Language B Higher Level – Personal Response

Clear thinking, quickly

Too little is yet known about the Personal Response, in HL Paper 2 Section B, to be able to make definitive recommendations about how to teach the handling of the task. However, the basic nature of the task is clear enough – students have to be able to look at a piece of text, pick out aspects or elements that are significant, and then express useful ideas in a well organised way.

Easy enough to describe in general terms – but do our students have the necessary skills to be able to deal with the job in an effective and disciplined way?

Interestingly, the pre-publication version of the Subject Guide said that the response should be “in the form of an essay” – but the current, final version reads “The student writes a reasoned argument…” Accordingly, we are not expecting a specific, standard type of text, such as an essay, a commentary, a critique, or an analysis.

So what should we tell our students to do? I would suggest that the Guide provides some key phrases describing how the Personal Response should be approached. Consider these :-

The student should …

“engage with details of the text”pick out specific words or phrases (and so, presumably, the ideas that they express) as the starting point for elements of the ‘reasoned argument’

“develop some coherent discussion…”extend from the specific words or phrases by questioning, arguing, debating what they mean … in a ‘coherent’ way: i.e. organised and logically linked

“… informed by what has been learned” – make use of ideas, concepts and arguments which have been thought out during the teaching of the course (although this does not imply lots of tedious fact or second-hand, politically correct opinions to please the examiner !)

Let’s consider these three key phrases in some more detail, with a view to defining the exact practical skills which we should be teaching. An approach to teaching these ideas, with a projection and a practice handout, is available in Handling the PR – which is also a Student Access page.

For that purpose, imagine that the stimulus text is the following, related to the Core topic ‘Global Issues’ :-

The most serious problem facing the world today
is unemployment, and in particular the issue
of youth unemployment. There is a danger
that an entire generation of young people, in
all kinds of society, will grow up feeling that
they have no real future. This could be
profoundly damaging for the relationships on
which social life depends.


Extracting the details

Any text of any complexity has many possibilities for developing a discussion. We can think of the words as doors to open, or threads to pull, or avenues to walk down, or knots to untie. The trick is to find them, and we can find them by applying the following simple techniques:-

> Grasp the main idea

It is worth starting with a quick summary of what the author says, in very simple, basic terms :-

Unemployment is a problem, and youth unemployment is a big problem. Many young people will suffer. This could damage society.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? So …

> Ask questions, sceptically

No author can say everything about a subject, especially in a short text like this – so what has the author not mentioned, or not explained precisely?

We can even be more specific about the kind of things we should ask questions about. Here are some precise targets – and it might be a good idea to deal with them in this order …

> Start with the qualifiers …

PR 5

… which means adjectives, adverbs, comparatives, superlatives – anything that involves some kind of value judgement (like ‘good’, ‘well’, ‘best’)

> … then check the nouns

PR 6

The nouns are the most obvious place to start, since they involve ‘facts’ – but they may not be the most helpful, since the answers may not be available as you look at the text. But remember that we should, corectly, be asking what the author has not said …

> Demand more information

If we put the two together, we can see that some of the questions could overlap – “most serious” is an adjective question, but it could also be a noun question if we ask for a list of the “problems”. Overall, we are asking for more ideas about what the author really means.

PR 4

Discussing coherently

In a sense, there is no special rule for writing a Personal Response: the same techniques of planning apply as with any piece of thoughtful writing (see the core page NET SIEVE SPINE ).

Students should be advised to use the questions techniques, above, in order rapidly to assemble some ideas. They should then take the three or four most interesting (there will be no time for more), and put them into a sequence which there are logical links from the first to the second … and so on.

There is then the issue of what text type, style or form to use. This will be addressed more fully in a future page, but it is worth noting here that I believe that the ‘Letter to the Editor’ will be the most useful model to study and practise.

Using background

The Guide specifically states that the student’s ideas should be “…informed by what has been learned during the study of the core”. I would argue that ‘informed’ is a significantly ambiguous word to use here – it could mean ‘using information gathered in…’, or ‘guided in general terms by …’, whatever has been studied in class. Combined with the Guide’s statement that “There is no prescribed answer…”, this suggests that students should not waste time trying to remember lots of precise factual detail, but should concentrate on responding – which means saying clearly what they think about a few specific aspects of the stimulus text.

If some handy detail springs to mind, then fine, use it – but, to repeat, this is not a task which tests the accurate memory of factual content. The emphasis should be on convincing argument, not on detailed supporting evidence.

The overall approach

The fundamental issue here is the nature of the ‘response’. Is the student expected to carry out some kind of close commentary on (aspects of) the stimulus text …

Applying the Criteria

Good marking depends on translating the general terminology and phrasing of the Criteria into clearly identifiable indicators related to different levels of performance. I offer below lists of what seem to me to be key phrases in each Criterion, with first suggestions for the questions which will lead to the related indicators. I emphasise that these are simply first suggestions of what should eventually turn into precise, agreed instructions for examiners and teachers.

