Blog 5: genre pedagogy in action

The first thing that is important to say is that everything I describe in this blog has been implemented in conjunction with the wonderful Helen Handford, language consultant and genre-pedagogy expert, who co-planned and co-taught this lesson sequence with me (therefore wherever in this sequence I have said ‘I’ or ‘me’ I really mean ‘we’). Being true to our belief in the naturalness and effectiveness of the teaching and learning cycle described in my third blog post, this sequence represents the joint construction phase in the development of my own practice.

The setting the context and building the field phase was represented by my completion of the teacher professional learning course How Language Works (http://www.unlockingtheworld.com/programs/how-language-works)  in November 2011. The modelling and deconstruction phase was represented by my watching Helen implement the pedagogy arising from this course (with me virtually a spectator) in a scheme of work on Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England with my bottom set year 7s between January and April 2012. This was a class of 12 whose average reading age was 8.5 years, but who Helen managed to scaffold to producing the topic sentence ‘Henry’s desire for divorce, money and power led to the establishment of the Church of England.’

The joint construction phase is described below and took place between November 2012 and March 2013. I think I’m pretty much now ready to enter the independent construction phase in my use of genre pedagogy (not because I know everything, but because I now know I can use it, recognise when I use it well and am able to reflect on how to use it even more effectively).

This sequence was taught to my set 2 year 9 class, who have begun their study of OCR History B Modern World GCSE (we have a two year KS3) and whose KS2 English/Maths baselines are a mixture of high level 4s and low level 5s. Thus their minimum expected target grades are B grades, but their aspirational (school’s term, not mine) targets are A grades by the end of year 11. We started the course by studying Unit 1, International Relations 1919-39 and this sequence on the League of Nations followed on from our study of the Treaty of Versailles and the other peace treaties signed at the end of the Great War.

The specification’s key question on the League is: To what extent was the League of Nations a success?’ and it lists the focus points for this topic as:

• What were the aims of the League?

• How successful was the League in the 1920s?

• How far did weaknesses in the League’s organisation make failure inevitable?

• How far did the Depression make the work of the League more difficult?

• Why did the League fail over Manchuria and Abyssinia?

The ‘specified content’ is then listed as:

  • The aims of the League, its strengths and weaknesses in structure and organisation; successes and failures in peacekeeping during the 1920s; disarmament; the work of the Court of International Justice; the ILO and the Special Commissions; the impact of the World Depression on the work of the League after 1929; the failures of the League in Manchuria and Abyssinia.

Considering this specification in light of the types of questions pupils will be expected to answer in their exam I was able to produce my own list of key questions that should, providing pupils could be taught to independently re-produce them, be comprehensive. The list is as follows:

  • Describe the aims of the League of Nations
  • Describe the structure of the League of Nations
  • Explain the powers of the League
  • Explain the League’s successes and failures in peacekeeping in the 1920s
  • Explain the League’s successes in its humanitarian work during the 1920s, and its limitations
  • Explain the impact of the Depression on the work of the League
  • Explain why Japan invaded Manchuria
  • Describe the events of the Manchurian crisis
  • Explain why the League failed to resolve the Manchurian crisis
  • Explain why the League failed to achieve its aim of disarmament
  • Explain why Italy invaded Abyssinia
  • Describe the events of the Abyssinian crisis
  • Explain why the League failed to resolve the Abyssinian crisis
  • What was the most important reason for the failure of the League by 1937?

This blog will describe the sequence of teaching the question ‘Explain why Japan invaded Manchuria’. When I have more time I will be able to put this question into its broader context alongside and within the teaching of the other questions, but please bear with me!

I set the context for the sequence by linking Japan’s actions in Manchuria to a previous statement we had arrived at as a class about the impact of the Depression on the work of the League, as follows: ‘The rise of extremist governments, a result of unemployment and social problems experienced in several countries, caused difficulties for the League‘. The invasion of Manchuria is thus an example of the difficulties caused by these extremist governments in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Depression. I also set the context by showing the group a map of Japan and China with Manchuria clearly marked.

I began building the field by showing the class a YouTube clip about the impact of the Depression on Japan and the reasons for the invasion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D9VZH5Fi_4) and asking the pupils to jot down any reasons they could see for the invasion. We then fed back to produce the following slide:

 1

We arrived at this point firstly by my asking pupils how they would link the fragments of sentences ‘Japan invaded Manchuria…’ to whatever reasons they had gleaned from the clip. This produced the list of causal connectives down the left hand side of the slide with the pupils then feeding back their notes in full sentences, such as ‘Japan invaded Manchuria so that it could provide its growing population with the resources it needed’ and ‘Japan invaded Manchuria as a result of the Mukden Incident’. Thus I was already scaffolding pupils’ movement from spoken-like to written-like language by insisting on them using ‘reporting back-type’ talk in their responses.

