Discourse contexts for second language development in the mainstream classroom

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In Australian schools in the late nineties approximately one quarter of all students are from a language background other than English. Although many of these students are fluent in English in informal conversational contexts, there is evidence that such students are not always able to control the more academic registers of English associated with school learning and literacy. A major challenge for teachers is therefore to integrate subject learning with English language learning, and to find ways to support the language development of students concurrent with the construction of curriculum knowledge. This study addresses that challenge. Drawing on data from two classrooms of nine and ten year olds in the curriculum area of science, the study explores how the discourse of the classroom can be enabling of language development. It does not attempt to make claims about what might be common to all classrooms, but rather points to those practices which are shown to be supportive of second language learning. The aim therefore is not to suggest what is common to all classroom discourse but what its potential can be for second language development. The study takes as a basic principle the notion that language development interacts dynamically with the socio-cultural context in which it occurs, and cannot be fully understood without taking account of this context. Although the analysis draws on systemic functional linguistics it does not purport to be a study 'in' linguistics, but rather, through a theorisation of practice, seeks to contribute to a theorisation of second language pedagogy in the mainstream classroom. To this end, the analysis is also informed by a neo-Vygotskian approach to learning and teaching, by second language acquisition (SLA) research, and by critically conceived notions of minority education. A number of conclusions are drawn from the study. First, it shows how, through a process of recontextualisation of student talk, the teachers jointly construct with the students aspects of the science register. It concludes that when teachers encourage the dialogic function of discourse to develop, (that is, when knowledge is seen as co-constructed between teacher and learners, rather than transmitted from teacher to learners), this also leads to the kind of teacher-student talk which is most enabling of second language development. The study demonstrates that even apparently minor changes in interactional patterns can have quite major effects on the progress of the discourse as a whole, and can make the difference between discourse which is likely to constrain or facilitate language development and learning. The thesis also shows how the discourse incorporates a range of interactional patterns, each of which tend to be used for distinct pedagogical purposes, and thus how the role of the teachers correspondingly changes at different phases of the teaching and learning cycle. The study concludes that a reconceptualisation of pedagogy is required which foregrounds the relationship between teaching and learning and the nature of teacher mediation in the teaching and learning process. The study identifies other significant factors for language development in the classrooms examined: the language knowledge of the teachers, the explicitness of the discourse, (including explicitness about language and about the social aspects of participating in the class), the sequence of teaching and learning activities, and the importance of the intertextual links, the 'dynamic' context, which were the result of this sequence. Finally, the study points to the value of approaching SLA research and pedagogy with a model of language which goes beyond a description of its phonology, morphology and syntax, one which allows for the study of discourse and for the study of language development in terms of socio-linguistic competence, and for the value of a socio-cultural and classroom-based approach to research into second language learning and pedagogy.
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