How are we influenced by the language around us? In how far does what a writer tries to convey actually correspond to what the reader reads in a text? Do readers from another time or place read the same text differently? To what extent do texts offer insight into another culture? These are some of the many questions that lie at the core of English A: Language and Literature.
As the name suggests, the course consists of a language and a literature part. The literature part probably doesn’t need a lot of explaining. We read novels, plays and poetry and discuss their content and themes. Most parents and older brothers and sisters will probably have done something similar when they were in school. However, I fear I’m not giving literature enough justice here. What I personally really like about teaching literature is that it has a lot of overlap with History. To truly understand a work of literature it’s often necessary to know the context in which it was written. When we start reading a work I often feel more like a History teacher than an English teacher. Another thing I really like is how works of literature let you walk in somebody else’s shoes for a while. It’s much easier to understand what Apartheid was like if you’ve seen it from the perspective of someone who experienced it. Literature offers you a trip into somebody else’s life.
The language part of the course is probably less familiar. Here the focus is on non-literary texts that can be found all around us: speeches, articles, advertisements, posters, debates, infographics, blogs, vlogs, cartoons and so one and so forth. Roughly, this part of the course focuses on how these texts work. What makes a speech impressive? Why is that ad appealing? Who is the text aimed at? How can you tell? What stylistic techniques are being used to get the message across? It’s all about learning to explain how and why texts do what they do.
Of course, the language and literature parts are not separate. The works of literature share themes and issues with the non-literary texts. For example, while reading 1984 by George Orwell, we use the non-literary parts of the lessons to discuss propaganda, fake news and mass surveillance. The final oral exam is about how a global issue, like mass surveillance, comes back in a literary and a non-literary extract. It’s only since last year, when the course was updated, that this connection is possible but I’m already a big fan. It’s much clearer now how the literary works are connected to the real world and finding matching texts is a lot of fun for both teachers and students.
One more thing that I find interesting as a teacher is that I never know for certain at the start of the year what the course will look like later in the year. Of course I plan the course, but sometimes things happen in the news that are very interesting in terms of language and need to be addressed. MeToo, BLM and Corona all lead to heated debates, speeches, and articles in which the authors used all kinds of techniques to get their arguments across. I don’t believe I’ve ever taught the same course outline twice!
English A: Language and Literature is not only a very enjoyable and interesting subject, but it also teaches students very important writing and analytical skills that they will need in further education. Students also learn to be critical media consumers, which will give them a great advantage in the information age we live in. Nothing is perfect of course; Students are not always thrilled by writing essays and not all literary works blow them away, but I truly hope that they come away with plenty of other good experiences to compensate for all that.
(Above) Photo of the English A teachers, naming from left to right, Michael, Jasmijn and Tor Edvard. Taken by Tom Costigan.
(Left) Photo of the English A teacher Willem. Taken by ---
Students should know that Willem, Tor Edvard, Michael and myself, the current English A teachers, are open to students’ suggestions and will try to implement them whenever possible. If a student finds anything that might be interesting for the program, they should let us know. Many of the non-literary texts used in class were actually found by earlier IB students!