Academic discourse has always been part of the classroom. Teachers have long understood the importance of using language to transmit ideas. In the early history of education, teachers talked for most of the instructional day while students were quiet and completed their assigned tasks. Students were expected to memorise facts and be able to recite them. Remember that in most classrooms of the late 1800s, the age range was very diverse. In the same classroom, teachers might have students who were 5 or 6 years old and others who were 15 to 18. Talking by students was not the norm. In fact, students were punished for talking in class, even if the talk was academic!
Over time, educators realised that students had to use the language if they were to become better educated. As a result, well-intentioned educators called on individual students to respond to questions. Teachers expected them to use academic language in their individual responses, and as students spoke, teachers would assess their knowledge. As you read it, think about how much academic language was used:
Let’s spend a few minutes analysing this classroom exchange. First, it’s not unlike many of the whole-class interactions we’ve seen, especially in a classroom where the students are obviously having a difficult time with the content. One student at a time is talking while the others listen or ignore the class. Second, the teacher is clearly using a lot of academic language, which is great. We know that teachers themselves have to use academic discourse if their students are ever going to have a chance to learn. Third, the balance of talk in this classroom is heavily weighted toward the teacher. If we count the number of words used, minus the student names, the teacher used 190 words, whereas the students used 11. This means that 94 percent of the words used in the classroom during this five-minute segment were spoken by the teacher. In addition, if we analyse the types of words used, half of the words spoken by the students were not academic in nature. That’s not so great. Students need more time to talk, and this structure of asking them to do so one at a time will not significantly change the balance of talk in the classroom.
As you reflect on this excerpt from the classroom, consider whether you think that the students will ever become proficient in using the language. Our experience suggests that these students will fail to develop academic language and discourse simply because they aren’t provided opportunities to use words. They are hearing words but are not using them. “The world in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.” In other words, if students aren’t using the words, they aren’t developing academic discourse. As a result, we often think we’ve done a remarkable job teaching students and then wonder why they aren’t learning. The key is for students to talk with one another, in purposeful ways, using academic language.
By Myrla Gonayon