.

Critical thinking

I recommend that you make full use of the ideas and links provided in the section Critical thinking .

It is worth noting that TOK inevitably involves critical thinking, and that critical thinking about any topic inevitably involves language. After all, consider the following sentences, which you could project for your students ...

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"What does this word 'good' mean ?"

A language question ... asking about vocabulary when we come across a word we haven't met before

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"What does the author mean by using the word 'good' here ?"

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A reading skills question ... analysing the precise effect of a word in a language context

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"How do we decide what 'good' means ?"

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A TOK question ... aiming at exploring the different ways that a word or concept might be understood or analysed or assessed

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"What do we really mean when we say 'good' ?"

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A critical thinking question ... asked when we want to probe more deeply into the assumptions and arguments which make up the ideas contained in a word

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