English teachers: bound to necessity?

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English in Education, Summer 2017

Being a good teacher of English (or any other subject) requires not only skill – the craft or techne required to achieve a desired outcome – but also wider understanding, or episteme.  Plato associated episteme with a freedom of intelligence, while (according to Damon Young) techne in the Greek polis “was a kind of knowledge associated with people who are bound to necessity”.

English teachers often resent being bound to necessity. Bethan Marshall writes in her conclusion to Testing English: “Despite over 150 years of battle, English teachers are still trying to assess English in a way that makes sense to them.”   Given current circumstances, it’s not surprising that much of the research presented in the new (Summer 2017) issue of English in Education concerns episteme rather than techne.

  • Paul Tarpey reconsiders John Dixon’s “personal growth” model of English in relation to its current manifestations.
  • Nicholas Stock explores the rhetoric of England’s new GCSE English examinations.
  • Jonathan Glazzard examines the “phonics check” for England’s five year olds in relation to various theories of reading.
  • Paul Gardner compares the discourses of English in England and Australia.

In practice, of course, the two kinds of knowledge interrelate.  Margaret Merga’s large-scale survey of children’s reading motivations and interests has direct relevance to classroom practitioners.   Jonathan Monk draws on cultural history and theory and Zadie Smith’s novel NW when preparing his students to write personally about their experience of the city.

Another theme of this issue is the importance of the personal and authentic in the daily work of teaching and learning.   Trevor Millum’s poem “Class Accents” suggests the complex nature of student and teacher voice.

The book reviews offer a conjunction of episteme and techne.  Urszula Clark reviews  Giovanelli and Clayton’s Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom, while  Victoria Elliott reviews Skidmore and Murakami’s Dialogic Pedagogy. 

Foucault used episteme to define what might be called the epistemological unconscious of a community of practice, and he insisted that the essential political problem is to try to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth”.  This issue argues the importance of bringing together episteme and techne in the experience of English teachers: a consummation devoutly to be wished in present circumstances.

John Hodgson

Members of NATE will receive their printed copy of English in Education shortly.   To join NATE, see sidebar.

 

 

Assessing Primary Literacy

 

There has been much concern about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon “spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing “where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view inscribed in the tests is so limited.

Checking phonics

Phonics-shoot-089A guest post by Jonathan Glazzard

The teaching of systematic synthetic phonics in school has been a political focus since the publication of the Rose Review back in 2006 (Rose, 2006). It is a priority for both schools and providers of Initial Teacher Education, and over the last decade it has been given prominence in inspection frameworks. The Rose Review emphasised that the teaching of phonics is time-limited.  The National Curriculum requires children to be secure in the skill of word recognition by the end of Year 1 so that they can focus on developing fluency in reading in Year 2.  The aim is to ensure that children are secure in the skill of blending phonemes so that they can read words.

In 2012, the UK government introduced a phonics screening check to assess children’s skills in decoding. Four years later, Nicky Morgan, then Secretary of State for Education,  declared: ‘Since the introduction of the phonics reading check in 2012, 120,000 more children are now on track to become excellent readers’ (DfE, 2016, para 1.5, p.5). However, whilst most people would not dispute the need to assess children’s reading development, the phonics screening check is problematic on several levels.

Firstly, the ‘check’ introduces children to both real words and pseudo words. There is a  rationale for introducing children to pseudo words, because these are words which children have not seen before and therefore they can only be read through the blending the phonemes. However, as the process of reading is about eliciting meaning from text, the value of pseudo words can be questioned.

Secondly, advanced readers do not rely on blending phonemes (decoding) for the skill of word recognition. Word recognition becomes increasingly automatic and the emphasis shifts from word recognition to developing fluency and reading for meaning. Phonics is a time-limited skill. For advanced readers, an assessment of their phonic knowledge in Year 1 is not an accurate predictor of their skill in reading but we do need to know more about how to support their comprehension skills. Whilst the phonics screening check may be a useful assessment for less skilled readers, we need various forms of assessment to support pupils working at different stages of development in reading.

Thirdly, teachers will already know, through regular formative assessment, whether children are secure in the skill of blending. The screening check adds no further value because it does not inform teaching. For weaker readers, the skill of blending at the level of the phoneme is an advanced skill which comes after blending at the level of the whole word (tooth+ brush = toothbrush), blending at the level of the syllable and blending at the level of onset and rime (c-oat / r-ain). It is not sufficient to know whether children can decode or not: we need to know more about the stage of development at which they are operating. If children are struggling to blend phonemes, then it is important to know about their other phonemic skills such as phoneme addition, phoneme deletion and phoneme substitution. We need to know about the component skills of phonemic and phonological awareness and not just whether a child can blend sounds to read words.

