‘You’re a romantic writer’: the language-related experiences of PSTs

Interviews with PSTs sought to identify factors that contributed to their developing awareness of language and to their understandings of how they would respond to language issues in their future classrooms. Threemajor themes emerged from their responses: (1) Experiences with language in schooling; (2) Language and culture-related experiences in practicums and (3) Beliefs about language education needs. These will now be explored in more detail. (The PSTs have been given pseudonyms in these examples.)

Experiences with language in schooling

Students were asked to recall their experience of subject English during their own primary and secondary schooling, and to self-assess their current level of LA. Several reported that there was some basic work on traditional grammar in upper primary years, but little attention to language at all in the middle years of schooling. Grammar was something ‘hard’, and to be avoided. Language-focused work reappeared in upper secondary years, which tended to be genre-based, often thinly. Krista, a first-year English and Drama major, commented on the limited language awareness of her English teachers: They didn’t really focus on grammatical accuracy, they would just say, 'Oh, you’re a very romantic writer’.

At the time of interview, a number of the student teachers were taking undergraduate linguistics units as electives. Their experience of the units provided a stimulus to discuss their current awareness of language. Many reported the content as challenging, and several referred to the ‘grammar gap’ at school, and consequent lack of metalinguistic knowledge. Beth, a mature-age English and Drama student, 26, commented on her feeling of shock when dealing with language structure in the ITE unit:

Huge gap—I’ve been out of school for nine years now, so we’re talking 15 years without having studied any grammar and then suddenly you’re asked to break it down and it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what a noun is.’

The experiences of learning another language at school were also discussed. The process of learning a foreign language is a powerful means of acquiring language awareness, through the engagement with different linguistic systems and the ensuing noticing of difference, which may be conscious or unconscious (Flowerdew 1998). There was a notable difference in self-reported levels of LA between those who had learned another language to at least an intermediate level and those who hadn’t. Leanne, a recently graduated primary teacher, reported that learning another language helped her develop grammatical knowledge that she was unaware even existed:

I learnt German for only two years and it was in that class that I learnt that there was such a thing as grammar and that it was lacking in English education because none of us had any idea what it was.

Several PSTs reported that school language-learning experiences lacked depth and consistency. Languages were 'not treated seriously’, and in many cases were excuses for superficial treatments of cultural difference, as in the 'Four Fs’ of food, fashion, famous people and festivals. Others reported lack of motivation because of rote-learning practices. These two examples characterise extremes: on the one hand, an approach that decontextualised language and dealt little with culture, and on the other a superficial focus on culture without much actual language. This is not to deny the presence of many competent language teachers in the workforce—rather, it highlights challenges in providing enough suitable teachers to meet the goals for Languages education in some states. Teacher educators’ views about this issue will be discussed later.

The experiences of the PSTs of language in schooling had generally led them to understand LA in a restricted sense, resulting in a lack of confidence when dealing with language across the curriculum. For some, learning another language mitigated this, and fostered a growing awareness of the fluid nature of language. Comments included: 'Rules are not fixed, language is subject to change', and also, 'thoroughly “knowing” a language, even one’s mother tongue, is open to question’. Their levels of language and cultural awareness were tested in school practicum experiences, which are discussed next.

Language and culture-related experiences in practicums

Critical moments, or 'moments of disruption' (Neilsen 2011) have been shown in the literature to be significant in teacher professional development (Labercane, Last, Nichols & Johnson 1998). Language-related incidents in practicum experiences enhanced PSTs’ understandings of the language issues faced by EAL students. Krista, for example was concerned when she observed her mentor teacher demonstrating essentialising behaviour. An East Asian boy, who must be 'good at maths’ because he was Asian, was discussed as if he were not present:

Some teachers treat the children on the same level, they see them as equals, and other teachers see themselves above the students, they talk down to them. And they talk to me about the students, there was an Asian boy in class and they would talk about them to me while they’re sitting right there.

Rita, a mature-age student with young children, recognised the pressures that in-service teachers are under to be inclusive. She remarked that, as a teacher aide as well as a PST on practicum, she was in a position to provide the class teacher with much-needed assistance for children who might need extra scaffolding. Rita was critical of some teachers’ lack of flexibility.

and observed that they did not always recognise different learning styles or demonstrate responsive pedagogy. However, she acknowledged the complexity of the demands placed on classroom teachers, and highlighted two related issues that she observed teachers felt that: (1) 'different’ students take up more time and (2) inclusivity policies pressurise teachers to simplisti-cally conceptualise the learning issues of‘different’ students—for example by treating EAL students and students with learning disorders in similar ways. These pressures may be compounded by lack of experience with cultural issues:

The teachers don’t feel that they have enough time to give attention to the students ... the instruction takes a lot longer than even someone with a low literacy or a cognitive disorder because they’re not exposed to the culture.

These examples illustrate how PSTs’ experiences of working with EAL learners led them to empathise with such students and made them critically aware of the ways language and cultural issues were handled in the classes they participated in. These experiences prompted them to reflect on what was needed to be prepared to deal with language in the classroom.

Beliefs about language education needs

Beth summed up the growing awareness of many PSTs that ’all teachers are language teachers whether they like it or not’. Nevertheless, there was a division of opinion on what kind of knowledge was needed. Leanne and Rita felt strongly that structural knowledge of language was important, suggesting that traditional grammar should be included as an area of focus. Others, who also felt that their grammatical knowledge was inadequate, commented how reflection on culture deepened their awareness. For example Beth referred to the assessment for a linguistics unit she was enrolled in that involved two case studies: one of a non-native speaker of English, and one of a speaker of a different variety of English. She found this assessment particularly enlightening; for her, it linked structural issues in language to cultural contexts. She had access to an elderly relative who was a non-native speaker, and reported the awareness-building that occurred from such a personal connection. The exercise provided a cultural context for analysis of subtle points of difference in speech; for example the use of different words or phrases, or of different phonemes. For Beth and others, it emphasised that language is a social and cultural phenomenon, and they felt that this should be emphasised when developing KAL.

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