Blog 1: Theory

I’ve begun to follow some really interesting new people on twitter this week and read several top quality blogs (and duly #ff’ed for the first time in ages because of them). Added to great people I already follow, this has meant for a week of genuinely informative and challenging conversations about the purpose of education, what we should be teaching, how and why. These conversations have prompted me to dip my toe into the blogging pool, so as to escape the limitations of 140 characters. I hope what I come up with is both of interest and adds to the debates that seem to swirl around all of us in education just now.

I will be blogging about the approach to teaching and learning I have been implementing, developing, tweaking and advocating for the last 18 months at my secondary school in Birmingham, where I am assistant principal with responsibility for teaching and learning. This first blog will attempt to give some background to the approach, set out its theoretical basis and show why I (and those working on it with me) believe it is a necessary approach, both for the type of pupils I work with and for all pupils who are, for want of a better classification, not white and/or middle class.

The school I have the privilege of working at has 95% EAL pupils. However, they are not the EAL pupils you’re thinking of: the vast majority were born in Britain. 80% of our pupils are of Pakistani (or more accurately Mirpuri-Kashmiri) origin and almost all of these only started to learn English formally when they went to nursery school or reception. Almost all of them have no literacy in their first language of Mirpuri (which is an oral-only language) or Punjabi and a similar proportion will have one or more parents who speak no English. The vast majority of the rest our pupils are of Somali origin and moved to Britain between the ages of 5 and 8, usually from Scandinavia where they will have developed some literacy in Danish, Norwegian or Finnish. Finally, our ever-6 free school meal percentage is 69.1. You will see, therefore, that both conditions described below in the rationale for our teaching and learning approach apply to most of our pupils.

The approach we take, therefore, is what we call a ‘language-based pedagogy’. By this we mean that there is no such thing as ‘literacy’ as distinct from ‘subject knowledge’. The language of history (or science, geography, maths) is the knowledge and content of history, which in turn is the language, which in turn…you get the picture. Therefore it is unhelpful to think of ‘literacy’ as something additional to the effective teaching of any subject. It cannot be bolted on as a special ‘literacy objective’, nor can it be addressed through vocabulary lists, word walls and the assessment of ‘SPAG’ alone, as worthwhile as those techniques are. The explicit development of pupils’ control over the academic registers of language of each subject discipline has to be every teacher’s first priority.

Here’s why (this is taken from various documents myself and the team have collaborated on and so is not entirely my own words):

We believe that the variation between the language of the home and community and the language of school, or as it is more commonly labelled, academic literacy, is at the heart of a great deal of the underachievement of identifiable groups of learners in British schools. These groups draw on the language of home and community to make meanings within school. School subjects draw on different kinds of language to make their disciplinary meanings. These variations in language do not match. It is not possible to make the meanings of academic subjects using the home language of some groups of students. The predictable outcomes for these groups are lack of achievement in school subjects and schooling in general evidenced by attainment gaps for, among others, EAL, FSM and LA children.

The most obvious example here is when the actual language used at home is a language other than English. Children using Urdu at home cannot use Urdu to make meanings in English required in England. We recognise this and try to do something about it by teaching English language to students who speak another language at home and in the community.

Less obvious but equally important is the variation in language use between different social groups who are English speakers and the academic language of school subjects. Very often the difficulties of schooling encountered by some working class groups are not recognised as related to language. Very often they are linked to motivation, behaviour or attitude, some inherent or psychological issue within the individual or the individual’s social group. Our view is that the issues faced by underachieving white working class and other native-English speaking groups are also language related.

Therefore, our approach is informed by Michael Halliday’s theory of functional grammar, which clearly shows how language is influenced by the context in which it is produced. (The title of this blog is a Halliday quote, in which ‘here’ means ‘in this context’.) Halliday recognised two levels of context: the context of culture, which he referred to as ‘genre’, and the context of situation, which he referred to as ‘register’.

