The project was motivated by our view that it is essential to develop a pedagogic approach that can support teachers of educationally marginalised students — and the students themselves — to engage with the literacy demands of 21st century participatory citizenship. This is a clear social justice issue, as, with explicit access to discipline-specific language, educationally marginalised students are more likely to achieve at secondary level and therefore have a greater range of life choices in their post-schooling years.
Additionally, we saw a need to document effective literacy teaching in disadvantaged contexts, which are presently under-researched.
We collaborated with four highly skilled teachers of middle and upper primary students in two schools: Maningrida College, a remote Indigenous Northern Territory school; and Cowandilla Primary School, an urban Adelaide school with a low socioeconomic multicultural demographic. Data were collected at each site in November 2016 and February 2017, during which time 18 mathematics and 15 science lessons (33 in total) were video-recorded. The lessons were recorded using Swivl™ (a robot that pairs with an iPad™), and full transcriptions were made of several teaching sequences.
Teachers taught one topic per data period. The topics were ‘Probability’ and ‘Telling the time’ (mathematics), ‘Electric Circuits’ and ‘Lunar Eclipses’ (science).
At each site we held a preparatory workshop with the teachers to develop common understandings about scaffolding principles and how we intended to analyse scaffolding in classroom talk. For each topic we worked with the teachers to develop focus texts to guide the language and teaching sequence.
We planned and subsequently analysed scaffolding processes at two levels, which we referred to as:
- macro-scaffolds (topic sequences). The focus texts were key tools in defining these.
- micro-scaffolds (moment-by-moment contingent language choices in the course of classroom dialogue). We developed an observation tool to guide teacher reflections and to analyse the lessons at this level.
1. Focus texts are effective in the teaching of discipline-specific language and literacy
The project provided an opportunity to study the systematic and efficient use of focus texts to (i) provide a scope and sequence for each topic, and (ii) to help structure oral and written assessment. In science, we found that it was straightforward to align the texts with the language expectations of the Literacy Capability and to match the genres of assessable oral and written tasks. By contrast, in mathematics, focus texts had a different and more innovative role. The mathematics focus texts worked as definitions, as consistent sentence beginnings and as generalised mnemonic statements that students could draw on in times of cognitive challenge.
The focus texts assisted the teachers to structure the movement from speaking to writing. A noteworthy strategy in this process was the use of class notes. Intentionally structuring class notes helped teachers simultaneously to support the oral negotiation of meaning and to prepare the structure for students to produce written texts (as a class and independently).
2. Shared experience is the foundation for learning in cross-cultural contexts
In cross-cultural contexts we noted occasions when contrasting world views caused interactive trouble and confusion for students because the subjectivities of teacher and students were not shared. By contrast, effective classroom dialogue was best facilitated when teachers created intersubjectivity by drawing on shared experiences with their students.
3. The ‘Three lenses’ observation tool is valuable for analysis and reflection
Our observation tool is organised into three lenses, representing different perspectives on the complex nature of whole-class dialogue. These are: Shared Purpose (contextualising learning intentions in their cultural and historic setting); Whole Class Interactions as Scaffolding (maintaining positive affect and adjusting teacher talk to provide contingent scaffolding); and Sense Making (using language and other semiotic resources to build shared meaning).
Analysing our lesson transcripts through these lenses gave us a detailed understanding of the micro-processes through which whole-class dialogue is scaffolded effectively.
4. Student assessment demonstrated language growth
Student assessment consisted of a pre- and post-text in the form of a story retell and in the science topics, an independent writing task. Language features included technical language, complex sentences, extensions with circumstances, expanded noun groups. New language was evident in student talk and writing in all cases.
Feedback on the process and benefits of collaborative research
The collaborating teachers indicated that the project was invaluable for them as experienced teachers who otherwise have few opportunities for in-class mentoring. They stated that the process gave them an outsider’s view on their teaching, with supportive and non-judgemental feedback; and that it made them engage with the inter-relationship between theory and practice, bringing new consciousness to practice, and practice to consciousness. In particular, the teachers indicated that they valued the use of focus texts as planning and teaching tools in both science and mathematics.
Further directions for research
Some future directions for research include:
- The use of focus texts in mathematics. Further research into other aspects of mathematics, such as number, would help to clarify the role of focus texts in mathematics.
- Assessment tools. Further work is needed in how to assess longer-term student concept development alongside language development.
- Student appropriation of new language, including the impact of teaching relevant grammar on student uptake of academic language.
- Working with teachers. We need to know how we can refine our support for teachers, so our pedagogic principles are accessible to teachers.
Further directions for implementation
Using our observation tool as a frame, there is a potential for developing a series of modules or workshops for teachers, either face to face or online. Modules might include:
- Focus texts: their purpose, how to write them, and how to analyse them as preparation for teaching;
- Teacher talk: how to consciously modify talk to help students appropriate subjectspecific language;
- Using focus texts effectively to guide the movement from speaking to writing in a lesson sequence; and
- Using visual texts together with language to support sense-making.
An abridged version of the observation tool has already been developed for a project involving the South Australian Department for Education and Child Development (DECD) and the University of South Australia (UniSA) to develop a two-day Professional Development workshop in teaching the language of science. UniSA has contracted Bronwyn Parkin as lead writer for this pilot project.
In future PETAA might consider developing a similar modular online course, linked to the Teacher Professional Standards, drawing on resources such as the planned PETAA teacher publication, the abridged version of the Observation Tool and video clips from this project.