What is (or isn't) language doing in PGCE?

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After yesterday’s post on the subject of how to improve the PGCE, Lee Donaghy tweeted me to point out that I had neglected to mention the importance of trainee teachers learning knowledge about language, and specifically how language works in the particular subject in which they are training. He suggested writing a guest blog on this topic to add to my original blog and, naturally, I agreed. If you’re unclear who Lee is I why I would jump at the chance of putting up a guest post from him, have a quick look at his blog, What’s language doing here? Then, when you’ve appreciated its quality, peruse it thoroughly. And with that, over to Lee.
I start with a quote (everybody loves a quote) that states my position here better than I could:

The language system has completely disappeared from view in schooling and in most pre-service teacher education courses. So successful has this effacement of language knowledge been, that students and educators alike have no idea what might be known about language.
Joan Rothery: Sydney University, The Disadvantaged Schools Project, c. 1996

Though this is a quote about Australian education and Initial Teacher Training, and is almost 20 years old, for me it is equally applicable to English education and ITT in 2013. In my opinion, teachers’ lack of knowledge about language and how it works is the most urgent issue facing all of ITT, not just the PGCE.
I drive a lot of my colleagues mad with my constant refrain that ‘the knowledge of a subject is the language of the subject, which is the knowledge of a subject…’ and so on. Michael Fordham’s recent defence of the PGCE (or at least his)  made the point that his training was so good because so much of it was subject specific. He quite rightly points out that ‘[i]t is very difficult, I think, to discuss ‘assessment’ unless you are at the same instant discussing what you are assessing.’ I would go further than this and say the what he refers to is the language of the subject, and to effectively assess pupils’ knowledge and understanding, not to mention give them purposeful feedback, a teacher needs a deep understanding of the way subject knowledge is construed through language.
The problem with PGCEs, and indeed the training I got through the Teach First programme (and for that matter, teaching/learning in general), is that ‘literacy’ is seen as something distinct from subject knowledge. At worst, it’s given a day’s focus during a teacher’s training – a neat, discrete bubble which ticks a box alongside ‘SEN’, ‘EAL’, and ‘numeracy’ and so on. However, even where the approach to literacy is more substantial and focussed it tends to come in the form of a reductive vision based around ‘word walls’, SPAG and ‘varied sentence starts’ and the like, not to mention how to maroon pupils in learned helplessness through the use of writing frames.
Before I move beyond what’s wrong and begin to suggest what we can do to put it right, a word or two on why this more developed conception of ‘literacy’ as inextricably intertwined with subject knowledge is important. Firstly, how often have you thought to yourself when marking pupils’ work ‘but they KNOW this, why can’t they express it on the page?’ I’d contend that it’s probably because the structures of how subject knowledge is realised through language have not been made sufficiently clear enough to the pupils (a topic I believe David covers in his upcoming book). The most common reason for this, I would argue, is because the subject teacher has been unable to denaturalise what comes very naturally to them as a subject expert (or to make the implicit explicit – a paraphrasing of the subtitle of David’s book). This isn’t the teacher’s fault – the problem is they don’t know (explicitly) what they know about the language of their subject and so they do not model and deconstruct, and then jointly construct, these patterns with their pupils, thus enabling them to independently construct those patterns for themselves. Secondly, and most importantly for me, is that disadvantaged, working class, ethnic minority, EAL and SEN pupils are likely to be those who find it most difficult to acquire the patterns of academic language that will make them successful at school. This is because the language of their homes and communities are least closely aligned to the registers of academic English that pupils have to gain control over to do well academically. This ‘language gap’ is a usually overlooked factor in the ‘attainment gaps’ that exist between those groups mentioned above and all pupils. Therefore, equipping teachers to recognise and teach effectively the academic language of their subjects is vital for the pupils who need to acquire this language in school, rather than at home.
Turning to what we can do, the first action for all teacher educators has to be to recognise, understand and preach the centrality of language to good teaching, good learning and indeed knowledge itself. We should then insist that student teachers engage with the doings of their academic disciplines. That is, they should be clear what activities we engage in as ‘scientists’, ‘mathematicians’, ‘artists’ and ‘geographers’. Take my discipline, history, as an example: as historians we recount past events, describe the way things were, explain why things happened as they did and argue about the reasons for and significance of events and people in the past. This gives rise to the Hallidayan idea of subject specialists engaging in ‘genres’ (or ‘staged, goal-oriented social processes’, J. Martin). From this understanding teachers can be clear about the types of texts pupils will need to read and listen to, in order to learn, and write and speak, in order to demonstrate their learning, in each subject discipline. From this flows an opportunity to identify the language patterns of these texts which, once identified, can be explicitly taught and therefore learnt. Consequently, as a historian I can see that I need to equip my pupils to read, listen, speak and write various kinds of recounts, descriptions, explanations and arguments, in order to be effective academic historians. Whilst proving the redundancy of activities like ‘imagine what it was like to be a Roman centurion’ this insight enables me to investigate the workings of these academic texts, master them (or denaturalise them, for as a degree educated historian I already know them implicitly) and plan how to teach them to my largely EAL, largely FSM-eligible working class pupils.
This approach is hugely more coherent – not to mention beneficial – than one which seeks to bombard pupils with a confusing array of ‘literacy’ tit bits. It is also pretty revolutionary, if I may say, as it seeks to identify abstract, academic knowledge and democratise it; that is not ‘dumb it down’ so young people can access it more easily, but instead to define a high level of academic expectation all can attain and plan backwards to ensure pupils achieve that level. The starting point to realising this democratisation is ensuring teachers’ knowledge about language is at the forefront of their practice, always.