As a class we discussed these reasons a little more and decided there were three main reasons for the invasion, which we summarised in the following slide (in type) and then added to with more detailed notes from the clip:

 2

At this point I suggested that to answer our question we needed a brief introductory paragraph that identified the reasons for the invasion. I dwelt on the question of what was actually being asked – which was the important word in the question? We decided it was ‘why’ and I asked how else that could be phrased, which elicited the answer ‘the reasons why’. Thus the class were able to recognise their answer really needed to be about the reasons for the Japanese invasion. This is important both for the introduction and for their subsequent paragraphs answering the question.

Next I showed the class an introduction I had written:

After the First World War Japan was a very important, powerful country in Asia.  It already had control of lots of other parts of the Pacific.  But the army wanted to make Japan even bigger no matter what.  Japan also needed to do something about the economic problems of the 1920s, which were made worse by the depression.  So, the army made it look like China had blown up one of their railway lines at Mukden, so that it would have an excuse to invade Manchuria.  Japan invaded Manchuria in 1932.

I explained that this was written in very ‘everyday’ language and we needed to improve it by making it sound more like what a historian would write. Pupils discussed how they would do this in small groups and we then jointly re-drafted the paragraph, with me prompting, probing and clarifying the pupils’ suggestions until we came up with this:

 3

The main shift here, as I’m sure you can see, was that we nominalised the factors that led to the invasion: ‘…the army wanted to make Japan bigger no matter what’ became ‘the army’s overwhelming desire to expand further’; ‘Japan also needed to do something about the economic problems of the 1920s, which were made worse by the depression’ became ‘the need to find a solution to its economic problems’ and ‘the army made it look like China had blown up one of their railway lines at Mukden, so that it would have an excuse to invade Manchuria’ became ‘the pretext provided by the Mukden Incident…’. The class are quite well versed in nominalisation (turning verbs or adjectives into nouns or ‘things’) as I bang on and on about it being a key feature of abstract historical writing. Also, you will notice that the nominalised paragraph is shorter; this is because nominalisations pack a lot of meaning into one word, which is why they’re features of abstract, technical writing.

I was then able to introduce pupils to the whole-text schematic structure for our answer, as follows:

 4

Through questioning we were able to establish why we had ordered the factors as we had – we had arranged them in chronological order, in that the desire to expand had been there since the end of the First World War, the economic problems had come about after 1929 and the Mukden Incident happened immediately before the invasion. As we had ordered them in this way in the introduction, we then had to order them the same way in subsequent paragraphs in order to maintain whole-text coherence.

The next step was to write each paragraph and having jumped around the teaching and learning cycle so far, here was the point at which I would now stick to it closely. I decided I wanted to nail down the topic sentence for each paragraph first, before completing the rest of each paragraph in turn. The first step, then, was to model and then deconstruct the first paragraph’s topic sentence. Here’s how I did it:

 5

I went back to the statement ‘Japan invaded Manchuria because the army wanted to make Japan’s empire bigger’, which a pupil had come up with from the YouTube clip. At this point the fact that the question was about the reasons for the invasion became important. The statement above has Japan as its theme (ie at the start of the clause), but the question doesn’t, it has why (or the reasons why) as its theme. Thus our answer needs to thematise the reasons, not Japan. If we look back at the introductory paragraph we find our first nominalised reason for the invasion was ‘the army’s desire’, and so I explained that my topic sentence would have this nominalistion in theme position – hence it started ‘The desire of the Kwantung army to expand Japan’s Pacific empire…’.

I then explained that I wanted our topic sentences to do two more things: firstly to give the factors that led to this reason (in this case the desire); secondly to then link back to the question. I reminded the class, drawing on our knowledge from the clip, that the desire was a result of the army’s nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government. These two things made up the second clause of our topic sentence, which would also be a dependent clause thus making the sentence a complex one (teaching grammar in context!) and therefore necessitating bookending with a pair of commas. The final phase of the sentence (after the embedded, dependent clause) would directly reference the invasion and would also locate this reason chronologically as ‘the long term cause’. We therefore ended with a topic sentence of: ‘The desire of the radical Kwantung army to expand Japan’s empire in Asia, fuelled by its Nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government, was the long term reason for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.’

