Language and Literacy across the secondary school curriculum: a language based pedagogy.


Professor Urszula Clark

Professor Urszula Clark

This week, Interland director Professor Urszula Clark tells us about her research in Birmingham schools using a language based pedagogy approach

Many lessons in schools are spent with teachers teaching pupils subject content and then pupils writing what they have learnt independently. The criteria for the success or otherwise of pupils’ knowledge as expressed in writing is often intuitive and if given at all, generally opaque (your writing needs to flow better; you need to organise your ideas more clearly; your sentences don’t make sense …).

The Language Based Pedagogy (LBP) approach, however, integrates the explicit teaching of vocabulary and linguistic structures as part of subject knowledge teaching. It focuses on the use of appropriate academic registers within different school subjects, bringing to the fore the ways in which subject knowledge is organised and structured across written texts especially, as part of teaching subject content.

I’ve been working on a project in secondary schools in Birmingham that uses an LBP approach. We are researching ways in which language and literacy can be embedded across the curriculum in ways that are socially just and inclusive for all pupils, regardless of their linguistic and social background.

Adopting an LBP approach involves putting in place two intermediary steps between being taught subject content and expressing that content in writing.  After delivering content, the teacher takes an exemplar or model text they expect pupils to write. Different subjects require writing to be constructed in different ways, or genres, with specific features of language called register.  An answer to a geography question is structured differently from an answer to a history or science question, for example. This is explained to the pupils and together the teacher and pupils deconstruct the model text’s organisation and structure at whole text, paragraph and sentence levels. Then, pupils and teachers together jointly construct an answer drawing on this model text, before they go on to write their own. And not a writing frame in sight.

Putting ideas on paper is not an easy task, as we all know. Nor does it come naturally to subject teachers to teach writing. At the schools in which I’ve been doing my research, which have very diverse pupil profiles in terms of their linguistic ability, teachers have been working together in their subject departments or curriculum groups planning schemes of work where they write their own model texts. Unsurprisingly, they’ve found this quite difficult to do (although they must have known once how to!) but it has been extremely rewarding for them, since it clarifies what it is they are expecting from their pupils.

Since at least the 1980s, LBP has been developed by systemic functional linguists (SFL), particularly in Australia.  The Friday afternoon (arvo) seminar series at the Linguistics Department, University of Sydney, was inaugurated in the 1980s by Michael Halliday. It was thus a great honour to be invited to give a presentation on my research as part of this year’s series on 19th September, followed by a paper at the annual ASFLA conference which happened to be held in Sydney this year. At these events, I met other Australian researchers, notably Sally Humphrey, Frances Christie, Beverly Derewianka and Jim Martin, all of whom have drawn upon SFL and applied it to the educational context. The theoretical argument for LBP has been made exhaustively – The challenge is to find ways in which to introduce and embed this approach in schools, especially secondary schools. I was much taken with the fact that Sally Humphrey has been running a project in secondary schools in Sydney along similar lines to my own research, even though we did not know this before we met!  Both our projects are in their early days, but both are showing that adopting an LBP approach improves not only pupils’ curriculum experience but also their academic achievement. Teachers can be shy of taking on anything that smacks of ‘grammar’ but an LBP approach can be extremely enriching and rewarding. If you don’t believe me, check out this blog.


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