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.