Having modelled the first topic sentence I then moved on to jointly constructing the second with the class, which produced the following:

6 

We followed the previous pattern of: nominalised factor as theme – embedded, dependent clause giving reasons for the factor – link back to question, and came up with: ‘The need to find a solution to Japan’s economic problems, sparked by population growth during the 1920s and deepened by the effects of the Depression, was the short term cause of the takeover of Japan’.

I asked the pupils to independently construct the final topic sentence about the Mukden Incident, sticking to our phasing. Here are the two great examples of what the pupils produced:

 87

Not all pupils produced perfect topic sentences, but all were able to stick to the phasing, use nominalisations and link back to the question by referring to this incident as the ‘trigger’. Reading their efforts made me realise I needed to be more explicit about showing pupils how the dependent clause was embedded between commas and also that pupils could therefore ellipse some words (for example a few wrote ‘The excuse provided by the Mukden Incident, which was [my italics] brought about by…’, when they needed to miss out the words in italics.

I then asked pupils to share their independently constructed topics sentences and we used these to take the best bits and jointly construct an ‘ideal’ version, which left us with the three following topic sentences:

 9

Our job now was to complete each paragraph using our topic sentences as starting points. I now moved back into the modelling and deconstruction phase and gave pupils the following sentences that would complete the paragraph on the army’s desire to expand:

  • Manchuria was an obvious target for expansion because during the 1920s the Chinese government was weak and had little control over the area.
  • The army believed that Japan was superior to other nations and should, therefore, control more territory. 
  • The desire of the Kwantung army to expand Japan’s empire in Asia, fuelled by its nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government, was the long- term reason for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
  • Therefore, the Kwantung army not only wanted to annex Manchuria but would have found it easy to do so.

I asked pupils in groups of 4 to decide in which order these sentences should go to complete our paragraph and, more importantly, why they thought this and what each sentence was doing in the paragraph. This shows a summary of our discussion:

10

This shows that pupils were able to correctly sequence the sentences and then explain their choices: the second sentence explains reason 1 from the topic sentence (‘fuelled by its nationalist ideology’); the third sentence explains reason 2 from the topic sentence (‘weakness of the Chinese government’); the final sentence links back to the question, starting with a causal connective (‘Therefore’).

The next step was then to jointly construct the rest of the paragraph on ‘The need to secure land and resources’, with the result thus:

Part way through…

 11

And the final product:

 12

The final stage was then for pupils to independently construct the rest of the final paragraph.  Again, here is the best example:

 13

The quality of the scan isn’t great so here’s what it says:

The pretext provided by the Mukden Incident, staged by the Kwantung Army to create a justification for the invasion, was the trigger for Japan to invade Manchuria. In 1931, the Japanese falsely claimed that Chinese soldiers had blown up the Manchurian railway in China. As a consequence, this false claim triggered Japan’s invasion to annex Manchuria in late 1931.

In discussion with the pupil we then altered the final sentence to read:

As a consequence of this false claim, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria began in late 1931.

Phew! We had finally arrived at an entire essay: an introduction and three paragraphs in answer to the question: ‘Explain why Japan invaded Manchuria’.

Let me know what you think!

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Blog 4: Genre Pedagogy

After my third blog I promised I would give examples of how I have used the teaching and learning cycle in my own practice. However, I think I need to do one more explainer about the theoretical background to the pedagogical approach we are using before I launch explicitly into how I’m actually walking the talk.

So this post is about ‘genre pedagogy’, which is probably a more accurate label for what we’re implementing than ’language-based pedagogy’. Its chief developer is Professor Jim Martin of the University of Sydney and the best summary of the approach is his book ‘Learning to Write, Reading to Learn: genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School’ (Equinox 2012) co-authored with Dr David Rose. The book is an account of the work of the ‘Sydney School’ of linguistics practitioners who developed a language-based approach to teaching in Australia from the late 1970s onwards.

Please read the book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Learning-Write-Reading-Learn-Scaffolding/dp/1845531442/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364163236&sr=1-12) and then forgive any elements of recontextualisation in what follows. As with all of my blogs, they reflect my understanding and implementation of these theories, which are still developing; as such any inadequacies/inaccuracies are mine and not those of the theorists.

As I laid out in blog 1, Halliday’s theory of the functional model of language starts with the context of culture: the ‘genre’ or the ‘why?’ of any text or communication – ‘genres’ are ways of getting things done or achieving a social purpose. Martin and his colleagues identified, through extensive sampling, the most common written genres of each school subject or discipline at each stage of schooling. From this they were able to map out a taxonomy of school genres which identified the main forms of writing that school pupils needed to gain control over (because they were the ones which occurred the most often). This work has been continually refined and the taxonomy of genres in my discipline, history, has been taken up and developed best in the UK by Professor Caroline Coffin of the Open University in her article ‘Learning the language of school history: the role of linguistics in mapping the writing demands of the secondary school curriculum’ (http://oro.open.ac.uk/5529/1/revisedschool_hist%2B_lingSept.pdf).

