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.