LKALE SIG 2017 at Sheffield

                                                       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.

Variations in aspects of writing in 16+ English examinations between 1980 and 2014.

by Urszula Clark

On 30th November 2016, Cambridge Assessment held a seminar to discuss the publication of its Report, Aspects of Writing 1980-2014.
This unique study is centred upon an analysis of sets of script samples undertake by students aged 16 years old as part of GCSE English, collected from 1980 onwards. This unique corpus offers an insight into variation and change in students’ creative, narrative writing practices, which this latest Report has charted over a 34 year period.

For me, three important aspects are highlighted by this study. Firstly, that students’ language use has become less complex in relation to sentence structure when writing in this genre. There has been a marked increase in the use of simple sentences and a lower incidence of multiple clause sentences with less subordination This should probably come as no surprise, given trends in prose fiction throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first. Secondly, there is no evidence that students are using ‘text speak’ in their writing of creative narratives for examination purposes. Only one instance was found, ‘OMG’ from a grade E female candidate. Students also tended to use more paragraphs and proper nouns in 2014 than in previous years. Thirdly,examination standards have remained virtually static across the 34 year period, with a dip in the number of students obtaining grade D and below in 2014.

In relation to this third point, In her introduction to the seminar, Debra Myhill offers the possible explanation that teachers, given the emphasis upon students obtaining grades A-C, perhaps pay less attention to those who appear not to be capable of meeting the C grade threshold. Consequently, teachers may not pay them as much attention as those on the C-D borderline. It is also salutary to reflect that the 2014 cohort of students would have undertaken all of their schooling from infant, through junior to secondary years under the now defunct National Literacy Strategies (NLS). Whilst some aspects of spelling, punctuation and grammar appear to have improved over the time period, this improvement has not impacted very much upon the grades awarded. It would appear then, that the various NLS have had little effect upon improving the percentages of examination grades awarded overall.

I was invited to present a response to the Report at the seminar, and none of you will be surprised to hear that I extolled the virtue of teaching and learning grammar, not so much concerned with aspects of ‘correctness’, but with the expression of thought in a coherent and logical manner.

The Report is available on line, as is the seminar at:

LKALE on stage: The Bangor International Conference on Bilingualism in Education

by Eowyn Crisfield

To round off the 2015-2016 academic year, five LKALE members hosted a round table at the first Bangor International Conference on Bilingualism in Education. Convened by Urszula Clark, the round table entitled “Teaching with and for diversity: What teachers need to know about language and how researchers can (and should!) support them” addressed key aspects of LKALE’s mission to broaden teacher knowledge about linguistics and how it influences classroom learning.
The round table was opened by Eowyn Crisfield, with a paper that contextualised the common mantra “Every teacher is a language teacher”. Eowyn explored the types of training that “language teachers” receive, and compared to the skills needed by regular classroom teachers in order to function as language teachers alongside their roles as subject teachers. She discussed results of a teacher-training pilot project and findings that indicate that targeted INSET can make a difference in both attitudes and practice in terms of addressing language in the classroom. She concluded with a model outlining how LKALE and other research groups can undertake research applicable to this topic and make it accessible to teachers. These three elements – research knowledge, materials and resource creation, training and implementation – were then taken up by the following speakers.
Urszula Clark continued with a paper looking at the issue of developing literacy across the curriculum in secondary schools. She drew on a project that has been working with secondary school teachers to enable them to better understand the specific needs for “subject-literacy” in their own teaching subjects. The research focuses on the implementation of grammar in context as a function of a Language-based Pedagogy (LBP) to improve students’ literacy in all subjects, rather than as a focus only in English classes. She also discussed the positive changes she has seen in one school after a single INSET session on LBP, which indicates that the involvement of LKALE in teacher development can make a significant difference to practice even without longitudinal involvement in every school.
Lise Fontaine took the discussion a step further into the linguistic bases of LKALE, with a foray into systemic functional linguistics as a basis for understanding literacy needs across the curriculum. The research group LLAWEN (Literacy and Language Awareness in Education Network for Wales) was recently launched to support teachers in implementing the new Literacy and Numeracy Framework for Wales. Under the new framework, all teachers are expected to support literacy development appropriate to their subjects, but many lack the necessary background to do so confidently. Drawing on work from other projects, including the Buckinghamshire Grammar Project, she suggested ways forward for implementing frameworks for integrating grammar into learning in context, and for addressing needs for both “speakerly” and “writerly” grammar.
Sally Zacharias and Esther Daborn closed the roundtable with a look at their project “Integrating a Knowledge about Language (KAL) strand into Initial Teacher Education programmes”. This project is based in Scotland, and has been developed in response to a growing need and concurrent decreasing in funding for EAL teachers in schools. Integrating KAL into initial teacher education programs will provide new teachers with the ability to also function as language teachers, and help support students learning of the language while learning in the language across the curriculum. The project provided training sessions in two universities, targeted at helping new teachers understand how to identify the different levels of language needed to understand and produce in their subject. This included both theoretical input and practical applications for subject-specialist teachers. Going forward, the project hopes to continue to work with ITE programs, to integrate KAL into their current course load as an integral element of learning about teaching.

The roundtable concluded with the driving question behind LKALE: “How can literacy across the curriculum initiatives be operationalised in schools?” All of the presenters are involved in projects that allow researchers and teachers to come together and discuss this key issue in modern schools, and all have had some success in making headway in what is going to be a key issue in education for years to come. LKALE is hoping to broaden its membership base through events such as this, to bring on board not only more researchers who are interested in applying their work in practical ways, but also to bring on board the teachers and the schools that are the other half of the conversation.

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