In Part I of this post, I discussed the importance of teachers (of all subjects) making language teaching explicit in their lessons. I argued that an improvement in language enables pupils to better access the curriculum and broaden their cultural capital. I shared three practical, easy-to-implement strategies to help teachers incorporate the teaching of language into their lesson: sharing the idea of the register continuum with pupils; insisting on pupils speaking & writing in full sentences; and re-casting pupils’ answers using more technical language.
In this post, I share two key teaching ideas that help teachers design their lessons with language-teaching in mind. The framework I share helps teachers consider the language needs of their pupils. This begins with a framework + examples of activities that helps pupils develop subject-specific language (oracy-to-literacy bridge and the teaching & learning cycle) to improve understanding at the word- and sentence-level. In Part III, the final post of this series, I will share activities which help both comprehension and develop academic writing at the paragraph and whole-text level (referencing and foregrounding, and teaching genres).
Developing Subject-Specific Language
Pupils are regularly exposed to technical terms in every single one of their subjects and expected to master them. Just pause and think for a moment how many new words you expect pupils to learn over the space of a term in your lessons alone. I’m pretty certain that the number is several scores or more. Pupils are unlikely to hear the words ‘enzyme’, ‘substrate’, ‘hydrochloric acid’, ‘lipid’ and ‘glycerol’ outside of your science lessons, so it is vital that you plan for them to learn to understand, define, pronounce, spell and use them properly as part of your lesson time.
The key to plan for this progression is to give pupils ample opportunity to practice using the words once they have understood what the words mean. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to introduce the word, then get pupils practice saying it in a meaningful context (oracy) and finally getting them to write it down. The use of oracy is particularly beneficial for learners since it gives them an opportunity to use the word in a variety of ways, which in turn gives you the opportunity to give them feedback, such as by re-casting. It is also a way which allows you to teach new vocabulary for ideas that pupils are already familiar with. For example, pupils exploring magnets observe that the magnet ‘sticks’ to other magnets, giving you the opportunity to re-cast what they say as ‘attract’.
Activities that facilitate oracy include:
Jigsaw: pupils are given a grid of 20 questions, but information that allows them to answer only 5 questions. Pupils must then speak to each other to share answers, allowing them to use the new language in the process.
Sequencing & Justification: Pupils are asked to sequence ideas or images, and justify the order in the process. This is best done once the key ideas of the process are taught, so that pupils are at the very least familiar with the ideas they are describing.
Two-way Information: One pupil can see an image on the board related to a topic the class has been studying. The other pupils in the pair has their back turned to the board and must draw on a whiteboard what their partner is describing, without looking at the image themselves. Encourage the describer to use the technical language, giving the feedback in the process.
Silent Demo: Demonstrate a practical or an idea, and ask pupils to describe what you are doing, using the technical language you wish to embed. Get them to do this in pairs to allow more of them to practice.
Notice that none of these activities necessarily involve writing anything down: this is the point! Literacy isn’t developed only when pupils write things down. Rather, it is the opportunity of using new language in an impermanent, exploratory way that can help embed the new words. If pupils do a writing task subsequent to the oracy activities, they are more likely to understand and correctly use the language you desire. This is because you have already given feedback on the use and pronunciation of the words they have practiced.
Teaching and Learning Cycle
The teaching and learning cycle is a framework for planning a sequence of activities that gradually gives pupils more and more independence at using new language; it is essentially the careful planning of using and gradually removing scaffolding. I have written about the use to the cycle in an earlier post about how to develop pupils’ autonomy, but here I focus on its relevance to teaching subject-specific language.
Below, I provide a summary of the cycle with an example of teaching inheritance. It ties together the notion of using oracy as a bridge to writing, but also of developing autonomy so that pupils gain the ability and confidence to use their newfound language expertly, being able to write academically by the end, on their own:
Teach pupils the ideas and vocabulary explicitly.
e.g. Explain the story of Mendel breeding pea plants and studying characteristics and inheritance that we now know as genes, alleles, recessive, dominant, homogeneous, heterogeneous.
- Deconstruction and modelling
Unpick the key features of the ideas you are exploring: the contexts of the words, the way the sentence is structured, modelling how to lay out an answer etc.
e.g. use the words in sentences to explain how to draw a Punnett square, while questioning and giving feedback.
- Scaffolded practice
Give pupils an opportunity to practice with support. This might include the oracy activities detailed above.
e.g. Two-way information task with a picture of a Punnett square where pupils must use words ‘the father’s gametes are homogeneous recessive’. Not only will this help pupil practice vocabulary, but also really think about how a Punnett square is structured.
- Independent practice
Pupils are given the opportunity to practice what you have modelled, deconstructed and co-constructed on their own.
e.g. pupils draw their own Punnett squares and must write an explanation similar to the one you modelled, using all the key vocabulary.
Assessment and feedback are critical at each step to ensure that pupils are not picking up misconceptions.
By the end, pupils will have developed their fluency in their academic writing because of the careful, explicit planning and teaching that happened prior to the lesson delivery. Language teaching should not be an after-thought; it must lie at the centre of planning. If we do not put language at the heart of teaching, then we limit the impact we can have on our pupils’ ability to master writing academically.
In the next post, I write about how skilled writers use referencing and foregrounding, and that highlighting this to pupils facilitates comprehension, but also enables greater control over their own writing. I end with teaching pupils in all subjects, that different pieces of writing have different genres, and how teaching this is useful in a non-English subject like science.