Summary of Literacy and Language group meeting, 1 May 2019

ESRI’s Literacy and Language research group came together for the second time on 1 May 2019. The group’s work draws on a wide variety of perspectives to understand literacy and language learning in and out of school settings. Group members are interested in policy and wider thinking about what literacy and language is or could be. Th meeting took 6 presentations from members.

The thread started with Huw Bell’s thinking on metalingustics which seems like a question of lexical knowledge. However, we don’t actually understand well what it is to know a word, which Huw likened to a Hedgehog: we can each recognise the whole and share some common understanding of a word but each may know a different spine of its meaning. And we don’t actually know how language is acquired! The national curriculum 2014 was introduced with a focus on grammar – metalinguistic knowledge. This can in some cases leave children feeling less confident in their use of language, which is a gift that they already bring to school.

Steph Ainsworth picked up from this theme as she described the affective nature of learning grammar. Steph’s study found that when working with students on an optional grammar course there could be strong affective responses to the revelation of the artefact of a language that students had been proficient in all of their lives, illustrated by one student’s strong sense of wonder at the lack of a future tense in the English language. Steph makes the case for wonder in learning!

Abi Hackett spoke about the everyday lives of parents and really young children up to 3 years, looking at the more than human dimension, space and objects. In her fieldwork she observed a group of parents and children on a farm visit where, in the waiting room, one child plays out the day as a cat. This was a clear example of multimodal literacy, movement, sound and multiple meanings in the communication: playfulness of being a cat, difficulty in waiting, passing time. Was this a social appeal for kindness and playfulness? Which meanings are true and does it matter? Abi challenges that it would have been planned out and for the benefit of adults, and draws from the example of other cultures that language is not the preserve of the human: indigenous societies understand that the spaces we inhabit nature and the land itself have language.

Martin Needham spoke about City Play project which coaches children in nurseries on physical activity which will be useful later for team sports. Coaches employed narrative techniques such as going on a bear hunt: green cones for forest, white for snow. Martin asks whether this will change the quality and enjoyment of the physical techniques being practices. Like Abi he is interested in the posthuman, looking at interaction between people and objects. Why should children engage with literacy activities? What is affective and motivating about them? Why should you engage with stories if you don’t find time to enjoy them?

Gee Macrory picked up on this theme with her work on young children’s experiences of and attitudes to a new orthography, French and Spanish, in the primary classroom in her Reykjavic project. She found that whilst language learning needs to be fun and engaging if it is seen only as such it will be given little emphasis in favour of English learning which is seen as more important. And this can instigate a vicious circle where if MFL learning is not given the time it needs, teachers may focus on fun, which leads to it being seen as trivial and hence little time is allocated for it, children then struggle to learn rules or patterns and show progression.

Finally, Pura Ariza’s thinking on bilingualism looks at trainee teachers’ understanding of it, and looks at ways of promoting language diversity and building multilingual classrooms. She looks at the downsides of how MFL focuses mainly on northern European languages, and EAL which focus on English deficit which assert language hierarchies and inequalities. These models obstruct bilingualism and prevent students reaping the benefits – in a society where communicating in other languages is increasingly important! She asks whether understanding MFL can develop a better pedagogy for multilingualism?


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