What metalinguistic resources do students bring to the classroom that can be leveraged to promote academic language learning?
Successful academic language use not only hinges on knowledge of language forms; students must also be aware of teachers’ implicitly held linguistic expectations for speaking and writing in the classroom. But what’s unclear is the extent to which students are aware of these expectations and are developing the language resources that support pedagogical conversations about academic language (or ‘academic metalanguage’). Therefore, in a series of qualitative studies employing grounded theory and conversation analysis methods, I drew on written and oral reflections on the language of school produced by 4th-8th graders to gain insight into these metalinguistic skills. Interestingly, the findings from small-group discussions and from students’ written responses suggest that middle graders are developing language to discuss the academic register’s features (e.g., ‘bigger words;’ ‘formal words;’ ‘longer sentences’). Furthermore, my subsequent analysis of talk patterns during these multi-party discussions revealed that students often built on peers’ academic metalanguage, suggesting that classroom discussions might be powerful contexts for making the ‘hidden curriculum’ of academic language learning visible to students. In these studies, students often referred to academic language as ‘better’ or ‘good’ when comparing the language of home and school; thus, highlighting the need for more nuanced instructional methods that disrupt linguistic hierarchies that devalue students’ home language resources. This work has been published in Linguistics and Education and presented at multiple conferences. I am interested in continuing to explore the affordances of multi-party discussions with linguistically diverse learners to both build knowledge of academic language forms and functions as well as to disrupt potentially damaging language ideologies. Early evidence from a small pilot study I conducted this fall in collaboration with Dr. Paola Uccelli in four bilingual classrooms suggests the promise and challenge of such an approach to teaching academic language. I hope to expand on these initial efforts by engaging educators in collaboratively designing a curricular intervention for upper-elementary school students that will focus on teaching the subset of academic language skills that my prior research has highlighted as essential for reading and writing success.