Research 2018-02-10T15:26:05+00:00

An Overview of the Research Underpinning Keywords Biology

Prepared by Joanna Norton and Dr Robert Mohr

  1. Introduction

For education and learning to achieve their objectives and for the learning process itself to be truly inclusive, it is imperative that students understand the academic language of school (Vollmer 2009)1. Continuous PISA assessments highlight the difficulty that children from minority language groups have achieving this goal. In country after country, these children typically perform markedly less well on standardised tests of academic knowledge and skills than do others (OECD 2006). In addition, evidence suggests that this difference persists even after the socioeconomic background has been taken into account (OECD 2006, 2009). As schools are increasingly diverse and as mixed ability classrooms become the norm, Trinity’s research team sought to challenge the view that the current economic downturn would result in fewer English language learners in classrooms and, therefore, less classroom support would be required.

  1. The Research

A significant body of research was undertaken to:

  • Carry out an extensive survey of current practice at post-primary level
  • Conduct exploratory studies of ten post-primary schools and more detailed case studies of three schools. This was extended to 85 schools involving over 250 teachers in the pilot over a two-year period.
  • Use the techniques of corpus linguistics to analyse curriculum language in the most widely used textbooks and, on the basis of this analysis, develop an extensive collection of learning materials to be used in English language support and mainstream subject classrooms.
  1. Findings From the Survey

An analysis of current practice at post-primary level revealed the need to:

  1. Move English language support (ELS), with its perceived emphasis on cultural adjustment and social skills with often damaging remedial overtones, towards a focus on the language and learning skills, including lexico- grammatical development, which all learners need for the curriculum.
  2. Scaffold the student’s comprehension of both the textbook and the teacher’s instructions in order to make the role language plays in the subject visible, and to tap into the learner’s relevant background knowledge.
  3. Adapt a whole-school approach to language and literacy with a view to supporting subject specialist teachers, whose formation has not prepared them to take account of the language or literacy needs of students in their classes

Academic English used in textbooks and in the classroom is difficult to understand and places a special cognitive demand upon young people between 12-15 years of age. Academic English requires students to use higher linguistic skills to:

  • Interpret statements
  • Infer meanings
  • Synthesise information
  • Pick out main ideas
  • Recognise the conventions of different genres
  • Possess extensive vocabulary knowledge, in both depth and breadth
  • Understand complex sentence structures and syntax

Research indicates that effective communication is achieved more successfully by learners with a large vocabulary than by learners with a smaller one. Discussions and trials with a network of teachers determined that materials would focus on vocabulary learning and teaching elements such as:

  • Form
  • Grammar
  • Collocation
  • Aspects of meaning: denotation, connotation, appropriateness
  • Aspects of meaning: meaning relationships such as synonyms and antonyms
  • Word, sentence and paragraph formation
  1. Key Deliverables

The aim of the research was to:

Produce an extensive resource of teaching and learning materials that draw students directly into the different subjects of the mainstream curriculum

  1. Provide a description, analysis and evaluation of how the present system of language support works
  2. Provide assessment tools and procedures
  3. Offer guidelines for good practice: organizational as well as pedagogical
  4. Provide an elaboration of the English Language Proficiency Benchmarks and the European Language Portfolio, to include level B2.
  1. The Research Project

The highly innovative analysis of the curriculum deployed corpus linguistics to develop an extensive body of post-primary curricular subject textbooks, teacher guidelines and examination papers. A corpus of nearly 5.2 million words permitted focus to be directed towards subject-specific language which, in turn, informed the development of a large array of materials designed to support teaching and learning at each of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) A1-B2 Benchmarks.

Following intensive classroom trials, 358 language support activity unit booklets for different topic areas for most secondary subjects (higher and lower levels) were developed. Each unit begins with a presentation of the key language for the topic in question. The language is then exploited/explored in a range of activities that move from less demanding to more demanding vocabulary-related activities, as well as writing frames to construct essay-style questions scaled to reflect the first four levels of the CEFR (A1-B2).

