Developing trainees’ subject knowledge
for teaching language study at Key Stages 2 and 3
There is a growing acceptance that successful pedagogy involves not only what teachers do, but also what they know and think (Poulson, 2004, p.51).
On entry to our initial teacher education courses, trainees on primary and secondary English routes differ in their explicit knowledge and understanding of how language works, as well as in their confidence to teach those aspects of language effectively and, particularly, grammar, mentioned in the Primary National Strategy and the KS3 Framework for English. Faced with varying practice in placement schools, where decontextualised language exercises may be frequently found, and pressed for time, particularly on PGCE routes, how do trainees acquire sufficient subject knowledge to enable them to become effective teachers?
In attempting to answer this question our concerns as teacher educators have been:
- to avoid teaching a potted linguistics course
- to offer trainees opportunities to examine language in real texts (spoken and written)
- to counter their misconceptions about: Standard English, bilingualism, grammar analysis, etc.
- to develop an understanding of the changing nature of language
- to encourage trainees to research language use through focussed examples with commentaries and a framework for looking at texts.
We have, therefore, developed a range of text-based analyses which enable trainees to research language in real texts and then apply their understanding to relevant texts for and by children, with a view to developing pupils’ competence in reading, writing and talking about a variety of texts.
Language is used in a variety of ways to make, exchange and record meanings. It is able to do this because it works according to certain identifiable systems that are understood by those who use the same language.
The systems we have chosen to focus on in our analysis of texts can be characterised by the following levels:
The way texts (both spoken and written) are organised as a whole, including the way parts are related to each other and the whole.
We identify two points of focus for the study of sentence structure:
- the structuring and ordering sentences, clauses and phrases; and
- the way that certain choices of grammatical item (e.g. verb; noun phrase; adjective; etc.) govern the way in which the ‘meaning’ of a text is conveyed.
We do not consider isolated words in a text, but how the function of such words, or groups of words, might contribute to textual meaning, specifically related to their collocations.
These procedures follow those widely used by linguists describing whole texts, e.g.
Carter, R. et al (2001) Working With Texts (2nd Edition) London and New York: Routledge.
It is important for trainees to remember that only part of the analysis of texts is concerned with what is traditionally understood to be ‘grammar’; other features taken into account, along with grammar, create a more informed way of describing the impact of a text on the reader/listener. This approach, for us, offers a more meaningful interpretation of, and response to, a text, than that STILL offered by some English textbooks which perpetuate the study of grammar using decontextualised examples: e.g. analysis of sentence types; adjectives; nouns; verbs; pronouns. If trainees are required to use such publications in school, we urge them to adapt the material critically and place the definitions given in a meaningful context.
Initially, therefore, we explore texts with trainees in relation to text types, using a framework like the one below.
|lists and classifications (e.g. groupings)
descriptions of features, places, mechanisms
For our trainees, a sound subject knowledge for teaching about language within the English curriculum involves a knowledge of texts and their language features. This means:
- being clear about speech/writing differences in texts and where the two merge
- recognising the variety of language features in texts and the selection of such features in relation to the impact a text has on the reader or listener
- acknowledging the varied and changing nature of the English language.
Such knowledge should then enable trainees to:
- select appropriate real texts for pupils which will provide them with a meaningful understanding of what they need to do to develop their own knowledge, understanding and skills in the use of English
- be very clear about WHAT aspects of language they are teaching and why
- be aware of some of the difficulties that pupils might have in interpreting and composing texts
- be more confident and enthusiastic about their own approaches to teaching about English language
- create a similar enthusiasm and confidence in language use in their pupils.
Text-based analysis with trainees
The examples of text-based analyses in the web pages which follow, are a selection of those we have created for our trainees and show some of the approaches we use. In none of the analyses has any attempt has been made to provide a total description of the language features of each text. This would be impossible and undesirable! What we have focussed on is an analysis of the salient and relevant features of any one text that contribute to that text’s impact on the reader, showing how such analyses can be of use to the teacher when eventually considering texts for pupils in more specific age-ranges.
We initially encourage trainees to investigate features of each text in relation to the three levels highlighted above (organisation; grammar; vocabulary) and then to use the commentaries we provide as a 'check' for an 'alternative' (not a RIGHT) answer. Eventually we include texts with NO commentaries to ensure that our trainees begin to become independent in their selection of language features appropriate to the text being investigated.
The range of topics and texts considered is as follows:
Section 1: Modality – Horoscopes and the Highway Code
Section 2: Cohesion - Instructions
Section 3: Persuasive language - Advertisements
Section 4: Literary language – Story openings
Section 5: Comparing text types
What we hope to show is how such analyses can ultimately give trainees the confidence to develop pupils’ knowledge, understanding and use of English effectively and purposefully.
We have deliberately avoided making a distinction between activities at KS2 and for those at KS3. In this respect our work mirrors the approach that is used in a publication we recommend to our trainees: Bain, E. and Bain, R. (1996) The Grammar Book Sheffield: NATE. Here, activities for exploring language in context can also be adapted for pupils across the KS2/3 age range.
- Bain, E. and Bain, R. (1996)The Grammar Book Sheffield: NATE
- Carter, R. et al (2001) Working With Texts (2nd Edition) London and New York: Routledge.
- Poulson, L. (2004) 'The subject of literacy: what kind of knowledge is needed to teach literacy successfully?' in Bearne, E., Dombey, H. and Grainger, T. (eds) Classroom Interactions in Literacy Maidenhead: Oxford University Press