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AQA B A Level English Language ENGB1 Introduction

Steve Campsall | Thursday July 16, 2009

Categories: Writing, Linguistic Analysis, AQA A Level English Language B, ENGB1, KS5 Archive, AQA A Level

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AQA English Language B – ENGB1

An Introduction

ENGB1 is the first unit of the new (2009) AQA B course; it’s a wholly examined unit worth 60% of the student’s AS mark (i.e. 30% of the A-level). It consists of two sections:

  • Section A: ‘Text Varieties’
  • Section B: ‘Language & Social Contexts’.

The introductory unit, ENGB1, needs to be viewed as far more than just ‘a unit’ within this AS level course. Whilst it is, in some respects, a natural development from the students’ GCSE English course, many students are surprised at how different it really is and needs to be if success is to be obtained.

The unit introduces students to the key concepts of genre, context, audience and purpose as well as to the analysis of both written and spoken language. Students who are able to master the requirements of ENGB1 are set fair to tackle the rest of the course with confidence. A particularly useful and successful means of tackling ENGB1, and therefore of getting to grips with much of what the rest of the course requires, is through the idea of discourse analysis. This is covered below.

Section A: Text Varieties

ENGB1 Section A, ‘Text Varieties’, consists of a single compulsory exam question. Students are presented with seven unseen texts or extracts (written, spoken and ‘mixed-mode’ and cross genre); they need to consider and discuss how these texts can be ‘grouped’ under appropriate linguistic headings (such as genre, context, audience, purpose, etc.). The less able student will attempt to group most or all of the seven texts; the stronger student will look for far fewer groupings but will apply greater subtlety and sophistication in their reasoning. The metaphor of digging deeper and deeper is the key to success in this unit.

Section B: Language and Social Contexts

ENGB1 Section B,Language and Social Contexts’, consists of questions on three separate language topics from which students answer one question on just one chosen topic. The topics are:

Language & Gender

This requires a consideration and discussion of how a text represents aspects of masculinity and femininity, including especially, a consideration of ideological reinforcement, an aspect linked closely with power.

Language & Power

This requires a consideration of how texts work to create power differentials between the producer of the text and its reader or listener.

Language & Technology

This requires a consideration of how technological ‘channels’ of transmission such as text messaging, email, telephone, and so on act in three ways: as an aid to communication, as a constraint to communication and in ways that simulate traditional modes of communication.

These three topics are covered separately.

ENGB1 – Ways into Section A

Discourse Analysis

The idea of ‘discourse’ is rather confused – some apply the idea only to the structure of a text, for example; it’s also often said that discourse is the study of a text beyond the level of the sentence or that it applies only to spoken texts.

A discourse can, in fact, be just a single sentence long, or even less, “Off with his head!? And it can be spoken or written.

Discourse is best viewed as simply the product of any act of communicating through the medium of language – in whatever way or mode – that communication occurs. To analyse a text at the level of discourse, therefore, means giving a close consideration of all of the relevant contextual aspects that led both to the choices of language and language features made to communicate the idea, as well as a close consideration of how these language and language features work to create meaning in the mind of the recipient, through the act of interpretation.

  • This means that to analyse a piece of text subtly and usefully requires a consideration not merely of the surface meanings of the language but of the pragmatic ‘force’ of the interaction between the text’s producer and the text’s interpreter.
  • Language carries both meaning and feeling and it is the personal nature of language that needs to be accounted for through a recognition of it being an example not just of a ‘text’ but as a representation of a piece of social discourse between living people.

Considered like this, it can be seen that a good grounding in discourse analysis will provide a solid foundation not only for tackling this introductory unit, ENGB1, but, more importantly, for the course as a whole.

When students approach any text, therefore, they should consider it as an example of social discourse. This means they will engage with it ‘holistically’ and thus be alert to uncover the kinds of subtle aspects within it that will lead them to a fuller analysis and thus to higher marks; indeed, it would be fair to say that an understanding of language at the level of discourse is at the very core of this A-level course.

  • An initial keen focus on discourse in the early weeks of the course will provide a solid and useful foundation for much that is to follow in both AS and A2.

