What Teachers Need to Know About Language

This month we published What Teachers Need to Know About Language edited by Carolyn Temple Adger, Catherine E. Snow and Donna Christian. In this post Catherine explains how teachers can better support children learning language if they know more about language themselves.

Michael Halliday (1993) distinguished three dimensions of the language user’s challenge: learning language, learning through language, and learning about languageLearning language is, of course, what almost every child manages to do – typically with considerable help from parents and adult caretakers. Children then go on to learning through language, again with lots of help from adults, including teachers, reading aloud to them, answering their questions, and explaining the world.

A basic premise of What Teachers Need to Know About Language is that teachers can support children learning language and learning through language better if they know more about language – how languages work, how languages differ, why a language sounds different in different places, how spelling develops, and what aspects of a language pose the greatest challenges to young readers and writers.

Learning about language offers endless puzzles and amusements. For example, languages differ in how sounds can group together. With regard to English, consider the simple case of consonant clusters. Which sequences of consonants are allowed in English pronunciation? We can say words beginning with a [k] sound like clock and crock, but not cmock or csock or cnock. We English speakers don’t say the sounds of K and N together at the beginning of a word, but English has lots of words spelled with those two letters at the beginning: knock, knob, knee, know, knife, knight, knave, knapsack, knit, and knead, among others, where the [k] sound is not pronounced. German and Dutch speakers know there would be no difficulty in pronouncing the K and N in all these words, since their languages have words spelled with the K-N cluster and they pronounce both sounds. But English speakers just don’t do it.

Why should we care? Because knowing that K-N-initial words are Germanic in origin, and that both letters are pronounced together in other Germanic languages but not in English, explains something about English spelling. Teachers should know enough not to tell their students “English spelling is illogical. Just memorize it.” Instead, with a little knowledge ABOUT language, they are in a position not only to understand spelling patterns (and their students’ errors) but also to explain the origins of the correct spellings.

Similarly, with a little knowledge about how native speakers of Spanish hear English sounds, seemingly bizarre spellings like ‘warer’ for water and ‘ironker’ for I don’t care resolve themselves into students’ masterful attempts to use what they know about spelling in Spanish to represent words and phrases in English. The T in English water and the D in I don’t are pronounced exactly like the R in Spanish pero. 

Supporting language learning and learning through language is a major goal for any teacher. A little bit of learning about language can help teachers work more effectively with their students in achieving that goal.

Catherine E. Snow, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Contact: catherine_snow@gse.harvard.edu

Reference

Halliday, M. (1993). Towards a language-based theory of learning. In Linguistics and Education 5:93-116. Retrieved July 1, 2018 at http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/JuneJuly05/HallidayLangBased.pdf

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like The Bilingual Advantage edited by Rebecca M. Callahan and Patricia C. Gándara.

Multilingual Matters on the Road at Recent Conferences!

May is now upon us and as I sit here in the spring sunshine it’s easy to wonder where March and April went.  My colleagues will be quick to point out that as well as the months travelling by, I have also been doing some travelling, together with Tommi and Kim.

Following the NABE conference in Las Vegas, the next conference on our spring schedule was GURT which Tommi attended in Washington in March.  The theme of the conference was “Diversity and Super-Diversity: Sociocultural Linguistic Perspectives”.  Our two books Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes by Jan Blommaert and Linguistic Landscape in the City edited by Elana Shohamy et al were popular following the authors’ keynotes.  Tommi then flew over the border to Canada to meet me in Toronto, where we spent the next 10 days.

Tommi with Dolores, Bessie and Smita during our visit to UTP
Tommi with Dolores, Bessie and Smita during our visit to UTP

The first appointment of our trip was with the University of Toronto Press Distribution (UTP), our North American distributor.  We have had a long relationship with them and it was lovely to catch up with people we email almost daily but haven’t seen in person for a number of years.  Smita and Dolores are our first points of contact at UTP and they oversee the processing of any orders to customers based in Canada and the US, be they purchases, review copies, desk copies or anything else.  As well as discussing work, they and Bessie were able share their insider knowledge on Ontario, and recommended a trip to Niagara on our mid-trip afternoon off.

