1.6 Language as a tool for social action

In this section, we have so far concentrated on teacher–student discourse. However, we should also be concerned with how people use language in many kinds of situations to solve problems and get things done. Before examining ways in which teachers can help students develop their understanding and use of spoken language, it may be useful to step outside the classroom and consider some of the ways that language is used in everyday life as a means for ‘getting things done’.

A widely accepted aim of education is to help students become better at using language. This is not only the case in modern language classrooms, or in those concerned with the English curriculum. Studying science, mathematics and other subjects also involves becoming able in using language as a tool for constructing and sharing knowledge. Teachers are expected to help their students develop ways of talking, writing and thinking which will enable them to travel on wider intellectual journeys, understanding and being understood by people in wider domains than those of their home community. While the strongest emphasis in mother tongue language education has always been on literacy, in recent years in many countries there has been an increasing acknowledgement in educational policy and curriculum guidance of the importance of children becoming effective users of spoken language. For example, within the National Curriculum for schools in England and Wales, the guidance for teaching English to Year 7 children (aged 11–12) includes the following objectives for group discussion and interaction.

“Pupils should be taught to:

10 identify and report the main points emerging from discussion, e.g. to agree a course of action including responsibilities and deadlines;

11 adopt a range of roles in discussion, including acting as spokesperson, and contribute in different ways such as promoting, opposing, exploring and questioning;

12 use exploratory, hypothetical and speculative talk as a way of researching ideas and expanding thinking;

13 work together logically and methodically to solve problems, make deductions, share, test and evaluate ideas;

14 acknowledge other people’s views, justifying or modifying their own views in the light of what others say;”

DfEE, 2001, p.25

However, formulating a set of teaching objectives does not address the question of how they can best be achieved. For several years, some educational researchers (mainly in the UK) have used the findings of observational studies to suggest that students need more explicit guidance than they normally get on how to talk and work together effectively in groups (e.g., Barnes and Todd, 1995; Bennett and Cass, 1989; Bennett and Dunne, 1992). Without explicit guidance, it is suggested, group-based activity (which is a common feature of education in some countries such as the UK), may be of little educational value. Research on language use in homes and communities, such as that of Shirley Brice Heath (1983) and Gordon Wells (1992), has shown that ways of using language to make joint sense of experience vary between cultures and communities, and so children from different backgrounds cannot be assumed to come to school with similar language repertoires. Yet it seems commonly to be assumed by teachers of students of all ages, right through to higher education, that when students are asked to go and discuss a topic together, or to work together to solve a problem, they will have the necessary strategies for doing so (or at least will know to use those they have in the most effective ways).

1.5 Discourse strategies used by teachers

1.7 Evaluating classroom discussion