Social Context and Using/Learning Academic Language

Posted on May 8, 2013 
Filed under Discussions, Ethical Identities, Language, Learning and Development

Posted to Guardian Teacher Network, May 7, 2013

Recently, working with a group of thirteen year olds with ‘special needs’ we planned how we might rescue hostages in Libya. As we imagined we were in 1804 in the days of the Barbary pirates, one boy asked, ‘What would we tell President Jefferson if we failed?’. We were thinking, talking, reading texts extracts, and acting, like historians. The boy was aware that history was his-story.

The learning in Lee Donaghy’s classroom is so powerful not just because one group is convincing the other. Significantly, the context of their talk – and of their writing – is more than ‘the classroom’. People (young and old) are engaged in the sorts of tasks that engage real historians. And that includes paying attention to the vocabulary they use to make meaning within an historical framework. This is not superficial ‘role play’. As in my example, students are becoming more aware of the language they are using – and learning – to explain and critique historical events.

At the heart of Michael Halliday’s theory is the idea that people use words, and learn how to use language, in order to create meaning in context. Social context is key. Why do teachers talk differently at home, in the staffroom, or at a professional conference? Because the social context – and thus the language expected to be used to make meaning – is different. The problem with most of the language used in classrooms is that the context is ‘schooling’ and the dominant genre for language use is as old as that used by The Bash Street Kids! When teachers are the ones asking questions that the pupils are supposed to answer ‘correctly’ then the relationship between teacher and young people tends to close down meaning-making. Using Halliday’s term, the ‘tenor’ of exchanges is hierarchical. When the meaning has been predetermined by a teacher – or by a test – then pupils don’t have to learn how to use language. Worse, they don’t have to learn – or think.

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