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Useful Resources

An A Level Guide to Context

Steve Campsall | Friday January 12, 2018

Categories: Archived Resources, KS5 Archive, AQA A Level, AQA A Level Generic Skills, AQA A Level Skills Resources, AQA A Level Pre-2015 Resources, AQA A Level English Language A, AQA A Level English Language B, AQA A Level English Language & Literature A, AQA A Level English Language & Literature B, AQA A Level English Literature A, AQA A Level English Literature B, EDEXCEL A Level, Edexcel A Level Generic Skills, Edexcel A Level Skills Resources, EDEXCEL A Level English Literature, Edexcel A Level Pre-2015 Resources, EDEXCEL A Level English Language & Literature, EDEXCEL A Level English Language, OCR A Level, OCR A Level Pre-2015 Resources, OCR A Level English Language & Literature, OCR A Level English Language, OCR A Level English Literature, WJEC A Level, WJEC A Level Generic Skills, WJEC A Level Skills Resources, WJEC A Level Pre-2015 Resources, WJEC A Level English Language & Literature, WJEC A Level English Language, WJEC A Level English Literature, Hot Entries, Writing, Contextual Research

Teacher’s Note

Below is an EnglishEdu Student Guide that will, hopefully, help your own students to a deeper and useful understanding of the key idea of context. Many students struggle with this concept which, along with purpose, audience and genre must surely rank as one of the four key aspects of all texts; indeed, it could be argued that, along with the individual writer or speaker of a text, context is the main aspect of central concern as, from these two, all others flow. With that in mind, this guide also touches on purpose, audience and genre although you’ll find other guides to these here on EnglishEdu.

The purpose of the guide is to help students put context to good use in their essays. The guide has a focus on English Language A level, where context is central to all exam board’s mark schemes, but it has been designed to be useful to students of English Literature, as well as the combined English Language and Literature courses – and across all examination boards.

A common response to context by many students is to ‘bolt on’ a paragraph of historical data that attempts vaguely to generalise about some presumed possible effects of context on the writer. Such ‘bolting on’ of contextual information is commented on regularly by examiners as a reason for lost marks. It adds little to the essay and wasted valuable thinking and writing time.

A specific focus on context is an aspect of some board’s assessment objectives, but because context is a part of the very essence of every text, a careful and considered analysis of context, whether or not the results of the analysis eventually find explicit mention in the final essay, will always help reveal deep and subtle insights into a text, its writer and its readers. This will, without doubt, help your students to a deeper appreciation of the texts they are studying and thus, with luck, to higher marks.

The guide below is aimed at enthusiastic students but has been produced in a way that should allow easy editing for a range of abilities, even for GCSE use.

There are several analyses at the end of the guide to show how a consideration of context can reveal deep and useful insights into texts. These, too, can be easily edited to suit different types of class and student and the ideas shown can be easily transferred to other texts your own students are studying, whether linguistic or literary.

Context

To gain high marks, you need to uncover the linguistic subtleties within texts. These will arise not from facts you can find by detection but from insights you develop by perception. This means ‘close reading’ the text, using linguistic concepts and reflecting on what your analysis reveals. The deepest insights will arise only if you track back to the contexts in which the text arose and in which it was used: that of its writer or speaker; and that of its audience.

Your own context is what is near you and which affects you, both physically and psychologically. Linguistic context refers to the totality of information that affects a speaker, writer, listener or reader and which affects the creation, reception and interpretation of a text. This includes information related to, for example, time, place and situation. A key contextual aspect is that it will have included an audience: only such a context causes the motivation to communicate, that is, to enter into a communicative act that will form a part of a particular kind of discourse. An audience can be near and thus physically present (‘co-present’ – as in a conversation or a speech) or distant and thus only ‘sensed’, such as when the discourse involves email or is a media text.

When you yourself use language to create a text – that is to enter into a communicative act as a part of a typical social discourse – it is because you feel motivated to make meaning. A very common everyday context is when an audience appears on the scene, e.g. your friend arrives. This changed context often causes you to recall an interesting earlier context or a planned future context and, as a result, you are motivated to create a text to discuss this. The genre is then linguistically termed a ‘conversation’ and the register you choose will be ‘chatty’ or ‘colloquial’, i.e. very informal; your lexical and grammatical choices will be those of the ‘vernacular’ (everyday language): ‘Hey, you’ll never guess what happened to me this morning. There I was, minding my own business, just sat on the school bus…’

  • The meaning you’ll want to make is affected by the world in which you exist; and when you add that meaning to the world, you will alter it and create a changed context for your audience; and this will likely motivate them to create a new text as a response. Linguistically speaking, you, instead of your friend, become the interlocutor; your friend’s ‘conversational turn’, their ‘utterance’, begins as he or she ‘takes the floor’ to create an ‘adjacency pair’ and make a ‘second turn’:

You: hey (0.5) you’ll never guess what happened to me this morning on the school bus
Friend: God (.2) you look a sight (.) what the heck went on (1.0) tell me about it

A consideration of how language users react to their contexts and are caused to create texts as a result helps linguists to understand people and their language use better. From such study, we can learn what contexts do to people, what people do with language and what language does to them, and to their audience. More importantly, of course, for you – it will help you to gain far higher marks!