      1. Impact of Study

Teachers have been using these materials in language support, special education and mainstream subject classrooms since January 2009. During the trial period, 29,576 files were downloaded in over 111 countries and geographical locations. The most commonly downloaded files were, in order of use, the teacher’s notes, English, Mathematics, Science CSPE, Geography and History.

      1. Data Analysis
      2. Moving to an m-Learning approach

The feedback from online surveys, focus group interviews and classroom observations proved to be overwhelmingly positive. This feedback showed that the materials were suitable for use in both language support and subject classroom teaching by language support, learning support and subject teachers. Teachers thought that the materials were suitable as a whole- school approach to literacy since the materials would benefit some native English-speaking students, who find it difficult to engage with the relevant academic language.

Evidence indicates that these materials helped the teacher to identify main principles, achievable objectives and key vocabulary in the curricular language. By emphasizing key vocabulary words, teachers carried out much pre-teaching of vocabulary, an approach that was reflected in the teachers’ plans and diaries.

Data from questionnaires indicate that, by using these materials, teachers became more aware of and able to address learners’ needs such as:

      • Accessing key grammatical categories, e.g. noun, verb, preposition, etc.
      • Relating language meaning to grammatical structure in context
      • Understanding meanings as expressed in texts, and
      • Expressing meanings in written work

According to the teachers, the materials provided:

        • Exposure to a range of authentic texts with a variety of purposes and functions
        • Activities that involve planning, such as exchanging meanings, e.g. aural/oral pair work; information gap activities; problem-solving; reading/listening comprehension activities such as skimming and scanning; writing to an anticipated reader to convey meaning
        • Activities that link form and function
        • Activities that allow learners to restructure their language towards the target language
        • A means of teaching grammar and vocabulary in context

According to the teachers, the materials:

      • were learner-centred and encouraged reflective teaching and learning in the context of the curriculum
      • supported student motivation
      • provided awareness-raising activities with respect to planning aims, goals and objectives, and thinking about learning, e.g. purpose of activities, anticipated outcomes, the way one solves communication problems/challenges
      • helped develop learning strategies
      • encouraged writing to support thinking and speaking
      • supported social interaction and negotiation in language content learning activities
      • helped in keeping a dossier of work for teacher, students and
      • classroom

8. Moving to an m-Learning approach

As the availability and affordability of mobile devices has increased, the obvious next stage was to develop a vocabulary app capable of incorporating and building on this research. Such an app would provide young learners with a language and literacy tool, as well as a support tool for content in different subjects. This approach is critical given the time constraints placed upon subject teachers or, as mentioned above, their lack of formal preparedness in addressing this particular but growing learning need. Indeed, given the super-diverse learning needs of today’s multilingual classrooms, subject teachers are under great pressure to deliver highly differentiated learning objectives within inflexible time constraints. To support everyone involved in the teaching and learning process, Keywords Biology presents the relevant keywords (target language) in context and in the learner’s own language. At a very minimum, this language support will give young learners a basic concept of what the content teacher is discussing in class and gradually help them to scaffold their acquisition of language within related topics of the subject and then within different subjects across the curriculum.

Science was chosen as the first subject for this project in view of the prominence it plays within the school curriculum and in light of the attention employers are beginning to place on relevant science skills. At the same time, the performance of young people in Science in some prominent English speaking countries is falling on international league tables (OECD, 2010). Indeed, the ability to engage with and understand scientific concepts is inextricably linked with effective communication. Good science writing skills require amongst others, the ability to present the findings of experiments and draw conclusions from data. In order to build the relevant language and literacy skills of young learners so they can complete such tasks, Keywords English takes the premise of understanding the keyword in context as the starting point for this learning process.

  1. Overview of learning activities

(a) Introduction

Given the multilingual diversity of our classrooms, the linguistic repertoires of young learners and the growing evidence that suggests parallel texts have the capacity to develop competence in the language being acquired (English – L2), Keywords Biology presents parallel texts at relevant stages to help develop proficiency in L2.

The objective here is to foster a bi-literacy approach and so encourage literacy skills and strategies available in L1 to become identifiable in L2. While this is easier when both languages use the same writing system, for non-Roman writing systems, such as Mandarin Chinese, it is still possible to transfer a whole range of skills in decoding and reading from the first language to the second. If learners are literate in one language, they already know that text carries meaning which is broken up into segments, such as words or characters, and that such text is laid out on a page or screen in accordance with standard rules.