Criterion A Language

‘command of the language’

> To what extent do errors in grammar or usage blur the meaning?

> Overall, does the choice of phrasing communicate meaning effectively and easily? Or not?

‘range of vocabulary’

> Is there evidence of relatively uncommon vocabulary, appropriate to the subject of the stimulus text (e.g. technical vocabulary)?

> Is there helpful use of vocabulary appropriate to the discussion of ideas (e.g. ‘issue’, ‘illogical’, ‘contradiction’ etc)?

‘sentence structure’

> How many sentences are ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ – and how well are they handled?

> If there are only simple sentences, do these communicate meaning effectively enough?

(NB Having ‘complex’ sentences is not necessarily a virtue – in a word-limited task like this, using only concise, simple sentences may be a perfectly valid choice of style and approach.)

Criterion B Message

‘development of ideas’

> How many aspects of the stimulus text has the student picked out?

> How many steps of argument are there, linking one point to another?

> How ‘clear’ are these steps – i.e. can one follow how they are connected?

(NB In my view, these three questions need to be considered together. For example, simply picking out several aspects and mentioning them superficially should not be valued as highly as picking out only one aspect, but then treating it in detail, with extended argument clearly explained.)

‘structure of the argument’ / ‘coherent’

> What evidence is there of ‘cohesive devices’ – i.e. paragraphing and linkers ?

> How well do such cohesive devices support and make clear the structure of the argument?


> To what extent does the student refer directly to phrasing or ideas from the stimulus text?

‘well expressed’ / ‘engaging’

> To what extent can these ideal qualities be detected – even in weak or sporadic ways?

(NB In my view, ‘well expressed’ should be taken to mean something like ‘well-conceived’ – i.e. thoughtful or perceptive. It should not be restricted to choice of phrasing or vocabulary, since this is principally marked under Criterion A Language.)


LETS LOOK AT SOME EXAMPLES…!!! The commentaries

I assume that there must be general agreement that student A’s script is significantly better than student B’s. The issue is how much better, and for what reasons. Let us analyse each script in some detail, then consider a list of comparisons.

Student A

The student uses a wide range of useful skills to handle the Personal Response well:

Clear ‘angle’ … the first two sentences present clearly the student’s chosen response to the stimulus – that it is rather too generalised. This overall viewpoint is returned to, neatly, in the final sentence / conclusion.

Viewpoint developed and supported … the student’s general position is broken down into three sub-sections, giving more detailed reasons for holding that point of view

Use of quotes from the stimulus … each of the three detailed argument is based on precise quotations from the text, which are then commented on

Clear strategy of paragraphing … there are 5 paragraphs, and each is there for an evident purpose

Appropriate use of cohesive devices … in this case, sequence markers (“firstly…secondly…” etc)

Concise and clear sentence structure … each step of the various arguments is clearly structured (if not always clearly explained – see below)

Command of appropriate phrasing and vocabulary … mostly, the language used is appropriately formal / intellectual – with some problems (see below)

However, some parts of the argument are really not very clear, principally due to language weaknesses, it would appear:-

Some vocabulary is imprecisely used … see “information” (l.3) – the stimulus text does not have much actual information , but rather ‘views about’, ‘comments on’, ‘judgements of’; and “implications” (l.11) – is ’causes’ intended?

Some phrasing is really unclear … see “…Japan does not have a young generation due to healthy living habits…” and “…age, gender and the home country you come from have no link for in building of bad relationships…”

I would argue that these weaknesses should be penalised under Criterion A Language, and not under Criterion B Message – the quality of analytical thought in most of the script is very high (e.g. see the intelligent critical questions in the second paragraph), and so the unclear examples cited above are more likely to spring from a failure to control language than from a sudden access of stupidity.

And by the way … Deidre notes that she had shown to these students the writing frame that I suggest in the page PR examples – and that student A was the only one of the group who clearly used the frame. I would argue that the result demonstrates that the frame helps.

Student D

The problem is that the student doesn’t actually provide much ‘response’ – the first sentence indicates agreement, but then there is a simple summary of the stimulus text (ll.1-5), followed by a lengthy parallel example – the “BBC channel” (ll.6-14). There is no real critical analysis and assessment of the stimulus by the student. So …

Very basic POV … the student does express a point of view, but it is not developed in any detail

Little critical thinking … there is a lack of development because there is no questioning of the stimulus

Support is external to the stimulus … the ‘BBC channel’ (source is not adequately identified – some programme watched in class?) is relevant to the stimulus text, but does little to develop the argument or comment on it

Structure is simple … there are only two paragraphs (unsurprisingly, since there are really only two ideas), and there are no cohesive devices – such limited structural elements indicate the rather limited nature of the intellectual response itself

However …

Language is well-handled and quite sophisticated … a wide range of vocabulary is used, and sentence structure is complex and effective

Quotation is well-inserted … even if the last two sentences are unclear as to whether they are quotes or not



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