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Developing metalinguistic talk through teacher–researcher partnership

Written by: Ruth Newman
7 min read

You can listen to an audio version of this article above.

RUTH NEWMAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR IN LANGUAGE AND LITERACY EDUCATION, UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, UK

Introduction

A large body of research illustrates the benefits of talk for learning (Mercer and Littleton, 2007; Wegerif, 2013; Jay et al., 2017), recognising that ‘Of all the tools for educational intervention in students’ development, talk is perhaps the most pervasive in its use and powerful in its possibilities’ (Alexander, 2020, p. 15). While much has been written about the benefits of talk for writing (Fisher et al., 2010; Corbett and Strong, 2017), research indicates the particular value of classroom talk that supports thinking about writerly choice (e.g. Myhill and Newman, 2016, 2019). ‘Metalinguistic talk’ is a term used to describe talk specifically about language use. This metalinguistic talk, which can support learners’ capacity to better craft and control their writing, can occur in various forms – for example, whole-class talk about mentor texts or peer-to-peer reflection on writing – and it is dialogic because it prompts exploration and reasoning.

Dialogic talk, however, often requires changing deeply ingrained patterns of classroom talk (Boyd and Markarian, 2015; O’Connor and Michaels, 2019; Barak and Lefstein, 2022). Our own research shows that implementing and managing metalinguistic talk is also challenging because it demands both linguistic and pedagogical expertise, in order to open up discussion and interject authoritative explanations that support thinking about language (Myhill and Newman, 2016, 2019). However, research is drawing attention to the need for approaches to professional development that move beyond notions of ‘best practice’ and instead emphasise the complexity of managing classroom dialogue in different contexts and in relation to different content (Lefstein and Snell, 2014; O’Connor and Michaels, 2019).

This article reflects on the (ongoing) process of teacher–researcher collaboration during an ESRC-funded (Economic and Social Research Council) study designed to explore and promote metalinguistic talk. In particular, the article considers how a cycle of modelling, co-planning, implementation and review supported teachers’ professional learning and agency, and advanced thinking about pedagogical strategies for promoting metalinguistic talk in the classroom.

The current study

Working with seven English teachers from different secondary schools in South West England, the aim of the study was to explore how metalinguistic talk supports Key Stage 3 learners’ (aged 11 to 14) metalinguistic understanding (understanding of how written text is crafted for meaning) and writing. The first phase of the research explored metalinguistic talk in lessons focused on the use of mentor texts. The second phase involved refining pedagogical principles and strategies for metalinguistic talk. The third phase, currently underway, involves the co-construction and implementation of interventions, underpinned by the pedagogical principles. In the first and second phases of the research, data capture included audio-video of whole lessons, sub-sample students working in pairs and their ‘live writing’ (captured using smartpens), as well as hard copies of final written texts. Reflective interviews were conducted with teachers at the end of the second phase.

Whole-day teacher–researcher meetings were spaced at intervals throughout the project to support professional learning and collaboration. The researcher modelled approaches for promoting metalinguistic talk, and resources and lesson templates were designed to exemplify learning sequences that integrate and scaffold metalinguistic talk and writing. Supported by the researcher and materials provided, teachers planned for the implementation of metalinguistic talk in their own contexts and in relation to their department’s curriculum content. Transcripts and video capture of teachers’ lessons allowed for professional dialogue and review, enabling teachers to share approaches and challenges. An iterative cycle of this modelling, co-planning, implementation and review was intended to support sustained professional learning.

Principles in practice 

In the first phase of the project, modelling during teacher–researcher meetings focused on teachers’ management of whole-class metalinguistic talk about mentor texts, a strategy underpinned by the principle that talk about mentor texts stimulates thinking about different linguistic possibilities and effects, and that mentor texts serve as models for students’ own writing. Attention was drawn to ‘talk moves’ that open up thinking by initiating lines of enquiry, prompting elaboration and supporting the verbalisation of linguistic choice and effect (Myhill et al., 2022). Teachers were introduced to a range of potential mentor texts and exemplar writing tasks, prompting consideration of the possibilities that different mentor texts present for the exploration of linguistic devices. This focus on whole-class metalinguistic talk about mentor texts built a foundation on which further pedagogical strategies would be developed, and was a means of developing teacher confidence and skill.

