Footnote to last bloc

It is a great relief to anybody who values democracy to find that the revelations in the Observer of 26th February are being followed up by responsible public bodies.

The Observer of 5th March reported that the Information Commissioner’s Office (the privacy watchdog) had instigated an inquiry into how Cambridge Analytica had used voters’ personal date to influence the referendum.

The Guardian of 22nd April reported that the Electoral Commission has launched an  investigation into the undeclared help given to the pro-Brexit body Leave.EU by the data company Cambridge Analytica.

Further, the Observer of 12th March published an open letter from Tim Berners-Lee putting forward proposals for changing “the mathematical heart” of the web to prevent the undermining of democracy by the use of data harvesting and fake news.

Since linguistic analysis must have played a part in the programme to influence voters, I hope linguists will contribute to the defeat of the right-wing conspirators whose activities have led to the election of Trump and the Brexit vote.



Trump, Brexit and Breakthrough to Learning

Breakthrough to Learning is based on a linguistic description of the abstract language used by educated people trying to make sense of the world. This layer of abstract language is on top of the everyday language used by everybody, educated and uneducated alike, in setting up social relationships and the norms of their culture

This extra layer of language enables educated people to consider the world in terms of interacting and ever-changing variables. It is indispensable, for instance, in conceptualising the water cycle by giving words to such processes as evaporation, rising, condensation, precipitation. People without abstract language are trapped in the literal concrete descriptions of their everyday experience – it’s going to rain tomorrow.

The scholars and teachers who worked on Breakthrough to Learning were interested primarily in the application of this new knowledge about language to improving the educational achievement of young people. Some of us were also aware of the political importance of enabling the majority of the people in a democracy to make informed and considered choices. This demands abstract language – such as democracy, accountability, economic downturn etc. rather than paying more money to Europe or fake news.

Our vague unhappiness and bemusement about the use of computers exploded into an all too lucid fright on 26th February this year with the appearance of Carole Cadwalladr’s article in the Observer (26//02/2017):







The answer is Robert Mercer, an extreme rightwing hedge fund billionaire, who funded the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

Cadwalladr shows how a group of interlinked extreme rightwing politicians, billionaires and thinktanks are using the unregulated power of Facebook and Twitter to influence elections, including the American Presidential election and the Brexit referendum. Most scary is their computer experts’ access to “big data”, enormous amounts of information about themselves which people unsuspectingly make available online. This enables the computer whizzes employed by the extreme rightwing to target their weak spots and appeal to the emotions of voters unprotected by the rational abstract language which educated people have access to.

The academics contributing to this new consortium are not only computer experts. You can bet that linguists have also been heavily involved. “Cognitive linguistics” has relevance not only to education, it seems, but also to politics.

Cadwalladr’s article exposes why the present political world feels so strange and frightening compared with even a few years ago. It was an educational tragedy that Breakthrough to Learning was not taken up by the educational establishment, when its claims to improve performance were validated in 1991. The failure to extend the power of abstract language to the whole population has resulted in the potential catastrophe of fascism using technology to usher in a new Dark Age.



Good news

Two pieces of good news about Breakthrough to Learning

1.It appears as part of the curriculum followed at Matthew Moss High School. This can be accessed on Youtube. Particularly interesting is the site Innovation Unit, showing that the school is among the ten most innovative schools in the world.

It notes that the school has achieved a 28 point increase in the Best 8 Value Added measures since 2013. It is gratifying that BtL is playing a part in this.

The Head’s blogs on Ofstead make very good reading.

2.I received the email below:

Catharine Driver

Dear Mary,
I have been an admirer and user of your work for years. I am now
working for the National Literacy Trust and am in a position to
publicize some of your resources more widely. In the first instance,
could I use some of the Self Access Knowledge about Language course? I
want to produce an easy grammar self -audit for Secondary teachers (
whose grammar knowledge is even worse than Primary these days!) and
then refer them to your course if they want to do more work on this.
This would be published on line as part of our Literacy CPD offer. It
will only be accessible from our Network (Here is a link to our
thanks in advance.