In addition, for learners who are not literate in their first language, Keywords Biology uses parallel texts with audio support to allow learning to be shared at home with parents, older siblings, or peers and friends from the same ethnic or language group. This can facilitate informal learning and support learning that cannot be facilitated in a mainstream classroom environment. Keywords Biology uses parallel texts in all instructions throughout the app as well as in the introductory and vocabulary section,

where the target language is presented in context.

(b) Vocabulary

As highlighted by Trinity College’s underpinning research, a wide range of vocabulary both in depth and breadth is critical for young learners seeking to develop competency in the usage of academic English. Given the frequency with which certain words appear across the curriculum, the vocabulary section begins to extrapolate the keywords central to understanding the topic at hand and presents the word along with its form, phonetic transcript and a contextualized graphic (a valid non-linguistic clue) to aid learning. The phonetic transcript was included in this case to support Mandarin speakers. Given the prominence Keywords Biology gives to contextualized learning, the vocabulary section defines each keyword in the context of the topic before offering an example of each keyword, again in context.

Parallel texts are used throughout the vocabulary section to support learning. While skilled teachers exploit opportunities to tap into areas of prior knowledge to build on learning, it cannot be assumed that all learners in a super-diverse, multilingual environment have had exposure to some type of continuous formative learning that is transferrable. Parallel texts in this instance foster informal learning and encourage young learners to seek clarification and understanding outside of a formal classroom setting, where again the time constraints on a subject teacher prohibit such an exploration of keywords that some young learners require.

(c) Pronunciation

Even within an English language classroom setting, pronunciation is often the one area of teaching that is neglected, as it is usually perceived to be a difficult area to teach. However, since English is not a phonetic language so that looking at the written word often does not help learners to say it, some form of pronunciation teaching is required to ensure that learners can communicate intelligibly. This is critical because knowing a word also means knowing how to pronounce it.

While a focus on phonemes (sounds) is often where English language teachers start when they teach pronunciation, incorrect words stress often leads to more problems with communication than the incorrect use of an individual phoneme (sound). Indeed, given the challenges many English language learners in multilingual classrooms encounter with both English and subject matter content, Keywords Biology takes word stress as the starting point for pronunciation. In addition, for learners whose first language uses a non-Roman script or for those who may not be literate in their first language, any attempt to introduce a phonemic alphabet at this stage was deemed to be counter-productive.

Most people find speaking publicly in a language they are learning to be a daunting task. Discussing content matter in an academic setting can be extremely stressful for a child or a young person. In the pronunciation section, Keywords Biology uses the self-record and playback function to allow learners to practise pronouncing the keywords in private in order to build their confidence, which in turn encourages them to participate in a mainstream classroom setting.

(d) Word Order

This is the first time learners have the opportunity to test their comprehension of the keywords. Not only are the keywords presented in context, but the word order activity tests their knowledge of sentence level syntax and encourages them to think about sentence level construction. It is critical for them to gain an understanding of syntax, as this in turn will give them control over their own writing and support them in writing coherent sentences, which in time will become longer pieces of text. Once they establish competency, they will be able to explore alternative options and self-evaluate other pieces of writing they produce.

As a support aid, the activity contains vital literacy clues that work to reduce the cognitive load on young learners. If learners are familiar with basic punctuation rules (a capital letter at the start of the sentence and a full stop at the end), then identifying the first word or lexical set will encourage them to engage with the activity. Since the activity has a high level of interactivity and a game-like feel, it also suits a variety of different learning styles.

(e) Spelling

Knowing a word means knowing how to spell it. The more thoroughly learners know a word, the more they will be able to recognise it, spell it, define it and then use it appropriately in a variety of different contexts. While weekly spelling tests are common at primary level, they all but disappear at second level. It is often assumed that young people have the relevant strategies to decode words along with the appropriate study skills and motivatio to learn the spelling of a word independently. Exam results at national and international levels challenge such assumptions.

