Teaching the target language

I want to pick up my description of the theoretical foundation of the Wigan Language Project, which I gave in my blogs entitled: Applied Linguistics (June 11) and Applied Linguistics and Breakthrough to Learning (June 18).

The Target Language of Breakthrough to Learning was Academic English, the language needed for success in secondary school subjects across the curriculum. Following the methods of Applied Linguistics, I analysed the linguistic features of this variety of language, and then systematically taught them in the three books of Breakthrough to Learning. The systematic use of the course doubled the percentage of pupils gaining five or more GCSE’s grades A-C across the curriculum.

The effectiveness of the course was shown when the course was abandoned: the results dropped back in line with the parts of the course which the exam cohorts had studied in their first years in secondary school.

Here I will relate the contents of each of the three books of the course to the results:

The contents of Book 1 of BTL were an understanding of the grammar of the clause (as a preparation for nominalisation in Book 2), interesting things languageand some work demystifying the Latin and Greek roots of academic language. Only the last (6 of the 28 chapters) were directly related to the target language.

The GCSE results of the cohort which had studied only Book 1 and took their exams in 1989 showed negligible change from those in 1988 – at 30.3% very little different from the Wigan results and the national average.

Book 2 was the book that taught the most difficult feature of academic English – the language of abstract ideas. Abstract words are formed  from concrete words by nominalisation and metaphor, often separated in English from their Anglo-Saxon concrete counterparts by being taken into the language from Latin and Greek.

This was the book which produced the most dramatic results in terms of GCSE results – the percentage of pupils gaining five or more GCSE’s grades A-C rose from 30.3% to 46.6%, a percentage increase on the Wigan and national results of 35.1.

Book 3 was again directly related to the target language – the structure of complex sentences and the most common discourse structures of formal written English (and how they appear in exam questions and answers). These produced a significant gain in terms of exam results – from 46.6% to 53.7%.

To an Applied Linguist it is significant that the results of studying each of the three books were not the same. Teaching any old thing about language, however interesting and worthwhile in itself, is not going to improve learners’ competence in a particular variety (in this case, formal written English). This applied to the pioneering Language in Use and to the LINC materials rejected by the Government. It also applies to Book 1 of BTL.

The detail of the results can be downloaded from this website Article from Educational Studies publication.

A coloured graph of the results, including the dropping off of the GCSE results when the course was abandoned can be found under Home>Course background > Testing and results on the companion website www.languageofideas.co.uk



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