Kim, Tommi and Laura manning the stand at AAAL
Kim, Tommi and Laura manning the stand at AAAL

The next highlight of our trip was the annual AAAL conference, which this year took place in Toronto together with its Canadian equivalent ACLA.  Kim flew out to join Tommi and me and the three of us manned the stand and went to sessions.  The AAAL conference is always a lively and well-attended event and we are always proud to display a full selection of our recent publications to the field.  It’s one of the rare occasions where we see all of our publications side-by-side and reflect on all the work that has been put in by our authors.  Our SLA series had a bumper year, with 4 books in the series making our top 10 list of sellers and Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei, Peter D. MacIntyre and Alastair Henry topped the chart.  Of our 2015 titles, Power and Meaning Making in an EAP Classroom by Christian Chun was very popular, as was the 2nd edition of Merrill Swain, Linda Steinman and Penny Kinnear’s work Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education.

Kim and the Yorkshire puddings!
Kim and the Yorkshire puddings!

We celebrated the publication of this new 2nd edition one evening together with the authors and some of their colleagues.  Merrill Swain chose a superb French restaurant for the occasion and that was one of many evenings during our stay in Toronto when we were impressed with the cuisine that the city had to offer.  We seemed to eat our way round the world as we enjoyed not only local Canadian cuisine but also that with influences from Japan, Iran, Italy and in one restaurant, Yorkshire, Kim’s home county in the UK.  The chef was a little intimidated when he heard that a true Yorkshire lass was to taste his take on Yorkshire puddings!

As soon as AAAL was over it was nearly time for TESOL, but not before we had waved Kim farewell (she headed back to the UK for the iMean conference) and Tommi and I had managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Niagara Falls.  The Falls were every bit as stunning as I had imagined and even noisier!  TESOL was its usual busy self and the keynotes given by our authors Michael Byram and Jim Cummins pulled enormous crowds.

Mike Byram giving his keynote
Mike Byram giving his keynote

We also attended some of the smaller sessions, including a panel discussion on L2 Motivational Self-Concept in Language Learning which was organised by future author Nihat Polat and included Zoltán Dörnyei, Kata Csizér and Michael Magid as speakers.  Kata and Michael recently published The Impact of Self-Concept on Language Learning with us, and their visit to the stand afterwards marked the first time that they had been together with the published book!

The final conference of my trip was the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in Chicago.  It was the first time that I had attended AERA and it was a surprise to me to be at a conference with delegates with backgrounds other than language.  However, even those who were there for sessions in another field of study were sometimes drawn to our books and A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker was often picked up for personal rather than research reasons.  The most popular title of the conference was another of our books on bilingualism, the collection The Bilingual Advantage edited by Rebecca M. Callahan and Patricia C. Gándara.

It has been a busy year already for conference travel but isn’t set to quieten down yet.  Next on our schedule are The 10th International Symposium on Bilingualism which Tommi and Elinor are attending in New Jersey in May, and the 27th International Conference on Foreign/Second Language Acquisition which I’ll be going for in Poland.  If you’re at any of these meetings do please pop by our stand and say hello, we’d love to meet you!

Laura

National Association of Bilingual Education convention 2015 in Las Vegas!

I’ve just got back to the office from the first Multilingual Matters conference of the year – the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE) convention, which this year took place in glittering Las Vegas. NABE conferences have a history of being in wacky places – the first time I attended it was held in Disneyworld, Florida – but I’m always impressed by how the delegates manage to abstain from the temptations of the host city and make the conference a success.

Laura at the NABE book stand
Laura at the NABE book stand

We had our usual stand in the exhibition hall where I had special displays for some of our new books. Fresh off the press, and very popular with the delegates, was Latino Immigrant Youth and Interrupted Schooling: Dropouts, Dreamers and Alternative Pathways to College by Marguerite Lukes. One delegate absentmindedly picked up a copy while waiting for me to complete his order form (for another purchase) and was so engrossed in the stories that he ended up purchasing a copy too! The new 4th edition of Colin Baker’s bestselling book A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism proved to be as popular as expected, as did the Spanish version of a former edition of the book, which was translated by Alma Flor Ada.

The Bilingual Advantage
The Bilingual Advantage

However, by far the bestselling book of the conference was The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy and the US Labor Market edited by Rebecca M. Callahan and Patricia C. Gándara. Patricia gave the final keynote presentation of the conference during which she portrayed the book as a detective story. She explained how the book looks for something that we think must exist (that bilingualism is a labour advantage) but for which there is no evidence. By posing numerous questions, such as which languages are acknowledged as an economic force and whether the background of the language speaker makes a difference to the perceived value of their language abilities, the contributors of the work set out to uncover the truth about the value of bilingualism to both individuals and society.