Learning to recognise and consider texts as examples of social discourse will help students to consider the texts not merely as something given in an exam for analysis, but as being genuine examples of actual language in use. This will require a consideration of the text from four separate perspectives:

  • Genre
  • Audience
  • Context
  • Purpose

These four perspectives can be considered as the ‘key concepts’ of language study. On their own, they will provide the student with many possibilities for grouping the unseen texts they meet in Section A of their exam, but much more importantly, they provide the basis for the more subtle levels of analysis that can be achieved when these concepts are further analysed using the ‘linguistic methods’ suggested by AQA, or what used to be called ‘analytical frameworks’. Each of these methods will be covered separately

  • Lexis
  • Semantics
  • Pragmatics
  • Grammar
  • Phonetics/Phonology
  • Graphology


This mnemonic can be helpful in reminding students of the need to give close and considered attention to these four key concepts:

  • Genre
  • Context
  • Audience
  • Purpose

Each of these is covered below through the focus of ‘discourse’.


With a written text, it is generally its genre that will be the first aspect that its audience recognises and, as such, this key textual aspect that is central both to the text’s production as well, crucially, to its reception and interpretation. Spoken texts also follow genre conventions but the effect of genre is less easy to define and use analytically at this level of study. Conversation analysis is covered later.

Genre refers to the type or kind of text; and unfortunately, this is where many students appreciation of the term ends. But there is far more of analytical value to the idea of genre than a cursory acquaintance might suggest. A close analysis of the genre conventions within any text can easily reveal the kind of subtle and useful detail that is rewarded highly in the exam.
The key point about a generic text is that its genre is easily able to be identified by its intended audience. This is because it will have followed easily recognisable stylistic conventions or features that are common to its particular genre.

  • It is these genre conventions that, given a careful consideration, can be useful in revealing important aspects of a text.

Some background to genre might be useful. As we grow and experience the world, we create a mental set of ‘prototypes’ or ‘maps’ that form when we meet or learn about different kinds of people and things. These, in a sense, seem to become ‘hard-wired’ within the memory systems. When a new kind of thing or person comes our way, it is these prototypes that allow us to recognise that the new thing contains certain ‘signifiers’ of meaning that allow us quickly to group it along with other similar known things. In this way, genre is a kind of ‘self defence’ mechanism: it helps prepare us for the unexpected and allows us to react in appropriate ways. Genre is closely analogous to the idea of stereotyping and, just like stereotyping, it can lead us to react in ways that are not always helpful: it can get in the way of developing an entirely objective understanding.

In printed or written texts, some of the most important genre conventions are closely linked to the graphological aspects of a text and will be discussed later under that heading. In the following three texts, despite their content being all-but indiscernible, their graphological aspects easily define their genre. A key consideration is that at this level alone, a good deal of important mental processing goes on in the text’s intended recipient. Genre is capable of ‘calling’ the reader of a text in powerful ways that work to develop a culturally-conditioned ‘mind-set’, one that actually shapes expectations concerning the content of the text. In this way, genre can be seen as a key way that a text’s producer can manipulate the reader to respond to the text in the way they require – a means of creating the text’s ‘ideal reader’:


As has been suggested already, a discourse is any act of communication between people, e.g. a conversation, a piece of homework, a novel, a text book, a newspaper ad, a text message, an email, etc. It is a text considered as an example of real language in use, i.e. a text considered along with relevant aspects of its social context.

A consideration when analysing a text at the level of discourse is to take account of those aspects of context that bore on the language production and its interpretation at four points in time:

  • Conception
  • Production
  • Reception
  • Interpretation

A close consideration of the contextual aspects of language is at the core of the whole A-level language syllabus and that is why a focus on texts as examples of social discourse is so important to any close analysis and discussion of them.

When language is used to communicate, some important aspects of meaning will not be revealed by the surface meaning of the language (i.e. by a consideration of its semantic value); instead, fluent native users of a language become rapidly adept at creating inferred levels of meaning, i.e. the ‘unwritten’ or ‘unspoken’ social ‘force’ of language that exists somehow ‘between the lines’. This level of meaning is called the pragmatic force of speech and it’s only apparent from a close consideration of the social context of the text. It’s one of the key means through which power differentials are created during any act of communication and is, therefore, a crucial aspect of understanding not only for Section A of this unit, but also for Section B, both ‘Language & Gender’ and ‘Language & Power’ and elsewhere in the course.

