Blog 2: more theory

‘….I’m a little bit weak …. because some things’re like in my head yeah but I can’t like express it out like, write…like I know that it’s right yeah but I can’t like write it in sentences…. like spread it out basically.’

These are the words of a then-year 10 pupil at my school when we interviewed her a year ago about language and what she thought she needed to get better at to improve her grades. She also expressed the classic belief that she needed to use ‘more bigger words’. Now in year 11, last week’s January exam marks suggest this pupil has achieved (what we expect to be – you never know after last year!) a grade C in English. This is a huge achievement for her given her starting point on entry to the school (level 3/4 borderline), but the central belief and purpose of our work to address our pupils’ language development needs is that there is absolutely no reason why the same pupil should not be leaving us in the summer with a clutch of A and A* grades. That she and too many others aren’t is a call to action.

In 2012 we achieved 76% 5 A*-C with English and Maths, with an intake whose attainment on entry was well below national average. (We also, remarkably, saw our FSM pupils outperform their non-FSM peers by 8%.) But this is not good enough. Firstly, we are in constant pursuit of a self-imposed target of 80%. Secondly, Andrew Adonis in his recent book on education policy past, present and future lays down 90% as the expected marker. Thirdly, not enough of our pupils achieve large numbers of A* or A grades, which are key to gaining entry to competitive local colleges and top universities beyond.

So, to achieve more A* and A grades we need to improve teaching and learning. And to improve teaching and learning we have to explicitly develop our pupils’ access to and control over the academic registers of English, in every subject.

The challenge of doing this is huge, given our intake. As I described in my post yesterday the greater proportion of our pupils are both EAL and working class, and generally lack literacy in their first language – a triple-whammy in terms of their present alignment with the academic registers of English needed to be highly successful at school. In fact, they are furthest from these registers, when we consider the following groups in order of their ‘natural’ alignment:

  1. Pupils who speak English as a first language and who have parents or carers who have acquired academic literacy.
  2. Pupils who speak English as an additional language, have literacy skills in their first language and who have parents or carers who have acquired academic literacy.
  3. Pupils who speak English as a first language but whose parents or carers have not acquired academic literacy. (White working class pupils)
  4. Pupils who speak English as an additional language but have no literacy skills in their first language and whose parents or carers have not acquired academic literacy. (Our pupils)

The generally established timescales for the acquisition of academic language skills for EAL pupils are around 5 to 7 years for those with first language literacy (Cummins, 1994) and 7 to 10 years for those without (Thomas and Collier, 1997). This means our two main groups of pupils – British-born Mirpuris who started learning English age 4 and immigrant Somalis who did so age 7 or 8 – will ‘catch up’ to the average non-EAL pupil at about the same age: 14 (or year 9).** This is not generally quick enough to enable them to accelerate during KS4 to achieving A* and A grades. Hence our need for a language-based pedagogy, which will accelerate these timelines (and hence why we have recently taken academy sponsorship of our main feeder primary, which supplies 70-80% of our intake).

To return to our pupil at the start of my blog and her apparent need to use ‘more bigger words’ – the vocabulary equivalent of needing to ‘add more detail’ to your work – she is, of course, misguided in this belief. What she needs is to recognise she has to use the correct language for the correct context. Where she does not currently have knowledge and understanding of more academic registers – abstract, technical/specialised, written-like – she needs to have the requisite knowledge and understanding scaffolded for her in all subject disciplines until she has control over it for herself.

A great example of this journey from everyday to abstract, novice to specialised and spoken-like to written-like is given in ‘Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning ( by Pauline Gibbons, which I am reading at present. She uses the example of pupils learning about magnets in science and outlines the journey through four examples of language:

1. Look, it’s making them move.  Those don’t stick.

2. We found out the pins stuck on the magnet.

3. Our experiment showed that magnets attract some metals.

4. Magnetic attraction occurs between ferrous metals.

The first text is taken from an exchange between pupils discussing what is happening while they are experimenting with magnets, the second is the same child relating her observations to the teacher. The third is from the pupil’s written report on the experiment and the fourth is an entry from a child’s encyclopedia. The phenomenon observed by the pupils – pieces of metal being moved by other pieces of metal – is summed up in the nominalisation ‘magnetic attraction’ – abstract, specialised and written.

How do we get pupils to the point where they can produce written texts with the abstraction and specialisation of texts 3 and 4? To do so we draw on three main ideas: firstly Vygotsky’s contention that learning takes place in the zone of proximal development, which leads to the twin conclusions that learning is a social activity, dependent upon interaction and collaboration, and that the ‘apprentice’ pupil needs the direct input and guidance of the ‘master’ teacher (‘What the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow.’ Vygotsky.); secondly Bruner’s concept of ‘scaffolding’, where the teacher provides temporary and future orientated support until the pupil achieves independence (‘A learner [even of a very young age] is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is appropriately organised.’ Bruner.); finally a teaching and learning cycle that combines these concepts and integrates language development with an explicit focus on pupils being taught to read and write the key curriculum genres of each subject discipline.

This teaching and learning cycle will be the subject of my next post.

** These Somali pupils will only catch up to the average by year 9 if they have arrived in Britain with age appropriate literacy in their first or another language they use on a daily basis.  If they have few or no literacy skills already, then their timeline will be 7 to 10 years, meaning they won’t catch up to the average until after their compulsory education has ended.

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.