Talking with Jess: Looking at How Metalanguage Assisted Explanation Writing in the Middle Years

Article excerpt

21 May

I: Can you tell me what sort of writing it is?

Jess: It's an explanation

...

I: What do you know about an explanation?

Jess: Um, not much. But ... um ... you answer the questions of who, where, what, why and all of them.

26 June

I: Now you'd learnt a lot about explanations by this stage: what did you know about explanations that helped you to write?

Jess: The format of it ... and ... that when you finish a sentence ... like ... you might be talking about how the blades push down in one sentence and ... like, just at the end ... and then you actually talk about it in the next sentence, how it works.

These comments from 12 year old Jess before and after a unit of teaching on writing explanations as a text type reflect the growing understanding about the structural and grammatical features of explanations. Over the course of the term's work, Jess developed metalinguistic knowledge that enabled her to articulate specific features of the explanation genre and contrast it to other genres that she had experienced writing. Not only did her written work show marked development between the 'before' and 'after' efforts, but her ability to express specific metalanguage, and how she had used this to construct texts, increased significantly, suggesting that linguistic knowledge empowered her to write successfully within the target genre. The explicit instruction used in Jess' classroom reflected a pedagogy that aims to give all students access to powerful discourses through a repertoire of linguistic devices and practices (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993; Luke, 1997).

Context for the study

The knowledge and skills that Jess has been taught explicitly reflect a teaching pedagogy that is unashamedly interventionist and targeted towards developing specific knowledge about language, one which Christie identifies as a feature of the last 15 years of teaching history (Christie, 1999, p. 86), replacing practices of Personal Growth (e.g. Dixon, 1970; Murray, 1968), Creative Writing (e.g. Saunders, 1968; Schoenheimer & Winch, 1974), and Process Writing (Graves, 1981; Turbill, 1983). These earlier practices tended to value the experience of writing rather than gaining specific knowledge about language. Instead, Jess' teacher has adopted a pedagogy that suggests that students need to acquire specialised knowledge about the nature of texts and how these are used to represent knowledge (Unsworth, 2002, p. 62). Indeed, the English Key Learning Area of Victoria's current Curriculum Standard Frameworks (CSFII) (Board of Studies, 2000) contains the strand of Linguistic Features and Structure that recognises the need for students to have particular knowledge about language to draw upon. However, although the strand expects students to learn specific knowledge about the language they are using, it provides little direction for the framing of this linguistic knowledge.

Many Australian classrooms purport to be using a 'genre approach' to teaching writing, the approach that sees texts as socially constructed entities with discernible forms and language features and stages (Halliday, 1975, p. 5; Martin et al., 1987, p. 59). Identifying and teaching this staging is one aspect that teachers have embraced, seen in the availability of commercially-produced text frames for students to plan their work (e.g. Derewianka, 1990; WA Ministry of Edn, 1996; Blake, 1998; Wing Jan, 2001).

However, linguistic features go beyond merely staging a text, into the specific word and sentence choices. Grammar from the 'Hallidayian tradition of linguistics' (Christie, 1987, p. 24) or Systemic Functional Grammar (SFL) is a means of analysing and describing language in terms of its function: rather than presenting rules, it seeks to systematise language choices and explore how these are used in various contexts. A number of classroom-based studies have investigated the effects of explicitly teaching students to explore texts and how language is ordered to create meaning (e. …