Sticking with the historical genres, as you will see in the article they are grouped into ‘recording’, ‘explaining’ and ‘arguing’ history, with subdivisions within these genre families. We could construct taxonomies for any school subject in similar ways (if anybody wants copies of suggested taxonomies for geography or science just yell). The important thing about these genres is that they are predictable and patterned ways of achieving a purpose – to recall events in the past, to explain why the event took place or to argue about its significance. By predictable and patterned I mean we can identify the particular characteristics that make up each genre at the whole text, paragraph, sentence and clause levels in terms of field, tenor and mode (Halliday’s three aspects of language that make up register). As such we can teach these characteristics to pupils in a very explicit way, leading them to mastery in the production of such genres by way of the teaching and learning cycle (see blog 3).

So what I am working towards at my school, and what I would advocate for all teachers, is that we plan each scheme of work around a focus genre. Working with my colleague Helen Handford we are beginning to identify focus genres for each of my history schemes. When she asks me ‘So what are we doing this lesson/week/half term?’, and I answer ‘The League of Nations’, she follows up with ‘Yes, but what do you want the pupils to know about it, and which genre(s) do you want them to be able to produce?’. This forces me to consider how my pupils are going to demonstrate their knowledge of the topic and prompts me to match this (rightly or wrongly) against the kinds of genres they need to produce in their GCSE exams (I only teach KS4).

This avoids me going off on tangents (as I ashamedly used to) by asking pupils to produce irrelevant pieces of work (or genres) like newspaper reports on the Wall Street Crash, transcripts of conversations between Hitler and Chamberlain or government reports on the Manchurian Crisis. (It should also stop other ridiculous occurrences such as poems about volcanic eruptions in geography or white blood cells narrating their journey through the bloodstream in science.) Such pieces of writing are linguistically inappropriate in terms of pushing pupils towards producing contextually-appropriate abstract knowledge and understanding; the pupils will also likely not be able to effectively produce such pieces as they will have been almost randomly asked to write in a particular genre, rather than being apprenticed into its production through the teaching and learning cycle. Thus we can see that genres and language development are integral to pupils learning the knowledge of any discipline. You can’t ‘do’ the science and then ‘do’ the literacy; they are one and the same. Aiming towards a focus genre enables me to plan to systematically teach the necessary language features at various levels of the text whilst explicitly pushing my pupils from using everyday/familiar/spoken-like language to control over technical/formal/written-like language.

Next post (I double promise) will run through how I have used all of these ideas this year when teaching the topic of the League of Nations to my year 9 GCSE (we start a year early) group, who are studying OCR Modern World B.

Until then…

Blog 3: The teaching and learning cycle

There are no end of methods/attempts/strategies to improve pupils’ learning, outcomes and, often, specifically their writing. SOLO taxonomy, PEE/PEEL/PEA paragraphs, TOWER, sentence starters, writing frames, P4C, SEAL, TEEP, ITP/OTP, HOT maps/Blooms’ Taxonomy, Accelerated Learning. I’ve experimented with most of these – some more than others – and always had something nagging in the back of my mind. It’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve realised what the nag was.

Where’s the focus on language? Not the language of ‘multi-structural knowledge’ or ‘point, evidence, explanation’ or ‘analysis, synthesis, evaluation’, but a focus on the way in which we combine words to make meaning. Basically, where’s the focus on how language works? And more specifically, how language works in history, as distinct from science or geography or any other academic discipline.

This, for me, has been the elephant in the room in terms of my own practice as a history teacher. Let me tell you how I used to do it (and please excuse how inadequate this sequence is – and I thought I was a good teacher).

My class and I would explore a topic – say for argument’s sake why Henry VIII broke from Rome. We’d read up on it; pupils would complete various tasks researching different reasons; we’d look at some sources and discuss them as a class. Then I’d set them a writing task: ‘Choose one of the reasons and write a paragraph about it’. I’d give them the following guide:

 Image

Then I’d mark their books and think either ‘why have they copied my sentences, the lazy things?’ or ‘I showed them how to do it, why does their work not make much sense?’.  After all, I was teaching them the history and then doing the literacy. Of course the reason why they were not able to write history as well as I would have liked is because my sequence was inadequate for the purpose of giving pupils control over the academic language of the discipline of history.

