Language Across The Curriculum – Part I: Building the Argument

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I’ve just read this very good blog wp.me/p3xVUK-f1 by @englishlulu. It highlights for me what is one of the biggest barriers to raising standards of literacy in our schools: teachers’ own lack of confidence with literacy, or rather ‘language’ as I think it can be more helpfully termed. By standards here I don’t mean better examination results, which though obviously desirable, are not always an adequate gauge of whether pupils’ can read with confidence, write with accuracy and flair and articulate themselves with authority – surely a goal for all of us who work with or who are responsible for children’s learning.

@englishlulu makes an observation that I have long been thinking about myself: ‘the elephant in the room when we talk about literacy in schools is that most teachers can’t match the levels currently expected of a year 6 student.’ Whilst the assertion maybe a tad strong, it nevertheless articulates a basic premise that I have seen time and time again in a lot of classrooms – that a significant of proportion of teachers really do not have the ability to support the language development of their learners effectively. This is not to deny that there are a lot of teachers in a range of subjects who regularly incorporate explicit language work in their lessons. There are, and I’ve seen them. But there are also a great many more who do not, or who do, but with questionable effectiveness.

One of the things I think that Ofsted does do well is to recognise the place that language learning should have in every classroom. Moving English Forward (2012) stresses the need for schools to ‘strengthen their whole-school literacy work across all departments to ensure that students extend and consolidate their literacy skills in all appropriate contexts.’  It also recognises that ‘previous efforts to raise literacy as a whole-school initiative have tended to have a short-term impact.’ In the earlier Barriers to Literacy report (2011) there is a quiet acknowledgement that part of the problem lies in teachers’ own lack of confidence in dealing with language, suggesting that in ‘schools where teachers in all subject departments had received training in teaching literacy and where staff had included an objective for literacy in all the lessons, senior managers noted an improvement in outcomes across all subjects.’

From my experience it is this lack of appropriate training that is the underlying problem, one that undermines any genuine drive to improve language development across the curriculum. A lot of teachers simply do not have a sufficient level of understanding on how to support pupils’ punctuation, word choice or sentence construction effectively or consistently enough. I include some English teachers within this assertion, since many are not language specialists and, as I’ve written about in a previous blog (http://wp.me/p3po46-T), did not themselves receive a decent grounding in language in their own education. In too many cases this lack of understanding gives way to low levels of confidence, which in turn means explicit language teaching is avoided. Ofsted recognise the size of the challenge ahead, pointing out that ‘across secondary schools, only 6% of teachers indicated that there should be a change in the extent to which [language] is incorporated into lessons.’

If this is the extent of the problem, what is the solution? Clearly, whatever is done must first do something about improving the confidence of teachers so that they are better able to address issues of language in their lessons and help pupils to become competent readers, writers and speakers in a range of authentic contexts. That confidence can only really come from tackling ‘the elephant in the room’: teachers’ own knowledge about language, which is no easy task, that’s for sure. Part of the answer also has to address the reluctance (or more likely fear) amongst some teachers who see the teaching of language as not having anything to do with them. This can be done – and probably often has been – via a top-down approach, particularly in the lead up to an inspection. But this rarely works. At best, a must-do mentality has (as Ofsted imply) a short-term impact; at worse, it can be superficial, breed further resentment and thus not really help the pupils in the long term in any meaningful way.

Much better, then, for those in the position to do something across the school to construct a robust argument that shows exactly why language development is so important, and then to provide a coherent strategy once that argument has been won. Language development is too important to keep ignoring or pay lip service to, and needs to be continually amongst the main priorities of every adult who works with pupils in the classroom. The argument that needs to be made is essentially that language is learning, and it is perfectly expressed by Lee Donaghy in his excellent blog on his use of a language-based pedagogy at his school in Birmingham – http://wp.me/p3hZYu-2

‘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.’

I strongly urge you to read all of his blog. Based around the development of genre-based pedagogy by professor Jim Martin of the University of Sydney, it powerfully illustrates the way that language is intrinsically related to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, and therefore of considerable interest to all educators. The final blog of the series is particularly pertinent to this discussion. It runs through a detailed worked example of the theoretical model that Lee uses in his history lessons. If every teacher did something similar, one can only wonder at the potential gains for pupils’ language development. Seriously, can you imagine?

But the problem, once again, is that not all teachers possess the necessary confidence with and passion for language to pull this off, and so hence will probably avoid it all together. So how, once we have made and won the argument for the centrality of language in the learning process, do we ensure that all teachers are themselves are able to least make a contribution to pupils’ language development? There is no easy answer: the way I see it the scale of the problem is pervasive with a great deal of deep-rooted anxiety and reluctance.

Nevertheless, in my next blog I will attempt to add my own thoughts on how we can start to do something about developing teachers’ lack of confidence and improving their understanding of language. I’m certainly not suggesting I have all the answers. I don’t. But after spending the past couple of years trying to come at this issue from a variety of different angles, I think I at least have a grasp of what language across the curriculum should look like.

I, of course, welcome the views of other people. 

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