2013-10-28T09:14:44+00:00October 28th, 2013|literacy, training|


  1. […] via What is (or isn’t) language doing in PGCE? | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  2. Christine Counsell October 28, 2013 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    As a trainer of history teachers and history teacher of ten years experience, I strongly agree with every word of this (with the possible exception of the implication that there is a monolithic thing called ‘the PGCE’. I don’t know about you, but can’t comment on other PGCEs, unless I happen to know them quite well informally, and even then would be nervous to generalise).
    To study a subject properly IS to study its language. One thing that made me frustrated 13 years ago in the early days of the National Literacy Strategy when it gained its cross-curricular life in the secondary phase, was the patronising suggestion that we should get trainee teachers to include an extra box called ‘literacy’ on their lesson plans, and worse, that we should import little, generic literacy activities into the subject, as though we didn’t do these already, especially when these were unconnected with history as a discipline and did not grow from its knowledge, genres and conventions. Why import what was already there? If the teacher education programme focuses explicitly and regularly on the interplay of language and literacy and the subject – and it should, in every week of the course, in school and in university – then the really strong literacy work will come FROM the subject. All mentors and trainees should be crystal clear about how this can promoted, not as an ‘extra’ but as part of being a good history teacher, applying and explicitly teaching language principles with the rigour, depth, insight and command that knowledgeable history teaching brings.
    Too much to say here, but if you want to know how we do on this in history at Cambridge then here is a sample of what we do (a tiny PGCE that is a drop in the ocean, granted, but we’ve learned a thing or two in over ten years of doing this… and when I say “we” I mean 25 heads of history – the course is not run by ‘me’; it is run in a very school-based way with history teachers shaping it; I coordinate, steer, encourage, monitor, question…). It includes and endorses all that Lee and David argue. Thrilled that you guys are taking this up more widely.
    Sample of what we do… here goes:
    – Sustained focus on extended writing in history with particular emphasis on ensuring that lower-attainers climb into this difficult art and are NOT fobbed off with learning styles nonsense about how they would prefer to draw or act rather than write (nothing wrong with drawing or acting of course, but not as an ongoing ALTERNATIVE to writing; that way those who are weakest never get the practice in the very thing they need the most). This includes study of genre theory – its various manifestations, abroad and here, in its Australian origins and among history teachers in England over the last 20 years – and many other methods, getting trainees to work what what has most impact, what allows for rigorous history. Btw have you looked at Megill on four types of writing? It is better than the genre theory classification I think. Our trainees look at that too, and make much use of Megill in other ways. Incidentally, this isn’t just a ‘session’ in the ‘university’. Everything we do is taken forward by the mentors in school. They require the trainees to do lessons with pupils that try out, explore and evaluate a range of approaches, with robust criteria for developing formal academic writing genres (NOT “Imagine you’re a medieval badger”). In one instance this feeds into an assignment (all our assignments are subject-specific btw, so am rather reeling with puzzlement at Red or Green Pen’s recent account of an assignment – I’ve not seen anything like that in ten years).
    – Explicit work on extended reading – i.e the many ways in which we need to get pupils reading – properly, with difficult texts, and for specific historical purposes. Here we mean getting even lower-attainers reading – actually DESIRING to read many more paragraphs than they normally would. Others might aim for reading whole chapters in scholarly works (yes, even in Year 9 – see Rachel Foster’s work on getting Year 9 to read for themselves about the Goldhagen-Browning debate – we use her work a great deal, exploring, questioning and extending it).
    – A great deal of other work on language related to different elements of the discipline. This is much too complex to explain here, both in its essence and in the way it weaves into the course over nine months, but in imperfect summary it needs to be seen in the context of our challenge to certain 1980s/90s trends in history education – especially those pertaining to ‘skills’. We strive – by examining a wide range of published history teachers’ work – to look for decent work with longer sources, the kind of work that grew out of the Lang/McAleavy/LeCocq critique of early SHP about 15 years ago – and reconstructed source work as rigorous, knowledge-rooted, not based on tiny gobbets, and about evidential thinking, not skills. Now, you need to “get” all that to understand what we do with history-specific language work, and I can’t do a PGCE in one blog reply that is already getting too long. But suffice it to say that we (i.e the mentors and my colleagues here) work on ways to get students to expand their vocabulary, their grammar knowledge, their knowledge about language in ways that relate directly to the discipline (this has much in common with Daisy Christodoulou’s emphasis on teaching vocabulary systematically, but it is very history related).
    Enough. I haven’t mentioned how we link this to reading real works of historical scholarship (which all our trainees do with all mentors – a key entitlement), to work on enabling pupils with SEN and EAL to gain confidence with abstract nouns and to work on philosophy of history.
    Sorry to take up so much space. Happy to share in more detail by meeting up.
    Thank you for shouting about this crucial issue (which is a big passion of mine). Many history teachers have done terrific work on this over ten years or more, and if some PGCEs (or Teach First??) are NOT tapping into that, gaining disciplinary and rigorous ways of discriminating among it, joining its conversation and building upon it, constructively, then there is work to be done.

    • David Didau October 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm - Reply

      Christine – this sounds fab! Your breathless excitement really comes across in your writing! Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve not come across Megill before – is that Alan Megill? Can you suggest a particular title? Also, any other links to the works you’ve mentioned would be hugely beneficial.
      Thanks again, David

        • Lee Donaghy October 28, 2013 at 6:38 pm - Reply

          Just bought that, Michael – thank you.