Fourthly, the process of reading is not solely an auditory process but also a visual process. Children may well have mastered the skill of blending sounds, but their reading development can be hampered by poor visual skills.  For children to become good readers, the skills of visual attention, visual discrimination, visual memory and visual sequential memory need to be secure. For weaker readers, teachers need to know about children’s development in visual skills and phonological skills. It is insufficient to know that children cannot decode; we need to know about their development in other skills which contribute to reading development.

Finally, reading is not just a process of word recognition. It is a process which requires linguistic comprehension. If, as a result of limited exposure to spoken language, children do not have a good vocabulary, or if their vocabulary lacks depth, this will impede their reading development.  This is particularly the case for those who have advanced beyond the skill of blending phonemes.  For this reason, play-based learning is critical in the early years so that children develop their vocabulary through interaction with peers and adults. Within language development, there is a hierarchy of skills whose development which should be assessed, particularly in weaker readers.

The key issue is the way in which the phonics screening check is used to regulate schools and teachers. It has become part of the machinery of performativity which is used to assess school and teacher performance. It is ‘high-stakes’ and results in children’s being categorised into achievers or failures at a very early stage of their development. The fact that children are subjected to re-taking the test in Year 2 if they do not pass serves to further marginalise them through the process of segregation.

Reading development is complex, but the phonics screening check reduces the complex nature of reading development to a single skill. The check does not provide teachers with additional information that they have not already gleaned from their formative assessments. Neither does it inform teachers about what they need to do next to support children’s development in reading. It is a mechanism of surveillance which serves very little educational purpose.

The government’s stance is clear. Back in 2016, Nicky Morgan claimed that:

Despite decades of research showing its positive effects, systematic synthetic phonics had been disregarded by many schools, local authorities, and university education faculties. Growing support within the teaching profession led to a number of new synthetic phonics reading schemes. In 2012, we introduced the phonics reading check at the end of Year 1 and three years on, the proportion of 6-year-olds achieving the expected standard in the check has risen by 19 percentage points to 77%, equivalent to 120,000 more children on track to become excellent readers.

(DfE, 2016, para. 2.56, p.38)

It is interesting to note that the Coalition government in 2010 discarded all aspects of Labour’s education policies with one exception: synthetic phonics. This policy has been continued by the Conservatives when they re-gained power in 2015. While phonics is an important tool is the teacher’s toolkit, we need a range of methods to assess reading development. This should include the assessment of auditory and visual skills as well as children’s awareness of rhyme. The assessment battery should reflect the sequential development of skills which contribute to phonemic and phonological awareness and visual skills development. Unless we base assessment on a developmental approach to learning, teachers will not be able to diagnose children’s reading difficulties.

References

DfE (2016) Educational Excellence Everywhere: Assessment of Impact. London:  DfE.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. Nottingham, DfES Publications.

 

A professional consensus against governmentality

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In his latest monthly commentary (May 2016), Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, states: “We need to put as sharp a focus on the other subjects (of the primary curriculum) as we do on English and mathematics.” Wilshaw goes on to remind inspectors to look closely at “the wider primary curriculum, including science and modern languages, as set out in the inspection handbook.”

Yet, as former HMI Prof Colin Richards points out, no subjects other than mathematics and English are specifically mentioned in the inspection handbook. Instead, there is a vaguely expressed requirement that, when evaluating the design and implementation of the curriculum, inspectors should ensure that this contains “breadth and balance”. As Richards argues, this requirement becomes meaningful only if there is political and professional consensus over the criteria by which the breadth or otherwise of schools’ curricula can be judged.

Recently, I was having dinner with some friends who included two recently retired primary head teachers. One of these mentioned that, in his experience, the support of a professional consensus is very important when deciding the teaching policies of a school. One might disagree with aspects of this consensus, he said, but it was important that it should be in place, to provide an agreed framework for professional effort.

It struck me that it is the absence of such a consensus that is at the root of the present crisis in education in England. As Estelle Morris writes in yesterday’s Guardian: “Teachers are working with a curriculum, assessment and pedagogy that are increasingly directed by ministers’ own priorities and prejudices”.

Thirty years ago, as Colin Richards reminds us, HMI forged a consensus around “breadth and balance” by arguing that primary and secondary schools should involve all children in nine areas of experience and learning throughout the age-range 5 to 16.  Within this consensus, schools and teachers were free to interpret the ways in which these areas of experience and learning might be implemented in particular classrooms.

