Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy and the Language of Science in Year 1 Classrooms: Implications for Children's Learning

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy and the Language of Science in Year 1 Classrooms: Implications for Children's Learning

Article excerpt

In this article the authors report on the findings of a study which explores certain linguistic features in the discourse of two Year 1 teachers and their students. The study focusses on the teachers' use of grammatical metaphor, which is considered to be a significant feature in the construction of scientific and technical knowledge, including the disciplines of science and mathematics (Halliday, 1987; Martin 1993). Certain kinds of grammatical metaphor appear to be difficult for young children to use and interpret (Halliday, 1993b). The study found differences in the nature and extent of the grammatical metaphor used. One teacher's strategies for developing her students' understanding of scientific register are analysed.


This article explores the nature of the language used during science-oriented lessons with Year 1 children. While language development in the first two years of life has been extensively studied by researchers, less attention has been devoted to the language learning which occurs in the later pre-school period and the early years of formal education. It is often assumed that certain kinds of language are too difficult for young children. Traditionally, early childhood discourses have focussed on the child's gradual development within various domains, and as a result, young children's learning capacity is frequently underestimated, and the crucial role played by the teacher's practice and intervention in the child's learning not fully recognised. Our researches look at the extent to which two teachers used grammatical constructions which are typical of scientific discourse (grammatical metaphor). We found that one teacher made frequent use of grammatical metaphor, and highlighted here are the strategies she used to orient her young students towards the patterns of scientific discourse.

The transition to school places many new linguistic demands on the young learner. The ability to access abstract knowledge -- knowledge not accessible from personal, concrete experiences -- is an essential aspect of language and literacy development after the commencement of formal schooling. Oral and written language both play a crucial role in the development of educational knowledge.

Official policy usually equates educational knowledge with the written mode and commonsense knowledge with the spoken; but teachers' actual practice goes deeper -- educational knowledge demands both, the two often relating to different aspects of the same phenomenon.

Our analysis of some of the linguistic features which characterise the science-oriented lessons of two Year 1 teachers and their students reveals that the linguistic choices made by the teachers appear to have important implications"for children's learning of scientific phenomena, that is, for constructing abstract educational knowledge. A number of assumptions about language and literacy have shaped the research question itself, and the methodology employed to address this question. First, there is an underlying assumption that there is, in fact, an inextricable connection between the language addressed to children and the nature of children's learning. Over the last twenty years, many researchers such as Bernstein (1987), Halliday (1975), Hasan (1991), Brice Heath (1983), Michaels (1981), Cook-Gumperz (1986) and Cloran (1989) have analysed the manner in which the everyday spontaneous talk between adults (usually parents) and children serves to orient children to certain ways of using language to interact with others and to interpret experience. This orientation varies according to factors such as social background, gender and ethnicity and has important implications for subsequent educational achievement.

A closely related assumption is that what is regarded as knowledge is constructed intersubjectively through language. Thus, cognitive development and linguistic development cannot be considered independently of each other, because `language is at the same time a part of reality, a shaper of reality, and a metaphor for reality' (Halliday, 1993a: p. …

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