What are we teaching?

Reading: Byrnes et al. (2006). “Taking text to task: Issues and choices in curriculum construction.”


Outside of grad school, I work at the Center for Applied Linguistics as a test developer on a test of academic English for English learners in U.S. public schools. An important piece of our assessment construct is that we’re testing academic language, not academic content. We have ways of making this work on operational test items, but on a theoretical level I struggle with it a fair amount. Where do you draw the line between the two skills / domains of knowledge? One of my colleagues used the word hypotenuse as an example: If I know what a hypotenuse is, does it mean that I know math, or that I know the language of math? Pushing it a step further, is it even possible to learn an academic discipline without learning its characteristic language?

Of course, it’s clearly possible to learn academic content without learning the associated genres and registers in English. But this means that English learners who have been exposed to academic content in their L1 and are merely transferring the knowledge to an English setting are really doing a completely different thing from English learners who are expected to learn new language and new content simultaneously.

This perspective on the issue seems to put content knowledge first: in order to learn content, students learn how to talk about it in one or more languages. Byrnes et al., on the other hand, are coming from a language teaching context, where “how to talk about it” is in a sense the content, and becoming a competent advanced speaker of a language is defined as a process of mastering a wide variety of genres.

I’d like to apply this approach to education more broadly. You could argue that the process of learning math is essentially a process of mastering the register that mathematicians use to do math. Since formal education is almost totally made up of indirect experience communicated through language (with the possible exception of science experiments and the like), even the process of learning academic content is essentially a language-learning exercise.

So getting back to our English learners, how much of this kind of knowledge transfers from one language to another? Are there registers and genres that are in some sense comparable from one language to another — registerial cognates, in a way? My experience teaching more and less well-educated ELs suggests that there is: even once we moved on to content that was new for everyone, the students who had “learned how to learn” had an easier time of it. Part of this was probably due to “soft skills” like disciplined study habits, but I’d argue that if you’ve already learned “how to read a textbook” in French, it gives you a head start on learning it in English.

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Posted in Assessment, SFL
2 comments on “What are we teaching?
  1. For what it’s worth, this is something that is explicitly discussed quite a bit in recent science education literature, the need to teach the language in which we communicate these ideas, and especially so when dealing with students from diverse cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds. When I’m teaching undergrad astrophysics, I’m very conscious that learning specialized vocabulary is one of the key challenges for students, and that it’s all too easy for technical language to be a barrier to knowledge acquisition. (This is especially true in astrophysics, where we have a variety of technical terms that are remnants from hundred-year-old *incorrect* theories, and are actively anti-useful and counter-informative; for instance a “planetary nebula” has nothing whatsoever to do with planets. Experts in the subject domain know the modern explanation associated with the vestigial jargon, but we for some reason can’t seem to break back-compatibility and switch to more meaningful terms.)

    Relatedly: There are also non-verbal languages used in many of expert subject domains. Equally important to the language register that mathematicians use to do math is the written mathematical notation they use to transcribe concepts and equations. And that transcends spoken language barriers these days. I can’t really read Einstein’s Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper in its original, but the equations in the German are identical to those in the English translation. Likewise, I’ve long said that a central part of the education of a physicist is learning a language of graphs and diagrams. There are certain figures I can sketch out and even if I don’t label them properly, any astronomer will know instantly what I’ve drawn – an energy level diagram for atomic transitions, say, or the bending of spacetime by gravity, or the stellar main sequence. In none of those graphs does the picture drawn have any direct geometric mapping to the concept being depicted; these are conceptual isomorphisms not physical depictions, and learning to be fluent in such diagrams is unquestionably a learned skill.

    And if the learning curve for that skill is steep enough that I can see it when teaching native English speakers a science that was primarily developed _in_ English, then yes, I have to agree that learning a science is closely related to learning a language. One’s ability to comprehend, analyze, and apply concepts depends on having a language to manipulate them in, both for communication between people and for internal reflection. It’s not either-or, content first or language first, it’s a blend. In a sense, that should perhaps not surprise us so much, as our ability to comprehend the world coevolved with our language skills and our extended childhoods over the last few megayears. The ‘try it and see what happens’ methodology of experimental science and the way we generalize universal rules from specific examples probably use some of the same neurobiological mechanisms as language acquisition.

    • Daniel says:

      It’s super interesting to have the perspective of a totally different discipline. Yes, especially as far as mathematical equations and schematic diagrams being in a sense separate from written and spoken language (in the literature they talk about “multimodality”). In a way, this makes teaching math and science even more like teaching language — an equation is kind of like a sentence in another language, as is that diagram that looks like bowling balls on a trampoline. At work I think a lot about how to test students’ listening comprehension in math class — it’s not realistic to just talk about equations without having them written down somewhere, ideally appearing one by one as the explanation progresses.

      One thing I totally skipped over:

      One’s ability to comprehend, analyze, and apply concepts depends on having a language to manipulate them in, both for communication between people and for internal reflection.

      It also depends on one’s skill at analysis and application of concepts. In this post I overstated the importance of the language piece, but really I think of education being more like a three-legged stool: each content area has its own associated concepts and linguistic registers, but you’re also developing your students’ higher-order cognitive abilities. Becoming an educated person means developing all of these areas, and each relies on the other two every step of the way. That’s part of what makes assessment so tricky. You’re trying to test the strength of one leg of the stool while ignoring the other two legs, but all the time you’re trying to take these measurements, you’re also sitting on the stool.

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