Sent from (ip address): (
Date/Time: February 4, 2016 12:53 pm





Language Acquisition

My friends and I have been meeting most weeks to study Cognitive Linguistics. It proved to be harder than we’d hoped, largely because the book we chose was not a teaching book but one written for scholars who already knew more about the subject than we did.

We’re now approaching the subject from another angle – that of child language acquisition. The timing could not be better, as one of us has a one-year-old grandson, who is ready to move into speech. His first word is /ka:/ for “cat”. My friend is technologically advanced and has taken some delightful video clips of Isaac for us to relate to the literature. We are all soppy about babies, so it is a huge pleasure to have this data to study. What is wonderful is to see Isaac’s total concentration and awareness as he tunes into the language around him and tries to become part of the speaking community.

We are using Tomasello’s Constructing a Language as our textbook, and we’re hoping to put some of his frameworks over data from Isaac – for example, rate of expansion of vocabulary over time and class of words understood and used.

We’ll keep you posted!

Resurrection of a Great Idea

Just a brief note this week: I’ve finished the article for Creative Teaching and Learning on the progress of Breakthrough to Learning at Matthew Moss High School 2012-14. It will be appearing in the next issue due out in March.

You can download a draft from this site. The published article will be briefer and more coherent.

You can order it from

More in-service work at BtL

The BtL team at MMHS has followed up the in-service day on January 6th with a meeting of Faculty reps, and then a whole staff meeting on the evening of 27th January. The main substance of this was to work through the third section of The Language of Ideas – Problem/Solution. I am told they found this very relevant to exam questions in their own subjects. The Humanities Faculty reported on the work they have started in identifying concrete/abstract words in their own subjects. The staff  found this very  inspiring. The team are collating the work of the faculties and I look forward to putting it alongside the work my friends and I are doing on analyzing GCSE exam questions. All very interesting! Continue reading

A Great Day!

 6th January 2014: Teacher Training Day at MMHS

 The new Head (former Deputy) happily recognizes the centrality of BtL to the learning ethos of the school. He allocated a whole day’s in-service training to making the eighty odd staff of the school aware of the remarkable success of the course in the English Department in 2012-13. Hopefully, they would begin to explore how BtL could help them in the teaching of their own subjects. Continue reading

Critical Discourse Analysis

I’m dismayed to find that I have not blogged for over two months! There’s been plenty going in my work with the school using BtL and also in my studies with my friends, but I have forgotten to share it with the world.

My friends and I have chosen a new book to work through and it has proved a winner. It is The Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis by Meriel and Tom Bloor.  I was recommended to it by an MA student in Applied Linguistics and it is excellent. Briefly, it makes the reader aware of how all the attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and others  that we take for granted are not natural but socially constructed largely, though not entirely, by language. Continue reading

BtL and Science at MMHS(continued)

The following is the first part of some work I did with the Science Department at MMHS:

How BtL feeds into Science teaching at MMHS

(based on an analysis of the language of an exam paper:

GCSE June 2013 Science A SCA4P/PU1.2)

 I have used the frameworks taught in Book 3 of BtL (Part 2 of F/T). For the purposes of this discussion General/Particular is the same as Abstract/Concrete. Continue reading

Btl and Science at MMHS

I have been busy for several weeks in following up a discussion that two of the  teachers at MMHS have embarked on: namely,  to explore how subject teachers can make a link between the work the learners do in BtL and their own specialist teaching. Two teachers – Science and Modern Languages – came down to Birmingham for the day to discuss this with me. I had already been working with one of the Science teachers, as I was concerned that the way BtL models the writing up of experiments is not what is required by at least one of the exam papers.

To try to make explicit what is going on in Science learning and teaching, I applied to two exam papers the discourse model (Michael Hoey’s) that is taught in Book 3 of BtL (Part 2 of the Fasttrack). It proved very powerful. Hoey offers three discourse structures which make sense of how academic (and other) discourse is constructed:

1. problem / solution     2. general / particular      3. compare / contrast Continue reading