So this post is about the teaching and learning cycle I have adopted that makes the language features of any text – at whole text, paragraph, sentence and clause levels – explicit and leads pupils to genuine mastery of, and independence in being able to reproduce, such patterns. (A post on the bogus idea of ‘independent learning’, as opposed to learning leading to mastery – i.e. independence – is for the future…)

I’m sure many of you will be thinking ‘here we go again, another model’, but this is the only one I’ve ever seen that actually addresses that nag I had about language development. It is also absolutely clear that language is the principal way in which we make meaning – i.e. knowledge – and therefore language (or literacy) cannot be separated from, and bolted on to the side of, subject content.

The teaching and learning cycle replicates the natural way in which we all learn and particularly the way in which we learn language from early childhood. It also stands between and therefore beyond stale debates about transmission versus progressivism. It acknowledges that teachers have the knowledge and that this needs to be transferred to pupils, but is clear that learning is an activity that requires social interaction.

As I said in my previous post, this teaching and learning cycle draws on Vygotsky’s idea that learning occurs in the zone of proximal development i.e. new things that a pupil can do on their own – that are just ahead of what they can already do – are learnt through help from a more expert other. It is also founded on Bruner’s idea of scaffolding, that pupils can learn anything at any age (within reason) providing instruction is sequenced appropriately and temporary support is given until mastery is achieved.

The teaching and learning cycle is as follows:

Image

I shall give an example of the cycle in action below but first it is important to note that it is not designed to take place over a single lesson, rather it describes the stages we need to move through in order for pupils to genuinely master (i.e. be independent in) any new knowledge, skills or understanding. Thus there may be several cycles within a lesson, or it may take several lessons to complete one cycle, depending on what is being learnt. At a scheme of work level the cycle describes how we need to lead pupils to independence in production of a particular genre of writing, based on a particular field of knowledge (say, if we take my example above, a factorial explanation of why Henry VIII established the Church of England).

To give an everyday of example of how this cycle works, imagine you had to teach somebody who had no knowledge of footwear how to tie a shoelace (unlikely, I know!). First of all you would show them the shoe, explain the various parts and what they were for and show them how it slips on to a foot. Secondly, you would show them how a lace is tied, explaining it to them step-by-step whilst you were doing it. Thirdly, you would probably then ask them to have a go themselves, but would talk to them all the way through, intervening where necessary to correct any missteps and providing an ongoing commentary (or formative feedback, if you like). Lastly, to check that they had mastered the process you would ask them to repeat the tying of the lace from the start, this time stepping back and letting them do it for themselves.  

Read that sequence back and see how it follows the cycle above: firstly, setting the context and building the field (explaining the shoe, what it is and how it works); secondly, modelling and deconstruction (the demonstration of how to do it and the accompanying explanation); thirdly, joint construction (letting them have a go but continuing to give guidance – doing it together); lastly, independent construction (stepping back to let them demonstrate their new skill).

As can clearly be seen, the teaching and learning cycle is a process by which the learner is ‘apprenticed’ into new knowledge, skills or understanding by a more expert other – and this is particularly crucial in enabling pupils to independently control new language in new contexts (back to Halliday…).

What’s also important to say is that if any of the above stages are missed out or not completed adequately the learning becomes much more difficult to acquire. To go back to my earlier example, I can map my practice against this cycle:

  • Exploring the topic through reading, discussion and source analysis: setting the context and building the field (though I would not be thinking explicitly about language or scaffolding pupils’ journeys from everyday to abstract at this stage – even though I should have been).
  • Showing pupils my examples of how to write a Level 4, 5 or 6 response: modelling (though note no deconstruction i.e. talking through with the pupils how I produced the examples, or asking them what the differences between the levels were).
  • Asking the pupils to produce their own paragraph: independent construction (no joint construction – I just expected pupils to be able to reproduce answers similar to those I had written as examples).

So, as you can see, my previous practice – though reaching for language development – was hopelessly inadequate in enabling my pupils to gain control over the academic language (and therefore abstract knowledge) of the reasons for the establishment of the Church of England. Slowly, I am adapting all of my classroom practice to follow the teaching and learning cycle, helped by wonderful colleagues Helen Handford and Paddy Walsh who have been doing this stuff for years and who are apprenticing me into using it successfully. Future posts will be a mixture of further explanation of our approach and the reasons for it and examples of my new-style practice that genuinely meets the language development needs of my pupils.

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 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Scaffolding-Language-Learning-Mainstream-Classroom/dp/0325003661/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1363558055&sr=1-1) 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.