How different the situation is today. We no longer have the structures to achieve professional and political consensus. The consultative bodies within which teachers, inspectors and politicians discussed the curriculum – the Schools Council, Secondary Education and Assessment Committee, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – have all been abolished. In their place we have the Department for Education, which effectively implements the diktats of the Secretary of State for Education.

In these circumstances, “breadth and balance” is little more than dimly remembered mantra from a former age. Within the new order, what matters is not experience and learning but “skills”. The primary skills are literacy and numeracy: the former subjects of English and mathematics, but with ministerially prescribed content. Within the new curriculum hierarchy, creativity is confined to the so-called creative subjects (art, music, drama but not English) that stand outside the “core academic subjects” that comprise the EBacc. Assessment by periodic national testing (the SATs) and GCSE (age 16) and A level (age 18) examinations emphasises memorisation and learning for the test. Private providers of instructional and testing materials and procedures, such as Pearson, are heavily involved in the delivery and assessment of this curriculum.

In the UK, teachers of English are increasingly preoccupied by the need to prepare students for the new tests in language and grammar “skills” which now have to be taken periodically from the early years (age 5) through to GCSE (age 16). There is a particular symbolic significance in these tests. For 50 years, the consensus among English teachers has been that the teaching of formal English grammar as a discrete aspect of English has little or no positive effect on students’ ability to write fluently, coherently and effectively. Grammar, or knowledge about language, did not disappear from the classroom: it has always been part of the national curriculum, and A-level English language, introduced in 1985, is still a growth subject. Formerly, however, English teachers had discretion, supported by a professional consensus, in the extent to which they incorporated explicit grammatical instruction within their teaching. Work by the Grammar for Writing team at Exeter University, which demonstrated ways in which applying grammatical knowledge within the drafting process can help children improve their writing, has recently become part of this consensus. Today, however, teachers and students face a quasi-theological grammatical apparatus that has to be memorised in order to answer test questions.

These curriculum and assessment changes derive not from the education profession but from what Jory Brass (following Foucault) calls “governmentality”. This word combines notions of “government” and “mentality” into a single term to identify political strategies to direct the conduct of the governed towards particular ends. Michael Rosen believes that the obscurity of the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests will result in more schools’ appearing to fail and thus requiring to be transformed into academies, thus supporting the government’s intention to privatise the forms and structures of education as far as is possible. It also seems to me that a more immediate result of these tests – which introduce a further element in the assessment of English beyond the traditional domains of speaking and listening, reading and writing – will be to withdraw cultural capital from numbers of young people who formerly achieved satisfactory results in English. This will be justified in the name of “standards”. It is worth remembering that, in 2012, the Office of Qualifications (Ofqual) put pressure on the assessment authorities (examination boards) to raise the threshold for grade C (the “passing” grade) in GCSE English. Despite an enormous protest, including legal action, by parents, local authorities and subject associations, this move was accepted as a legitimate attempt to “raise standards”.

These are not the “standards” that would be supported by a professional consensus that genuinely sought a broad and balanced education for our young people. Government requires the acquiescence of the governed. To resist these developments, we need a professional consensus against governmentality.

Why Dartmouth mattered

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Shortly after its inception in 1963, NATE joined with the US National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Modern Languages Association (MLA) to secure funding for a month’s long seminar at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The plan – as John Dixon has written, perhaps surprising today – was that a group of 40 to 50 teachers in schools and universities would thrash out the fundamental questions about English teaching and, through their national associations, spearhead a new approach.

Delegates to the conference brought visions of English teaching that differed not only between but (in some cases) also within the participant territories. English teachers in the United States employed rhetorical models of expository writing that were less familiar to participants from the UK, several of whom brought to Dartmouth a tradition of close literary study originating largely from the Scrutiny-inspired Cambridge school. At the same time, delegates from the London Institute of Education, including James Britton and Harold Rosen, insisted on the importance of respecting and working with the language that children brought to the classroom as a starting point for development.

In the circumstances, it was necessary to find a principle of English teaching that would reconcile these divergent approaches to teaching and learning within the prevailing educational climate. The concept of “personal growth”, articulated by John Dixon of the UK delegation, provided a pedagogic ideal which most could support. It spoke both to the delegates’ awareness of wasted talent in the school-age population and to the zeitgeist that produced the human potential movement, R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry, and the Summer of Love of 1967. Fifty years on, it is still the principle of English teaching that gains the allegiance of a majority of practitioners. This is because the radical core of the concept of “personal growth” was the student’s own language.

This focus on the child’s language emphatically did not exclude or marginalise literature. Pupils’ written stories and poems, when shared and discussed, became “the literature of the classroom”. And delegates from both sides of the Atlantic were surprisingly united (Dixon writes) in their view of literary response: “The experience of art is a thing of our making, an activity in which we are our own interpretive artist.”

