Cross-disciplinary adventures

I’m just back from four days in Pennsylvania showing new speaking and writing test items to students. I got to talk to kids from grades 3–12, have them try out draft test items, and ask them about their opinions of the prompt and their process of finding an answer. For me, this kind of study is one of the most exciting things about test development, because it’s the closest look we get at the interaction between students and test items. Among the many things I’ve learned about as a test developer is the importance of qualitative research; numbers are great, but they never tell you “why.”

Tomorrow, I’m leaving the house at 4 AM to catch a flight to Chicago, where I will present at the NCTE Annual Convention. NCTE is the trade association of English language arts teachers, which is a new audience for me; I’m used to working in the ESOL world. I’m presenting as part of a panel sponsored by an LSA committee that I’m on, so in planning my talk, the question that I had to answer is this: As a linguist, what do I have to say to a group of English teachers?

The talk that I have planned is basically a sales pitch about the existence of academic oral language as a register distinct from academic written language and social oral language, and the importance of paying specific attention to it in class. On the first point, talking to people outside the fields of linguistics and education, I tend to get one of two responses: either “Of course it exists,” or “What are you talking about?” So this suggests that it will be a fruitful topic for discussion.

Talking to people from a different disciplinary background is always a little tricky, and it’s important to think of it almost as an exercise in intercultural communication. Here’s what I’m thinking on this score:

  • Teachers don’t know linguistics. If I start by telling them I’m a linguist, it won’t give me any credibility, and it’s likely to make some eyes glaze over. So I’ll be sure to mention my teaching experience first, to establish myself as someone worth listening to.
  • Still, I have to talk about linguistics at some point, because in a sense, that is what I have to offer. I’m planning to talk about the SFL concept of textual meaning, including mode and Theme, but without ever using those words. Instead it’s going to be “If you look at how sentences begin, it gives you an idea of how the author was thinking about organization. The way this looks in teacher talk is different from how it looks in textbooks or in casual conversation.”
  • When I went to conferences as a teacher, I usually felt that the best presentations were the ones that gave me something I could do in class the next day. I’m planning to mention techniques like sentence frames (e.g., “In my opinion, ___”) and the idea that you can teach students how to have a productive discussion about academic content.
  • After that, I’ll ask for more ideas in the Q&A. As a practitioner, I always wanted researchers to show respect for my knowledge of my own work context, so I’d better show that respect now that I’m the researcher.

If anything interesting happens tomorrow, I’ll be sure to let you know about it.

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Posted in Assessment, Institutional discourse, SFL

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