Language for Learning

By Asselin, Marlene | Teacher Librarian, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Language for Learning


Asselin, Marlene, Teacher Librarian


In my last column, I mentioned the concept of "language across the curriculum" as a way of using reading, writing and oral language to increase students' understanding in content areas. In this current column, I will elaborate on this area of language and literacy education. Educators have written about the relationship between language, thinking, and learning for three decades (Britton, 1970; Moffett, 1968; Vygotsky, 1962). We have strong evidence that:

   Language aides thought;
   language reflects thought;
   language refines thought;
   language extends thought;
   language creates thought.
   And language even enables
   us to become aware of our
   own thinking and thus,
   to some extent ... to direct it
   (Lindfors, 1987, p. 285).

However, we have a long way to go in translating these understandings into classroom practices. Research shows that students still participate in discussions to answer the teacher's rather than their own questions; write primarily to answer comprehension questions rather than communicate their thoughts and feelings about a topic; and read to cover the material rather than learn from it. In the following paragraphs, I will first review the main theoretical frameworks of language for learning, then describe ways to support students' thinking and learning.

Three frameworks of language for learning are: (1) a constructivist view of teaching and learning; (2) dimensions of language development; and (3) language functions. Psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky developed the foundations for constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. In contrast to traditional views, constructivism entails looking at knowledge as something produced by individuals on the basis of their past experiences and past learning. Knowledge cannot be transmitted to learners; learners actively construct knowledge. Teachers scaffold students' learning so that they work just above their independent levels or zone of proximal development. Scaffolds are removed when they are no longer needed and new goals and supports are determined. Constructivism regards language as playing an integral role in developing thinking (Wells & Chang-Wells, 1992).

A second framework views language development as having three interrelated aspects: learning language, learning about language, and learning through language. Children learn oral and written language in natural communicative contexts -- e.g., voluntary reading, peer talk and teacher read-alouds. Much language instruction in schools emphasizes learning about language -- e.g., grammar, letter-sound correspondence and literary techniques. Students are least supported in regards to knowing how to use language to learn. For a long time, it seemed that educators of grade four and above assumed if students had learned how to read, they could read to learn.

The third framework of language for learning focuses on functions of language. Language is always purposeful and people use language for many reasons. Linguists have defined at least nine functions that are broadly categorized into language for communication and language to facilitate thinking and learning. Others have found unique patterns of language functions in different groups (Heath, 1983). This research concludes that students who are successful at school have had many experiences in using language heuristically prior to their formal schooling -- i.e., to explore, investigate, speculate, acquire and represent knowledge. These children have been socialized into using heuristic language through countless demonstrations by their parents and through participation in language events such as story reading and family dinner conversations. Put simply, there is a match between the language of their home and that of their language experience in school.

Although teacher-librarians already do most of the following, understanding why and how these strategies work will increase students' opportunities to learn through language. …

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