These formulations about students’ language and literary response were developed, amended and rewritten over the next half century in NATE publications and elsewhere.  During these years, language study was reconstituted, insights from discourse studies of genre and narrative were assimilated, and technological change was incorporated into everyday classroom practice. The development of English studies over the last half-century demonstrates (in the words of Garth Boomer, a former president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English) that the curriculum is no longer a prepackaged course to be taken; it is a jointly enacted composition that grows and changes as it proceeds.  The view that the experience and language that the child brought the classroom was intrinsically important, and that the process of teaching English must start here – not merely to impose class-based notions of formality and correctness, but to work with students to expand their language, cognition and range of feeling: this is the legacy and the importance of Dartmouth.

This post is adapted from an article to be published in Teaching English.   There will be a research symposium on Dartmouth on 26 June 2016 following the NATE Conference in Stratford on Avon.

The Politics of English …

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… is the correct title for the current (Spring 2016) special issue of English in Education.   In producing the print edition, the publishers accidentally transposed the title Assessment and Learning from the proposed 2017 special issue.   The online version has the correct title, and print subscribers will receive a postal note from the publishers.

So how does the special issue view the current politics of English?  In his editorial, Ken Jones writes:

The articles in this special issue register the effects of … the ways in which English, through a thirty-year process of cumulative change, has come to be regulated and redefined. They examine some of the intellectual justifications put forward by advocates of change. They track its effects on teachers’ sense of the possibilities of English. Without hyperbole, they consider alternatives.

Simon Gibbons’ article focuses on the ways in which teachers have internalised the requirements of policy in their own sense of what it means to be a good English teacher. Andrew McCallum studies the teaching of English in a state secondary school and a private school.  He argues that, in the first school, where creativity is seen not as integral to English but as conditional upon the prior mastery of something uncreative, a skills focused curriculum produces a drastic narrowing of the learning experience.  This experience is captured by Michael Rosen in his poem ‘Bear Grylls’, which the author has allowed us to reprint for the special issue from his latest collection.

Drawing on  a comparative study of teaching Romen and Juliet in London and Palestine, Monica Brady and John Yandell insist that ‘classrooms are places where meanings are made, not merely transmitted’.  In similar vein, Karen Daniels, in her article on Early Years education, argues that English – or ‘literacy’ – is a site where students develop ‘repertoires for meaning-making’.    These micro-practices of English teaching are not insulated from the political, as they are enabled and constrained by the wider, ‘macro’ social practices of policy-makers and social movements.  Howard Ryan and Debra Goodman consider these in their account of the ‘whole language’ movement in the United States.  As Ken Jones concludes, to make significant changes to the present state of English requires looking beyond the micro-politics of the classroom.

 

Integrating English Language and Literature

Folger_1A linguist deaf to the poetic functions of language and a literary scholar indifferent to linguistics are equally flagrant anachronisms.        Roman Jakobson (1960)

by Marcello Giovanelli

Despite the fact that these words were spoken over fifty years ago, it is curious that ‘English Language’ and ‘English Literature’ are largely still viewed as discrete subjects.  Even when they are studied together, they seem to be part of a combined course, part ‘lit’ and part ‘lang’, rather than a fully integrated one. Whilst the growth of A level English Language over the last twenty years, with its emphasis on providing students with a practical and rigorous toolkit for a systematic analysis of texts,  points towards the value of language-based textual work, all too often responses in literary studies ignore the essence of literature itself: language.  Instead, the direction and focus are geared towards biography, historical context, and fantastical speculation about what authors might or might not have thought, felt and said. The worst kind of criticism is either rooted in vague impressionistic language or else relies on verbose rhetoric. For students this can have the unfortunate consequence that ‘Literature’ becomes difficult to access without resorting to impressionism of their own or else relying on what critics or teachers say that texts ‘mean’. The literary text remains somehow ‘special’, and uniquely creative in comparison to mundane ‘everyday language’.

An integrated approach: stylistics
An integrated approach to studying literature gives priority to language, encourages close reading, helps to avoid superficial, impressionistic comments, and is inherently democratic in that with practice everyone can develop skills and respond to literary texts in meaningful ways. In higher education, the explicit application of linguistic knowledge and models in the service of literary criticism is known as stylistics (see Simpson 2004 for an overview).  Its principles of being clear, transparent and focused on how particular language choices give rise to particular effects are extremely useful as a working model for students of all ages. As an example, look at the first line of Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A working party’, published in 1917.

