A functional approach to classroom practice
Not only have there been significant changes in the way we think and talk about language in schools, there has also been a huge shift in the way we teach about language.
Again, in the past students were asked, for example, to underline the noun or verb in a series of unrelated, inauthentic sentences. They would do exercises from grammar books that bore little relationship to the language that they needed for school and in their daily lives. And mostly they were bored and saw such activities as an irrelevant chore.
Over the past few decades, however, researchers and teachers have been working together to develop an approach that explicitly teaches students the language they need in order to operate effectively in educational contexts. This work has drawn primarily on a Vygotskian theory of learning, where students learn through collaborative engagement in tasks with guidance and input from more experienced others.
An example of such an approach is the teaching-learning cycle developed by Dr Joan Rothery and colleagues. Within the context of a unit of work, the teacher identifies a relevant purpose for which students will need to use language, for example
- to explain how something works,
- to analyse a problem,
- to respond to a literary text,
- to argue for a position, and so on.
Throughout the cycle, the teacher builds up the language the students need in order to build their understanding of the field of knowledge being developed. This might involve, for example, becoming familiar with key vocabulary, or developing technical understandings, or being supported in reading selected passages from a textbook, or learning how to take notes.
Students also need to know how to shape their knowledge of the topic into a well structured text. Depending on the genre, students might be guided to observe how a model text is organized into certain stages and phases to achieve its purpose. These observations can be drawn on as the teacher and students jointly construct a similar text, with the teacher taking the students’ contributions and demonstrating how to organize them into a cohesive written text.
During this process, the teacher will be drawing students’ attention to specific language features that are relevant to the task. This might involve language resources for creating coherent texts, or developing paragraphs, or connecting ideas in more complex ways, or extending sentences to include more specific information, or addressing the needs and interests of the reader. At the same time, students will be provided with tools for investigating language in context and will be developing a shared language for talking about language.
Such classroom practices — where relevant language is taught explicitly and meaningfully in the context of authentic classroom tasks — is a far cry from the sterile practices of many traditional grammar classrooms. Teachers implementing a functional approach report that the students are engaged, are reading more confidently, are developing a greater range of vocabulary, and are writing more successfully. And above all, they are enjoying having a way of thinking and talking about language that makes sense to them.
Students’ ability to use language effectively depends on the teacher’s understanding of how language works. And this is where PETAA has been at the forefront internationally in supporting teachers’ professional learning.