The Wigan Language Project

Last week I finished reading Urszula Clark’s book War Words: Language, History and the Discipline of English (Elsevier 2001). For this blog I shall skip chapters 4,5 and 6 and move at once to share my delight at finding her reference to the Wigan Language Project. In half a page she encapsulates the main features of Breakthrough to Learning, laying proper emphasis on the teaching of abstract language. She says:

Such is the transforming power of both education and language that neither can be completely harnessed by the rules of pedagogic discourse, or completely controlled by the pedagogic device.

For example, research into the linguistic features of academic language used in secondary schools undertaken by Mason and Mason (1997) led to the production of extensive teaching materials published as the Wigan Language Project. These materials aimed to teach pupils the formal, linguistic features of academic language, including for example, nominalisation, metaphor, the passive and the grammar of complex sentences. They were also taught the commonest discourse structures (problem/solution; general/particular; compare/contrast; question/answer). The Masons’ research showed that underpinning pupils’ success in learning these structures, shows how the most striking formal feature of abstract language – nominalisation – has the specific function of making possible the concepts of variables and systems, which constitute academic language in all subjects. The materials were trialled between 1984 and 1990 at a secondary school in Wigan, which resulted in the a virtual doubling of G.C.S.E results when compared against the national average. Published as a series of three books, originally called ‘Illuminating English’ but changed to ‘Breakthrough to Learning’, they aim to make transparent the linguistic features of academic language used in all academic subjects, and thus form a suitable example of the ways in which linguistics can inform a whole school language policy. For the purposes of the subject English, though, their usefulness is less apparent, since the texts with which much of its study is concerned is not academic, but fictional and imaginary. Even so, when it comes to the writing formal essays which the subject demands, then such explicit instruction has a place.


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