The excitement was palpable in the hall as Patricia led us through the studies presented in the book to the finding that balanced bilingualism is associated with a host of really important outcomes and that losing bilingualism comes at a cost for society. The conclusion that it is not a waste of money to educate children bilingually was met with a round of applause and everyone left the hall feeling armed with proof to support any claim otherwise. I had a small stand outside the hall displaying the books and was delighted as a long queue of delegates formed, each one eager to get a copy of the work.

Before Patricia Gandara’s keynote speech, State Senator Ricardo Lara (from California’s 33rd District) was awarded the NABE Citizen of the Year award for his significant work on improving educational equality and opportunities for all students. Ricardo is an advocate for multilingual education and has created the California EdGE Initiative (Education for a Global Economy), which will go to a vote in 2016. If passed, California’s English-only instruction mandate in public schools (prop 227) will be amended. The evidence reported in the book can be used to convince the public of the benefits for individuals and society of the maintenance of the home language and that it is time to remedy the damage done by prop 227. Patricia Gandara ended her keynote by reminding us that while what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in California often does not stay in California and there may be implications of this vote outside California.

Laura being welcomed to Las Vegas!
Laura being welcomed to Las Vegas!

As for Las Vegas, well, what a venue for a conference! Outside of the conference hours I tried to get a feel for all that the city had to offer and do something different every evening. Most of the attractions are in the numerous hotels: I rode a rollercoaster in one; went up the tallest freestanding tower in the USA in another and saw Britney Spears perform live in a third! I am also proud to be leaving Las Vegas $15 richer than when I arrived, having had a bit of luck on the roulette! I tore myself away from the temptations of the casinos to return home for a week, before the next round of conferences begins. Look out for Tommi at GURT this week, or Kim, Tommi and me at AAAL in Toronto the week after as our spring travel schedule hots up!

Laura

Tommi and Laura’s visit to UCLA and stand at TESOL

Either side of the AAAL conference (which you can read about in Kim’s post here), Tommi and I managed to squeeze in a trip to Los Angeles to visit colleagues and students at UCLA and from Loyola Marymount University, and of course exhibit at the annual TESOL conference as usual.

UCLA Campus
UCLA Campus

On arrival in LA we met with Patricia C. Gándara, co-editor of our forthcoming book on the economic advantages of bilingualism, who kindly gave us a tour of the beautiful UCLA campus.  The campus has been the shooting location for many films so it was fun to spot buildings which we recognised while Patricia explained what they are actually used for.

After lunch we gave a presentation to students and staff on academic publishing.  We were pleased that the audience came armed with questions and were happy to explain some of the mysteries of book publication to them.  We also met with Teresa L. McCarty, author of our book Language Planning and Policy in Native America, who has recently moved to UCLA from Arizona State University.

Tommi and Laura training for the Bristol 10k
Tommi and Laura training for the Bristol 10k

Tommi and I spent the rest of our time in California meeting with Magaly Lavadenz and Elvira Armas from CABE who took us to dinner in the beautiful Marina del Rey area of LA and training for the Bristol 10k, which we are running together with our colleague Sarah in May to raise funds for St Peter’s Hospice.  You can read about our challenge here.

TESOL Conference 2014
TESOL Conference 2014

Then it was onwards to Portland for AAAL and TESOL. After the successes of AAAL we recharged our batteries ready for TESOL which this year had the theme “ELT for the Next Generation: Explore, Sustain, Review”. As usual we enjoyed catching up with familiar faces and meeting new delegates.

TESOL delegate with Johnnie Johnson Hafernik, co-author of the book
TESOL delegate with Johnnie Johnson Hafernik, co-author of the book

We had a busy conference with Bonny Norton’s 2nd Edition of her classic text Identity and Language Learning being the runaway best-seller.  Other popular new titles were Desiring TESOL and International Education by Raqib Chowdhury and Phan Le Ha and Julia Menard-Warwick’s new book English Language Teachers on the Discursive Faultlines.  We also had a conference highlight when a customer bought a copy of Integrating Multilingual Students into College Classrooms just as one of the authors, Johnnie Johnson Hafernik, visited our stand and was able to sign the book. Definitely one of my top moments of the trip!

Next year AAAL and TESOL are in Toronto and we are already looking forward to the conferences!

Laura