by Sally Zacharias
On the 15th May 2017 the LKALE SIG group held its second annual meeting. The aim of this year’s gathering was to explore the key claims, assumptions and pedagogical applications of three different theoretical approaches to knowing about language in the classroom. The approaches put in the spotlight were Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), Corpus Linguistics and the relatively new discipline of Cognitive Linguistics. By outlining the basic tenets, reviewing some current research within each discipline and demonstrating some practical applications the audience could readily appreciate the relative merits and consider how each approach can ultimately enhance the teaching and learning of language for both L1 and L2 learners.
Marcello Giovanelli and Jessica Mason explored the close relationship of thought and language from a Cognitive Linguistic perspective. Being a usage based approach to language, whereby its users aim to ‘communicate and establish mental contact’ with each other, Cognitive Linguistics offers language users the means of understanding their own cognitive experience of the world. Marcello illustrated how grammar is inherently meaningful and how it can be used in the classroom as a ‘tool to think with’ (Halliday 2002:416), by showing how he has used building blocks to teach the difference in meaning of various modal verbs (see slides for further explanation and illustrations). Jessica went on to explore this theme further by introducing their notion of ‘pre-figuring’ in the context of teaching literature in L1 contexts. Teachers have the power to foreground parts of the text that they (and/or test writers) deem to be relevant, which can privilege certain interpretations over others. This can lead to pupils’ ‘natural attention attractors’ being disrupted and ignored, resulting in a mechanistic approach to teaching and pupils feeling disengaged.
Next up was Vander Viana, who focused his talk on the application of Corpus Linguistics to the learning and teaching of language. Vander demonstrated how, by introducing a data-driven approach to language learning, students’ and teachers’ notions of grammatical correctness shift from prescriptive and more individualistic (e.g. a teacher’s or text book’s) notions of correctness to one that is informed by empirical evidence from a corpus. By using corpora, reasoning in the classroom becomes inevitably more inductive and opportunities for discovery tasks open up. Although this raises certain challenges for the teacher, in that they need to adapt to working alongside the authoritative ‘voice’ of corpora evidence, it can provide students with exciting, new opportunities for an empirical based learning of literacy.
The afternoon was dedicated to the exploration of Systemic Functional Linguistics as a pedagogical system of knowing. Lise Fontaine highlighted the key importance of language in education as an ‘essential condition of knowing, the process by which experience becomes knowledge’ (Halliday 1993:94). Lise continued her talk by linking SFL’s basic assumptions about language to socio-cultural theories of learning (e.g. Vygotsky), by emphasising the discipline’s social-orientation to meaning. Although most SFL theorists don’t formally acknowledge a cognitive motivation for meaning making, current research that Lise is carrying out within the Cardiff school is exploring just that.
Unfortunately, Charlotte Kemp was unable to give her talk, so instead Nick Moore stepped in at the last minute to give an overview of the work that has been undertaken by educationalists to support literacy practices in classrooms across the globe. In his talk, Nick highlighted some of the aims of Genre Pedagogy projects largely concerned with improving students’ reading and writing practices. For example, Nick gave a succinct overview of the LiLAC project in Australia aimed at accelerating English as an Additional Language learning in all school subjects. He also highlighted how SFL has been incorporated into the current practice of teaching English for Academic Purposes to international students based in the UK.
A recurring theme of the discussions which emerged was that despite the theoretical differences between each approach, they stand united in that they place meaning in central place. Grammar and language learning can and should become an integral part of any learning endeavour because language awareness is an integral part of learning. The day concluded with participants discussing future steps that involve 1) future changes to current practices that would embrace a more meaning driven approach to grammar, and 2) the acknowledgement that teaching/learning of language in schools and HE institutions can only be improved if both teachers and policy makers are involved.
Thank you to Sheffield University, Oksana Afitska, who hosted this event and all the participants and presenters who devoted their time and energy to making this day such a success.
by Sally Zacharias