When Bart says, “Trust Me, I never lie?, then a fairly obvious difference between the semantic and the pragmatic value of his utterance exists; yet it’s only through awareness and understanding of the social context of such a text that such an interpretation is possible. What should be clear is that for a full analysis of any text, an understanding of those contextual aspects that bear upon it will be far more revealing than otherwise will be the case.

These so-called ‘pragmatic inferences’ will be found regularly in discourses that occur when unequal power relationships exist: imagine a policeman overhears someone swearing and says to them, ‘That was a finely expressed judgment you’ve just made.’ The person being addressed would easily be able to infer that there is more than a surface value to this utterance: that the noun phrase ‘a finely expressed judgment’, for example, carries far more pragmatic weight than its surface meaning (i.e. its semantic value) would otherwise suggest.

To consider a text at the level of discourse, therefore, means taking account of the pragmatic force of the language used and a realisation that this is often directly related to a subconscious awareness of the social power relationships that exist within this kind of discourse.

  • It’s a key recognition of communication that very many discourses can be seen to be examples of what linguist Norman Fairclough refers to as ‘unequal encounters’ (and, as such, they can be analysed for the power relationships they show).

As mentioned above, context can be seen to affect text at four separate points in time: conception, production, reception and interpretation.


A consideration of the context of conception will help to reveal important aspects concerning not only the purpose of the text but also the attitude of the text’s producer towards the text’s intended audience.


A consideration of the context of production of a text will help to reveal how the text has been shaped to suit a particular audience to achieve a certain purpose.


A consideration of the context of reception of a text will help to reveal how the text is initially received by its intended audience. For example, certain genres of texts, well before the content of the text is known in any way, can create a powerful mind set in the audience that will affect, in important ways, the text’s interpretation. This can be a very important aspect of how a text creates a power differential between its producer and its audience.


A consideration of the context of interpretation of a text will help to reveal how the physical, cultural, social and historical aspects of the audience bear down upon their understanding of the text. Students often fail to give a sufficiently close consideration of contextual aspects and so fail to reveal many useful and subtle textual details of the kind that lead to the highest marks in grades.


Audience clearly refers to the particular kind of reader or listener for which a text is intended (i.e. its target audience). At the level of discourse, and to reveal the kind of subtle aspects that will be rewarded with higher marks, a close consideration needs to be given to the relationship that exist between the participants of the act of communication.

A key discourse aspect when analysing a text at the level of audience is to consider how the text’s producer is using language and language features not only to appeal to and engage the reader but to shape the reader’s response into that desired, i.e. into an ‘ideal reader’. The French philosopher and theorist Althusser convincingly showed that texts operate by ‘hailing’ their reader in powerful ways – ways in which the reader can do little about but to respond accordingly. As has been discussed under genre above, genre conventions can be powerful in this respect and start the process rolling; but within the content of the text itself, aspects such as a sense of authority and authenticity, as well as appeals to the emotion and intellect can both help shape the reader’s response into that required by the writer.

Too often students ignore these more subtle aspects of audience and audience address and instead can be found writing, “This text is aimed at a general audience?. Clearly, this will gain no marks as it a) is far too general to be meaningful and b) fails to recognise the specific aspects of relationship that exist between the text’s producer and the intended recipient. Reflecting long and hard on the nature of this relationship is a more difficult task than many students realise but out of such consideration will arise many subtle and worthwhile aspects.

An easy pitfall for students is that they fail to recognise that the text they are analysing is unlikely to have been aimed at them. Forgetting this leads to many empty and erroneous comments being made about a text. Only when the primary focus of analysis is at the level of discourse, will the analysis be more likely to be subtle, sophisticated and worthy of the highest marks.


Many students fall into the trap of being far too simplistic regarding their examination of the purpose of a text (including their own writing for coursework). When considered at the level of discourse, a text’s purpose will usually show itself to be far more complex. Texts, like Swiss Army knives, have primary and secondary purposes, and are often multi-purpose. Recognition of the discourse aspects of a text will help to create a deeper and more subtle analysis – and thus lead to higher marks in the exam.

A text that on the surface appears to be ‘informative’, for example, can often also be seen to be subtly persuasive; a text that appears to be entertaining can easily also be highly persuasive (for example, the narrative form is surely one of the most persuasive devices in existence). Recognising features of the discourse itself, that is of the wider contextual aspects of the text’s producer and of the text’s receiver, will allow for a much more sophisticated and subtle analysis of text’s purpose.