Different Contexts

It is the different contexts of two individuals that are important to any textual analysis: that of the creator of the text – its speaker or writer; and that of the recipient of the text – its audience. To analyse the effects of context, an analysis of a text begins by working out what information its creator seems to have received and was affected by and, thus, what perhaps motivated them to create their text.

Similarly, when considering the context of a text’s audience, you will need to consider what information they were receiving and what response and interpretation of the text this might have led to.

The ‘information’ a person receives when he or she meets a text is multiple, because the world it arises from is human. This means that the effects of context are bound to be complex. Some aspects of context involve information being received that is objective (e.g. you receive actual informational data that a friend has had an accident); other aspects of information received are subjective (e.g. you think you see fear on the face of the friend telling you this).

Information that you have already received is also a part of your context – of the totality of information that is a part of your life. For example, you know that accidents can be very bad things. The result of this totality of information is that your emotions are affected – you become upset. If you create a text from this, as you are likely to do (to create an utterance or to write a get-well-soon card), you choose to enter into a communicative act or discourse. And if you were a student of English Language, your text could then be analysed to show what the contextual effects were upon you that caused it to arise, and to suggest why the language forms (lexical choices) and structures (grammatical choices – or, combined: lexico-grammatical choices) you created were made. These will not be easily recoverable facts, but perceptively developed insights. They will gain high marks!

To add to this complexity, the kind of contextual information you are trying to uncover always belonged to someone else – a person who will not be around to ask; indeed, often no longer alive. This means that to derive potentially useful contextual information, you need to be extraordinarily perceptive, that is deeply insightful as well as tentative (for there are few answers, only likelihood or suggestions). Such insightfulness can be derived from three sources:

  1. the primary evidence of the text itself;
  2. generalised evidence found by direct research into the period in which the text was produced;
  3. the more generalised evidence of known context of the time and place in which the text was created and used. This aspect is sometimes called by a German word – the zeitgeist, meaning, ‘the spirit of the times’. Our current zeitgeist includes the dominant ideologies, that is, culturally accepted ways of thinking, that affect our thoughts and actions. Included in this are our society’s attitudes to wealth and poverty, age and youth, sexuality, gender, race and so on.

The Various Kinds of Context

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There are very many aspects to an individual’s context that can be found to have affected the texts they produce. Here are some important ones:

  • Context of place – the physical context. For example, a soldier in a trench in World War I will be affected by his physical context, and this is very likely to materially affect the texts he creates. If a person is in a library, that language user’s context will affect at least the form of the texts he or she creates (or should), who will whisper rather than shout.
  • Context of knowledge – the epistemic context. A person’s knowledge, educational background and linguistic abilities, and other aspects perhaps, such as social class will add to the sum of what they know and this will reflect in their thoughts, as well as in the language they have available with which to communicate those thoughts.
  • Context of language – the linguistic context. The words we choose will be affected by the words that we have already just used and words that others have used before that we are aware of. There are wider and more complex aspects of this, too, our thoughts and word-choices are affected by what has already been said or written that we come to know about. Beyond what has been immediately said or written lies a whole world of other texts – some of which are known to the language user and their audience.
    • An important aspect of linguistic context is literary context. This affects authors, poets and dramatists. In World War I, the poetic form was extraordinarily popular, so it’s no surprise that many ordinary soldiers felt moved to pen poems to their loved ones. They were motivated to do so in part by literary context. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the extended novel rather than the short story became popular; in the late twentieth century, the ‘trilogy’ because a popular sci-fi form. As well as being motivated to make decisions owing to out literary context, we can allude to other important and well-known texts and refer in our own texts to, for example, religious or mythical texts for example. Such allusions are called a use of intertextuality.
      • Context of society – the social context. ‘No man is an island’ wrote the early eighteenth century poet, showing a recognition that we share our lives with many others, and with their cultural ideas, too – shared ideas that arise from the society to which we belong. As an example, most of us we all share a much more ‘feministic’ mind-set today that is very different from the more common ‘sexist’ mind-set of not so very long ago. We don’t freely choose these shared ‘mind-sets’, they are the ‘ideological baggage’ we inherit from our society and culture. This context is sometimes called cultural or ideological context. There is a specific term for the ‘spirit of the age’, that is the sum total of all aspects of our age that generally influence people living at a particular time. This is called by a German word, zeitgeist.
        • An important aspect of social context is professional context. Some writers and all journalists, for example, are commissioned and thus professionally obliged to create what need to be authentic and sincere-seeming, authoritative texts – texts which often even suggest a level of intimacy and friendship with the reader, even though that reader is a part of a mass audience for the text and will forever remain completely unknown to the writer. The following text is the beginning of an editor’s letter from a popular women’s magazine. It is difficult to imagine from the text...

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