In 1962, Anthony Burgess published one of the most shocking and brutally beautiful novels in history, “A Clockwork Orange”.
And yesterday I used it in my First Certificate class.
Before going on with this story, I want to tell you that this excellent activity (as you’ll hopefully agree) was not mine, and that I am in fact forever indebted to my great friend and colleague Robin Barnes for the idea.
So… for the uninitiated, Burgess’s anti-hero Alex and his friends spend the novel on a rampage of sex and violence, marred only by the intervention of the police and society’s wish to “save” him.
Burgess wanted to have Alex narrate in a “youthspeak” slang, but knew that, should he use the jargon of the day, words like “groovy” would, as Austin Powers has so cringingly proved, date pretty damn fast. So he didn’t.
Instead, he plundered Russian, French, German and Arabic for words to be used by his main characters. Words such as “droogs” “rassoodocks” and “viddy” are absent from the OED for the simple reason that they don’t exisit.
Right…what’s the point here…?
I asked my FCE class what the hardest parts of the reading paper was and predictably “hard vocabulary” was run up the flag pole as a key issue.
I wrote up the sentence:
“I was sitting in the bar with my droogs having a drink”
The immediately identified “droogs” as meaning “friends” and I asked how they knew. From the context, came the reply… then I asked them to:
1. Look at the first two paragraphs to get the gist of what was going on.
2. Identify any unusual vocabulary.
3. Decide what parts of speech the words fell under (verb, noun, adjective, adverb).
4. In pairs, take the word I’d given them and try and work out what it means.
5. Tell me how they’d been able to understand the meaning, i.e. context and co-text (… and even I was taken aback by their perfect grasp of the lexis, I must admit!).
6. Tell me how this could help them in the exam.
This mixture of top-down and bottom-up processing was invaluable for them to see that they don’t need a teacher or a dictionary to help them decode lexis.
Another victory for learner-autonomy, O my brothers?