The Functional Model of Language

Functional Model

‘Genres’ are about how we humans get things done. The ‘genre’ of a text or communication is determined by its purpose (why is it being produced?) and there are as many different genres as there are different social purposes. (This is perhaps a wider definition of genre than many of us will be used to – think of film or fiction genres, such as rom-com, action or sci-fi.) Genres are predictable and patterned ways of using language and can therefore, in the context of academic disciplines, be taught explicitly to pupils.

The ‘register’ of any given communication (or ‘text’) is broken down into 3 main areas: the field (what the communication is about), the tenor (who is taking part in the communication) and the mode (how things are being communicated).

The register continuum

Register Continuum

In essence, what we are trying to do is push our pupils and their use of language from the left-hand side of the above continuum, where they will feel comfortable, to the right hand side, where they will not. That is not to say several things:

  1. The right-hand side of the continuum represents ‘better’ use of language. It doesn’t, it merely represents how language is used in academic disciplines. Using language at the left-hand side at home and in the community, and in other formal situations, is perfectly acceptable.
  2. Our pupils are unable to operate at the right-hand side because of their backgrounds. As teachers we have to accept the responsibility to push them there – nobody else is going to do it (in other words, no excuses).

Now the big issue with all of this is that those of us who have navigated the educational system successfully enough to be awarded a degree, complete training and become a teacher unconsciously know how to vary our language use according to the context of culture and context of situation. We know, for instance, not to swear in front of our grandparents, write ‘could of’ in essays or assume a pupil will understand what ‘appeasement’ is without a lot of explanation. However, at the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know that we know it. It comes naturally. For many of our pupils, this flexibility in language use doesn’t, which is why they might swear in your classroom (though not an excuse), write it like they say it, or look at you with bewilderment when you mention other complex nominalisations like ‘photosynthesis’. As our group’s rationale refers to above, there is a mis-alignment between the language use of some groups and that required for success in school. It is this mis-alignment our pedagogy seeks to address.

That’s it for my first effort. Apologies, I suppose, for being heavy on theory in this one; I will follow up with posts on how this looks in practice. However, I am going to resist the temptation to reduce what we are doing to a handy mnemonic or check-list. I’ll leave that to the snake-oil salesmen and feted superstars of the conference merry-go-round. So, actually, no apologies for the theory. I genuinely believe teachers need to engage with the importance of language and how it works in their subject discipline if they are to be truly effective for their pupils. The fact is that knowledge about language has disappeared from initial teacher training and it needs to make a comeback. Fast.

15 thoughts on “Blog 1: Theory

  1. Great post Lee – it sounds like you’ll have a lot of useful insights to share…

    I’m really glad to see someone writing about register – I have always thought we need to think about and talk to our students about ‘code-switching’ – too often, I think, the aims are to push our students ‘to the right’, without recognising that the language of their home and their friends is important to them too. If we speak to them honestly and openly about when to speak in different ways I think they understand our purposes much better – and we do not seek to wrench them from their home cultures.

    I’m also curious about your thoughts about bilingual education – or at least continued education in home languages. There’s quite a lot of research supporting this as helping students achieve better in both languages – in Sweden students have an entitlement to education in their mother tongue as well as English. What are you thoughts about this? Have you looked into it or tried it? Would you, if you had the time and the money?

  2. This is fascinating reading. As a history teacher, I’m fully guilty of pushing kids from left to right. Hadn’t even thought about it. This will change how I do things. Thank you.

    • Mrjstanier – thank you for your kind words. Do you mean you are guilty of NOT pushing pupils from left to right? Because that is what I’m advocating – moving them explicitly to the abstract/technical/written end of the continuum.

  3. Interesting read. I am a science teacher at secondary level, originally from the UK, and I agree with your position that language skills should not be bolted on the side. Or left solely to language teachers.

    It is interesting to note that accommodating the needs of EAL students was highlighted by NQTs in England as being greatly absent from their training.