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench

There’s plenty of subtle and sophisticated work that students can do with this line simply by asking questions about language, as a way of developing their skills at literary criticism. Here are four such questions.

[1] The poem begins with the adverbial ‘three hours ago’, placed at the front of the clause. This emphasises a time shift – the narrated events at the start of the poem happen three hours before the recounting time of the poem. Why is this important? What would be the effect if this were at the end of the clause?
[2] The soldier is referred to using the third person pronoun ‘he’. Why not use a proper noun or an extended noun phrase such as ‘the young/old/tired soldier’? The use of the pronoun reduces the referent (the soldier) to the smallest, depersonalised lexical unit. However, ‘he’ (and other such pronouns) tends to be used when readers are able to access the intended referent without any difficulty: i.e. they know who ‘he’ is. When they can’t, we tend to use more specific terms such as common and proper nouns.  So here, we have the paradox of an expression that both depersonalises and emphasises closeness. Why?
[3] ‘blundered’ suggests movement but of an awkward kind; ‘up’ is a preposition that suggests a certain kind of orientation (vertical rather than horizontal). Why not ‘along the trench’? How does this preposition fit with the meaning of ‘blundered’?
[4] Sassoon uses ‘the trench’ rather than ‘a trench’. As with ‘he’, ‘the’ tends to be used when the addressee/listener knows the referent or is in its vicinity. So overall what is the significance of the use of the definite article? Would it matter if it were ‘a trench’?

These questions promote thinking about how key aspects of style are important in the act of literary interpretation. Indeed, the fact that these features are significant is in itself a type of emphatic patterning known as foregrounding. The act of interpretation also provides a motivation for teaching linguistic models and ideas in their own right. The examples above offer ways in to enquiry and learning about syntax, the pronoun system, semantics, prepositions and the motivation for using definite or indefinite articles. They involve students exploring language features, asking questions about prominent patterns and choices, and considering the likely effect of alternative ones (for a detailed exploration of the benefits of textual
intervention see Pope 1995; and also Madden 2006, and Queneau 2009).

Creativity in non-literary texts
Very briefly, I’d like to show how an integrated approach also provides novel ways of looking at non-literary texts. A fully integrated ‘English’ denies sole privilege to literary discourse, and sees an inherent value and creativity in everyday language (for detailed discussion of this idea see Carter 2004). An interesting example for students would be to look a phenomenon such as metaphor that might be thought of simply as a literary trope, and explore its pervasiveness and importance in non-literary discourse. Here are two such texts: the first is from an interview with George Osborne (the current UK Chancellor of the Exchequer) on the BBC website; the second is part of a conversation between two year 11 (age 16) students about a forthcoming GCSE (national) examination.

[1]
Britain is moving from rescue to recovery. But while the British economy is
leaving intensive care; now we need to secure that recovery.
[2]
Akbar: so what you gonna revise for
Jack: well (.) Slim will come up (.) that’s what Mr Jones reckons
Akbar: yeah (.) he thinks it will be there (.) I bet he’s not right though
Jack: but (.) but I’m not going to risk it this year if it is there
Akbar: how would he know (1) he’s just guessing

Metaphor works by mapping attributes from one concrete area of knowledge to another that is more abstract (see Lakoff and Johnson 1980). In the first example, two metaphors are evident: the personification of the economy as a hospital patient; and the idea of a journey (moving/leaving from one place to another). Exploring why these metaphors were chosen in this example of political discourse can be just as intellectually demanding and satisfying as looking at metaphor in literary texts. Equally, in the second example, students can explore how the speakers co-construct an entire dialogue built around the metaphor ‘life is a gamble’. Both texts show the inherent creativity in seemingly everyday discourse.

Conclusion
The kind of work I have been describing is as easy to promote with younger students at Key Stage 3 as it is at A level. Indeed, one of the challenges of the future seems to me to offer students of all ages opportunities to engage in integrated work that can support rigorous, systematic and transparent analysis as a way of developing skills in areas of knowledge that might be seen as traditionally either more ‘literary’ or ‘linguistic’ in focus. This type of ‘language and literature’ work naturally resists a crude compartmentalisation of the subject, and instead sees the value in an integrated ‘English’.

References
Carter, R. (2004) Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk, London: Routledge.
Jakobson, R. (1960) ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in T. Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp 350-70.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Madden, M. (2006) 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, London: Jonathan Cape.
Pope, R. (1995) Textual Intervention: Creative and Critical Strategies for Literary Studies, London: Routledge
Queneau, R. (2009) (3rd edition) Exercises in Style (translated by Barbara Wright), Richmond: OneWorld Classics.
Simpson, P. (2004) Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students, London: Routledge

This article was first published in The Voice (2013)