Keywords Biology introduces spelling as a distinct activity to remind learners of its importance. Given the challenges spelling poses for literacy learners or those unfamiliar with the Roman script, only six of the twelve keywords are tested. This makes the task more manageable and achievable. Learners are asked to identify the missing letters and need to use a number of strategies to fill in the gaps.

Again learners have the option to record themselves saying the word they have just spelt. While not relevant to all learners, this option may prompt those struggling to pronounce keywords to practise further. It also supports pair or small group work as it can encourage learners to listen to the pronunciation of others.

(f&g) Multi-choice & Gap fill

Once learners are familiar with the keywords as words (vocabulary definitions in context, pronunciation, spelling) and their place in the syntax of a sentence (word order), they can begin to combine their language knowledge with an overall comprehension of the topic.

(f) Multi-choice activity

Staying with sentence level syntax, as the task level itself has become more complex, the multi-choice activity uses phrasing close to the opening description. This repetition reinforces the previous learning. The challenge comes from the distracters, which should be plausible answers to the new language learner. For instance, the statement, “Green plants absorb _________ in the process of photosynthesis”, provides four options:

  1. pigment
  2. glucose
  3. carbon dioxide
  4. oxygen

Each is a substance or a chemical, and each is a noun that would syntactically fit. The learner must know the meaning of the correct term to distinguish it from the others, and the learner must understand the meaning of the whole statement to choose correctly. This combines word knowledge with comprehension.

The record option gives learners the opportunity to record themselves reading a full sentence. While the app has not looked at sentence stress in this version, it does provide an opportunity for learners to work in small groups and to listen and evaluate the pronunciation of one other.

(g) Gap fill activity

The Gap fill activity takes comprehension further by presenting the opening description from the introduction twice, each time with six of the keywords left blank, and each blank has a dropdown list of four options. Repetition of the introductory description has the same function as the conclusion in a formal piece of writing; it restates the opening assertion. In reaching the conclusion, the learner/reader is now ready to absorb the statement with knowledge and clarity. And since to know a word is to encounter it seven times, the repetition of the introduction stabilizes the learner’s knowledge of the keywords in a familiar context. The now familiar distractors serve the same function as they do in the MCQ activity.

While large areas of pronunciation have not been addressed in this version of Keywords Biology, notably phonemes, sentence stress, intonation and connected speech, there may be opportunities in support classes to draw learners’ attention to these areas. Learners need an awareness of how assimilation, elision and liaison affect pronunciation, and this final text, with which some learners will now be familiar, can provide some examples. Pronunciation is more than just producing sounds; learners also need to be able to listen and identify sounds and stress patterns when others speak. Again, the record and playback feature provides opportunities for one to one, pair or group learning around these areas.

(h) Conclusion – free writing activity

Given the number of controlled activities in the app, this is the first opportunity learners have to produce text independently. The instruction, which consists of three sentences in a rather extended piece of text, contains multiple options. An accompanying parallel text is used to ensure that learners understand the multiple tasks involved in the instruction. The graphic, or non- linguistic clue, acts as a reminder of the learning that has taken place and provides clarity as to the forthcoming writing task

Depending on their level of literacy competency, this task will be extremely challenging for some learners. While some learners studying independently may chose to write a paragraph, the task will need to be differentiated for others. One or two sentences may be sufficient for some learners. It can be used by others to spell some of the keywords, which can then be shared. Alternatively, if learners want to work on their speaking skills, they can record themselves describing the process of photosynthesis and again share with their friends or teacher.

Getting learners to attempt to write and encouraging them to share it and give feedback to each other is the first stage of the writing process, a theme that we will take up in our Byte Papers and blog posts. At this point, it is important for young people to realise, especially those with literacy needs, that the first attempt is not necessarily the final one. Numerous drafts of the sentence, paragraph or essay will be required for every writing task. Sharing with friends will help them to see that writing need not be a solitary process and that each attempt will bring them closer to their goal.

(i) Glossary

The glossary section provides learners with the list of keywords central to understanding the topic at hand. If learners require further revision or clarification of any of the keywords, they are simply brought back to the definition screen in the vocabulary section, where they can quickly review the keywords they have learnt.

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