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.

Reflective Practice as Professional Development

This month we are publishing Reflective Practice as Professional Development by Atsuko Watanabe. In this post, Atsuko explains a bit more about the background to the book.

Reflective Practice as Professional DevelopmentThis book attempts to fill an important gap in the professional development of English teachers in Japan.

In March 2003, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in Japan announced an action plan, Japanese with English Abilities, to foster the English abilities of Japanese nationals. The action plan had an unprecedented impact on the nation’s extensive English language teaching sectors, one of which was a compulsory teacher training seminar for all the English language teachers of public junior and senior high schools in Japan to improve their ‘teaching ability’ of English. MEXT was influenced by the business community which promoted the importance of improving teachers’ English proficiency in order to compete at an international level. What was missing from the teacher training seminar was taking account of the teachers’ experiences. Reflective practice, which encourages the teachers to look back and examine their ideas and experiences of teaching, is an essential element of professional development.

This book illustrates a study of reflective practice which was conducted with a group of in-service teachers. By looking back at one’s teaching, reflective practice also allows teachers to enhance self-awareness and to foster autonomy.

As reflective practice was a new concept in Japan, the book took into account some Japanese conventions which are deeply rooted in the culture, such as tatemae (official front) and honne (real intent) in communication, and hansei (self-critical reflection). As a researcher, I attempted not to influence the honne of the participants and not to engage them in hansei. This approach involved the teachers in different types of dialogue: with the researcher, with other teachers, and with themselves. The book also explores what it means to reflect, and examines whether reflection follows a hierarchical sequence and specific stages. The book discusses the following:

  • The reflective continuum as opposed to hierarchical stages of reflection
  • Consolidation of professional identity for novice teachers
  • Consolidation of professional identity for experienced teachers
  • Teachers’ exploration of teacher cognition
  • Teachers’ engagement in reflective interventions, focus group discussion, journal writing, and interviews.

This book outlines a novel approach of allowing teachers to look at their teaching through different perspectives which lead them to develop professionally through shaping and reshaping their professional identity and teacher cognition. Through the illustration of the researcher’s engagement in reflection and reflexivity, the book is also useful for researchers who are interested in conducting a study of reflective practice. Reflective practice is an essential part of professional development and this book will help all teachers to understand reflective practice and engage in it in their teaching contexts.

Exploring Japanese University English Teachers'€™ Professional IdentityFor further information about the book, please see our website. You might also be interested in our other title Exploring Japanese University English Teachers’€™ Professional Identity by Diane Hawley Nagatomo.