        • Christine Counsell October 31, 2013 at 3:20 pm - Reply

          Thank you David! and thank you Michael! Yes, that is the book. See Part II: Narrative and Knowledge, for some very clear thinking on form, genre and purpose of text in history. Our trainees also read Chapter 5 as part of their ongoing exploration of what went wrong with the ‘skills’ approach to learning history and how we (history teachers) could and should build more robust objectives for pupils’ evidential thinking than the peculiar muddles one ends up with if one relies only on carved up Level Descriptions or examination rubrics. We have a mantra when it comes to assessment (and therefore research) which is: “Problematise the ‘what?'” not just the ‘how?’. So, for example, instead of getting bogged down with endless types of “assessment for learning” (given the strange self-referential loops that AfL can often land us in), we expect them to ask, constantly, WHAT is worth assessing, and how might I/should I, as history teacher, define that? If we genuinely want struggling pupils to grow in knowledge and to grow in embedding and re-shaping that knowledge through formal writing genres, what would I actually like the markscheme to be rewarding? This achieves a number of goals but at the root, I think, is the desire to encourage the best future history teachers in intellectual confidence.
          What do I mean by intellectual confidence? I mean the wherewithal to challenge where constructive challenge is needed (cf Andrew Old’s thought-provoking posts on professional ethics). If someone – be it exam board or SMT (or SMT in thrall to exam board) – wants you to take your eye off the ball of high standards and just teach to the immediate test, and that test is thoroughly bad, then it is a matter of professional responsibility to be disposed to shout about it, in whatever forum might be fruitful and feasible. But there’s not a lot of point in just getting future history teachers shouting angrily into the ether to no purpose. They need (among other things) deep, scholarly knowledge of the discipline and deep knowledge of all that knowledge-passionate history teachers have learned in the past, so that they can argue the case for more rigorous curricular goals as well as more effective/efficient/inspiring journeys towards them. Megill is a useful chap in that mix.
          Put in a more practical way, if someone says to a trainee, as future history teacher, ‘Oh but you don’t need to teach them to write formal essays in Year 7 because they don’t need such essays to hit Level 6’, I would want a well-trained, professionally responsible history teacher to have an ambitious eye on the future and to say:
          i) What has Level 6 got to do with anything?
          ii) They need to learn to write formal essays (and ESPECIALLY these disadvantaged, working class kids) and here are several, subject-specific reasons why….;
          iii) This is what we know so far, among professional communities of history teachers, about how it can be done well, and what its relationship is with history as a discipline;
          iv) This is what I’m doing to further that collective knowledge, right now, in my own classroom.

  3. Lee Donaghy October 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your reply, which is music to my ears. If you haven’t already read my blog ( http://whatslanguagedoinghere.wordpress.com/ ) I’d be delighted if you would & would love to hear your thoughts on it. I’m also about to add to it by blogging about my delivery of a new scheme work over the next half term to my yr 10 GCSE history class.
    In reply to your point about generalising about ‘the PGCE’ I accept that one cannot generalise too far and in my defence I widened my point about the invisibility of language to include ITT in general. Moreover, your description of the Cambridge History PGCE sounds incredible.
    I haven’t read Megill’s stuff but will certainly tracking down & do so. My planning for genres in history is based on the work of Caroline Coffin at the OU.
    I would also certainly love to discuss this further with you, either via email or by meeting up – there is nothing more important to address in our preparation of new teachers, in my view. My email address is lee.donaghy@teachfirst.org.uk – please do email me if you wish to talk more.

    • Christine Counsell October 31, 2013 at 3:43 pm - Reply

      I’m in danger of getting impossibly over-excited about your work, so, for now, I’m just going to say a humble thank you, thank you, thank you, for all you are doing and for your generous sharing of it through your blog. And it isn’t JUST the professional skill and knowledge in your blog that I love. When working with trainees, the thing that is a piece of gold is your model of absolute determination to have all pupils empowered by writing, and your example of having committed so much to exploring that in ways that go way way beyond the immediate/obvious demands of the job. On our PGCE, we constantly seek out and use models of history teachers who have re-thought things rigorously, both curricular goals and journeys towards them, and then been generous enough to share and to submit their work to critical scrutiny, through publication, workshop or blog.
      Much more to discuss, but this is turning into enthusiastic, excitable historians squatting on a blog (a blog squat) and David will be sending for the bailiffs… But another time/place, yes!

      • David Didau November 1, 2013 at 5:13 pm - Reply

        I can think of few better uses of my blog than you and Lee geeking out over genre and language 🙂

  4. […] – that has the potential to transform the educational outcomes of my pupils and as I said here (final paragraph) to democratise abstract, academic knowledge for those who have the least access […]

  5. […] David Didau: What is (or isn’t) language doing in PGCE? […]

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