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    Programme 2016-2019
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    language in subjects
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    Step 1: Planning
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    2. Explore the issues

Developing language awareness in subject classes


2. Explore the issues

Language needed for academic success

Many students may find it challenging to cope with the language they meet in academic subjects as this is quite different from the everyday language they use outside school, with friends and family. 

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In 1979, Jim Cummins defined two types of language to illustrate the difference: Basic interpersonal communication skills, BICS, and Cognitive academic language proficiency, CALP. BICS refer to the language used in familiar, here-and-now situations.  BICS often develop rapidly in a second language because it is used when interacting with friends, peers etc. CALP, on the other hand, is the language students meet in a subject lesson at school. It is more abstract, often in a written form and it is context-impoverished (Leung 2003). Recently, these two registers are rather perceived as different uses of language in a continuum (e.g. Snow & Uccelli 2009). The current trend seems to be using general terms academic language as opposed to ordinary language (Scarcella 2003), social or conversational language (see e.g. Fitts & Bowers 2013).

Characteristics of the language of schooling

Especially for ‘vulnerable’ learners, the language used at school is in many ways a barrier to reach their potential (Cummins 1979). Describing, comparing, evaluating, analysing etc. are examples of discourse functions that students must master in subject classes. The importance and content of different functions may vary from subject to subject. For example, in history it may be important to describe events and to explain causes and effects. In mathematics on the other hand, it is sometimes necessary to describe processes, for instance a step-by-step description of how to add fractions with different denominators, as well as to define abstract terms. 

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Mary Schleppegrell (2006) underlines that in school students are expected to display knowledge, organise information and express knowledge and views in an authoritative voice. Schleppegrell also stresses that dense information, abstractions, technicalities, multiple semiotic systems, conventional text structures are factors which characterise the language of schooling. When teachers are not aware of the language challenges encountered in subjects like science, history, mathematics etc., learning may become very problematic for some students.

Integrating content and language

Teachers know that until the age of 9 or 10, most students can follow what goes on in the classroom. As learners progress in school, the subjects and the language of the subjects become increasingly more abstract and academic because of subject-specific vocabulary, complex texts, and the need to express their knowledge and to show understanding in different subjects in a more academic manner. In sum, learning a subject implies more than learning facts. To build knowledge, it is therefore necessary to acquire control over the more academic functions of the language in which that subject is delivered. This is what makes learning possible.

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The language needed to meet academic challenges

In order to know what students know or have learned about a subject/topic they must express their knowledge in some way, i.e. to speak or write about it. This means that there is a relationship between knowledge and language proficiency. Competent language users can express their knowledge more fluently and in more detail than weak language users. At the same time students with a high level of language proficiency will have a greater chance of learning in subject classes. Their language “mastery will have a positive effect on their knowledge gains and help them to develop the desired attitudes and approaches” (Beacco et al, 2015). 

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Beacco (2010), Vollmer (2010), Pieper (2011) and Linneweber-Lammerskitten (2012) discuss the language students need to cope with to meet academic challenges at the end of compulsory education, at the age of 15-161. The particular linguistic and semiotic competences students ought to have at this point include strategic competence, discourse competence and formal (linguistic) competence. The strategic competence implies that students have the ability to plan, execute, evaluate and correct the linguistic activities they are involved in in school. Having discourse competence means being able to understand and cope with the different types of discourse that students encounter in school subjects. Textbooks, lectures, reports, articles, news items and documentaries are examples of types of discourse students may be confronted with in different school subjects. Formal competence is, according to the same researchers, both the ability to formulate sentences and texts with correct spelling, morphology and syntax as well as using different discourse functions, such as to argue, classify, compare, explain, define, illustrate etc. All these functions, and more, are typical functions used in most school subjects.

1In most European countries, compulsory education is the period from when the students are 5 – 6 until they are 15 – 16 years old (European Commission/Eurydice, 2015).

In many countries, basic skills in all subjects are integrated in competence aims and curriculum goals. Competence aims in subjects like history, physics and others indicate language goals as well as knowledge goals. For example, according to the Norwegian science curriculum for 10th grade students they should be able to:

  • formulate testable hypotheses, plan and conduct investigations and discuss observations and results in a report.
  • explain how electrical energy can be produced from renewable and non-renewable energy sources and discuss the environmental impacts that accompany different ways of producing energy.

Each subject teacher is responsible for opening up his or her subject to students in a way that gives them an opportunity to build knowledge and make sense of the different topics addressed in the subject. This means focusing on knowledge and language. “The language dimension in teaching and learning subject-matter is of equal importance as in language as subject itself” (Beacco et al, 2015).