in A Level, English Language, Essay Technique, Writing Skills

The Background of Discursive Essays

Up until 2021, it was actually possible to get through the entire Cambridge International A-Level English Language (9093) without having to write a discursive essay.

Up until 2021, Paper 3 was a comparative analysis of two texts per question.

Up until 2021 Paper 4 allowed a choice of Child Language Acquisition (analytical), English as a Global Language (discursive) and Language and Social Groups (analytical).

How do I introduce my discussion?

So, in short, A-Level English Language students were once given the chance to train as high-level analytical linguists and leave the discursive stuff for university.

Now, however, we have the entire of Paper 4 which asks you to demonstrate how good you are at taking texts and using them to bounce into a discussion of the big ideas at the heart of unit of study.

For ‘Language and the Self’ this might be ‘is gendered language a social construct?’, ‘are interruptions a form of domination?’, ‘how do we adapt our speech patterns to different social situations?’, ‘does the language we learn mould the way we view the world?’… to name just a few of the debates.

For ‘Language and the World’, this could be questions such as ‘is English a killer language?’, ‘will English die out as a global language?’, ‘is the spread of English a form of cultural imperialism?’, ‘what are the risks posed through language death?’, ‘would it be better if we all spoke one language?’… and other such discussions.


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But isn’t discussion and debate for the arts? Isn’t this a science?

For most of IGCSE and some aspects of AS Level, we can get through by learning the ‘right’ answer to questions. This isn’t always true, but on average we notice that the exams we sit in the sciences and the humanities at KS4 often are testing our ability to remember the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ information.

As we get older and more expert, however, we are called upon to suggest and test hypotheses. What do you think? Why do you think it? How can you prove it? What are the alternatives? 

At A-Level, we need to suggest ways of ‘reading’ or ‘measuring’ a situation and testing how ‘valid’ your claim is. This is true in the arts and the sciences – we start pushing at the edges of what can be ‘known’ in the hopes that we might notice something that was previously ‘unknown’. Or at least we try to find a better way of saying something that everyone sort of ‘knew’, but nobody had properly articulated.

OK, so what makes a good discursive essay?

There is a reason why Joe Rogan’s podcast has made him a multi-millionaire. Put simply – he is exploiting the most valuable asset that people have: their ability to debate and learn from one another. In fact, the epidemiologist, Nicholas Christakis, recently suggested to Sam Harris that viral pandemics are the price we pay for the ability to share ideas and experiences with one another. It is interesting when you consider the phrase ‘germ of an idea’, for sure.

Being able to see several sides of a discussion is unbelievably important when handling complex topics. Putting one side of an argument up against its strongest possible opponent is the best way of sharpening the minds of both sides.

As social scientists and linguists, it is important to find ways to do this internally, as we sometimes need to debate many sides of a topic before laying down our stance. I have illustrated below what one of my internal debates might look like if thinking about the topic of cultural imperialism.

A good discursive essay, like a good discussion, is one that acknowledges a wide breadth of valid claims which may seem to contradict one another, but can ultimately be assimilated to get towards some kind of truth.

This is why the smartest people we know always seem like they have an answer for everything. It’s because they also have a question for everything, and they are constantly working these questions through in their heads until they know that the way they see the world can put up with a lot of hassle.

So, how do I start?

In the last lesson, we looked at annotating the extracts from the examination, forming arguments and counter-arguments, and making sure you have the theorists in place you wish to refer to. We will revisit this later on in the course to make sure we have the right planning techniques. 

But for now, let’s say that is out the way and we are ready to write our introduction.

The BBC gives the advice that introductions to discursive essays might be provocative, balanced, illustrative, anecdotal or start with a quotation. Or any combination of them all! Do visit their website for more information on what they mean by this if you aren’t sure.

Let’s get started with planning out an introduction to the essay we began to formulate earlier this week.

One of the over-arching questions that arises from the topic of English in the World is ‘will English continue to be the world’s dominant global language?’

Try out some options in the table below to see what you can come up with… for each one, make sure you have some sort of link with the sources from the exam question:

‘Will English continue to be the world’s dominant global language’?

Introduction-styleHow I could use it
Saying something provocative
Saying something balanced
Saying something illustrative
Saying something anecdotal
Using a quotation

Then when you have done this, try to work it into an introductory paragraph for your essay:

Your answer here….

For those of you who are stuck… here is an example of how I might do this for the ‘Language and the Self’ question:

‘Does language suffer from people using slang’?

Introduction-styleHow I could use it
Saying something provocativePresent the views of ultra-prescriptivists such as Otto Jesperson, or David Starkey, and then lay out a reasoned response to them.
Saying something balancedConsider the community benefits of having a shorthand and the sense of identity that a speech-community has from creating localised meaning. But also consider how one’s life chances may be limited by not learning the ‘standard variation’.
Saying something illustrativeThe clause-medial like a statement of self-identity as a global citizen or a provincial citizen.
Saying something anecdotalDescribe a sense of home and belonging when hearing the branch of South-London slang I grew up around.
Using a quotationTake a quotation from David Starkey’s newsnight interview in 2011.

Example of how this could become an introductory paragraph:

‘The whites have become black’ and Jamaican patois has been ‘intruded into our country, giving some us the sense of a foreign country’. This was historian David Starkey’s analysis of the London riots when he was interviewed on the BBC in 2011. The idea of language ‘degradation’ being at the heart of moral decline is a topic that has been debated for hundreds of years. From the elitist categorisation of ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ terminology, the ‘Deficit Model’ used to provide early explanations for female speech patterns and the cultural outcry when Prince Harry showed signs of an ‘Estuary English’ accent in his first podcast – linguistic variation and innovation has been a controversial topic, not least of all in the era of identity politics. But what some see as lazy-slang, others may view as shrewd code-switching; what some view as linguistic ‘mistakes’, others may view as cultural innovation and refinement of the language. Both Texts A and B touch upon this fundamental question of value in linguistics – ‘is language a tool to serve the needs of the individual, or is it a tool to help the individual serve the needs to society’? Should it be a tool for the individual to express themselves to society or a means for society to leave its impression on the individual? These politically and morally fraught questions are at the heart of the two texts under discussion in this essay.

Phil Brown, 2021


Thanks for reading! If you found this useful, take a look at our other English Language and Literature courses here.

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