    During the last four years I have done a lot of work personally in trying to develop strategies to support language development in my classroom. I currently work in a bilingual school in Sweden. Although we teach half their classes in English, the other half in Sweden, many of our students have neither language as their home language. This poses challenges and I have had to learn and develop strategies to support their language development within the constraints of the science curriculum I must teach.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your school and what you are doing.

  4. Harry Fletcher-Wood raises two very important considerations which are closely related to the content of your post Lee. Be interested to know whether you have some insights into this or know of any other schools who focus on these areas.

  5. Harry, Sameena,

    We are aware that there are huge benefits to bi- and multilingualism and that pupils continuing to study their first languages gives a boost to their language acquisition skills. However, around 80% of our pupils have Mirpuri as their first language, which is not a written language. Most of the remaining pupils have Somali as their first language but lack literacy in it (I’m not sure if it, also, is only an oral language?).

    As such although pupils are unable to study their first languages (though we do have a mall number of Bengali pupils who study for Bengali GCSE) we do make efforts to support bi-or multilingualism by offering Urdu – the closest written language to Mirpuri – and Arabic – studied privately by many of our Somali pupils at mosque – at KS3 and into GCSE.

    We have not looked into the concept of providing instruction in first languages outside of the MFL curriculum.

  6. This is a subject of ongoing importance to me, teaching English as I do in an inner city Further Education college where very few students arrive speaking or writing ‘standard ‘ English.
    I have been teaching in this environment for over 30 years and I think the key issue is literacy in the mother tongue. By literacy I mean an early relationship with the written word. These days I have Eastern European students who have no trouble with moving ‘to the right ‘of the continuum because although they have little experience of English, they understand the processes and tasks of the formal register. In contrast, many West African students whose mother tongues are oral languages but who have always had some contact with English, struggle with the formal register as their primary language has no written component. It is the same with native speakers who have little regular contact with extended texts. Again a child familiar with the written form will have a clearer understanding of the existence of more than one way of constructing and using the language
    I think the answer is as you say, to make the use of registers explicit, to discuss mother tongue (including the predominant use of the oral form in some native speakers ) use and the similarities and differences to formal English that children will be recognising but not being able to articulate and perhaps help them towards doing so.
    When I started teaching in the early 80’s there was (In London)a brilliant project called the Afro Caribbean Language and Literacy Project run by Dr Roxy Harris who is now I believe a Senior Lecturer in Language and Education at Kings College. London. This was aimed at students of Caribbean heritage and was essentially a basic introduction to linguistics. It enabled students to understand how English evolved into its current form (through Latin, Anglo Saxon, Old Norse, French etc.) and similarly how Caribbean patois was created through the interplay of social, historical and linguistic factors. It showed how West African grammar combined with European vocabulary to form a new Creole language. It liberated students from evaluating their mother tongue as ‘second class’ and facilitated a better understanding of the use of the standard /academic form of English as another variety of English. The result of this was invariably an improvement in ability to move more easily between registers.
    I have returned to using aspects of this approach after having had to teach in different ways to accommodate new qualifications and OFSTED criteria. Teaching knowledge about language is essential, it used to be a core criteria of GCSE English and seems to have dropped away.

  7. Thanks for the answer Lee. Although I was aware of students whose mother-tongue is oral languages, I hadn’t seen the problems this presents with bilingual teaching. Is there scope for your school to look into this in future, possibly using members of the community to help?

    Ruth – that sounds amazing and so useful. Is there anything similar running now? Or do you have any resources/can you point us towards what you use? I feel this is something all students should be exposed to.

  8. Pingback: literacy | Pearltrees

  9. Pingback: Language and pedagogy « The Learning Spy

  10. I think there are many problems. The first stems from primary school where subordinating clauses/complex clauses are bandied about without at times the necessary context to place them in-divorced from genre if you like and therefore the meaning they communicate. The second problem is one of motivation; that is teachers must find a way to persuade pupils that it is in their best interests to use these constructions. This is usually the hardest part.

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