Observation and professional dialogue about how metalinguistic talk manifested in teachers’ various contexts furthered consideration of metalinguistic talk about mentor texts, highlighting the nuanced ways in which different students responded to teachers’ questions. The teacher in the excerpt below poses an open question to her high-attaining class, prompting their consideration of the linguistic choices made by HG Wells in a short extract from The Time Machine (2017, p. 34):

Teacher: What impressions do we gain from the future world?

A little way up the hill, for instance, was a great heap of granite, bound together by masses of aluminium, a vast labyrinth of precipitous walls and crumpled heaps, amidst which were thick heaps of very beautiful pagoda-like plants – nettles possibly – but wonderfully tinted with brown about the leaves, and incapable of stinging.

Student: So, nettles can’t sting… so suffering isn’t in the world.

Student: It’s kind of been left for a long time… granite, bound.

The teacher’s open question prompts responses that reveal students beginning to infer significant themes from the word choices. The teacher of this class was often able to elicit multiple enthusiastic suggestions through open-ended questioning. The focus for this teacher, then, was to understand and take these various contributions forward – in this case, to extend understanding of how HG Wells juxtaposes industrial imagery with the natural world that seems to be reclaiming the space.

The following excerpt exemplifies how another teacher managed metalinguistic talk with a lower-attaining class of less-confident readers and writers. The teacher is exploring the significance of the word ‘moved’ in the extract from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1994, p. 34):

Teacher: What might we infer from the word moved

When he had finished combing his hair he moved into the room, and he moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsman.

Student: ‘Moved’ is like the general verb that describes any sort of movement.

Student: It’s not very important.

Teacher: Say, for example, he chose the word stomped, he stomped into the room, he stomped with majesty?

Student: Stomping is kind of like annoyed and it’s not very graceful, and I feel like master craftsman and royalty would be quite graceful.

The initiating question is more focused than that of the first example, scaffolding students’ reading by drawing attention to a single word in the extract. However, students struggle to recognise the effect of the verb ‘moved’, prompting the teacher to pose another question that encourages their consideration of an alternative verb. In doing so, the teacher is able to contrast between the words ‘stomped’ and ‘moved’, better revealing the effect of the original word, whilst illustrating the various choices available to writers and how these choices alter meaning.

These examples illustrate the skill and complexity involved in adjusting metalinguistic questioning according to students’ different metalinguistic expressions. Teachers need to manage talk in such a way that moves students beyond their initial impressions, to the justification of those impressions, and then to reasoning with and about language. Furthermore, where students do not offer an impression in response to an open question, a teacher needs to interweave authoritative knowledge into the dialogue in a way that scaffolds understanding of particular features and their effects.

Teachers’ implementation of metalinguistic talk and the sharing and reviewing of the resulting data furthered engagement with such complexities, prompting consideration of techniques to manage and promote metalinguistic talk with students who vary in terms of attainment, linguistic confidence and textual experience. This added nuance to discussion of the metalinguistic talk modelled during teacher–researcher meetings, and informed practice moving forward. For example, in the second phase of the research, the ‘focusing’ talk move – a term we used to describe how teachers used questions about linguistic alternatives – was observed more frequently by teachers in interactional sequences.

Conclusions

As well as a continuing focus on the use of mentor texts, the second phase of the research focused on refining and implementing other pedagogical principles, including metalinguistic modelling to scaffold writing, explicit modelling of metalinguistic talk to support learners’ engagement in metalinguistic discussion, and student conferencing to support learners in voicing and realising their writing objectives. While the wider aim of the study is to establish the impact of these pedagogical approaches on students’ metalinguistic understanding and writing, this article has drawn particular attention to the ways in which these approaches were explored and developed through teacher–researcher partnership.

Inevitably, teachers’ capacity for full and productive participation in research is influenced by multiple factors, often including professional constraints and competing priorities, and, of course, the demands of the research itself. Participation in this study has no doubt been challenging and time-consuming. However, several project teachers are now leading the development of metalinguistic talk across their departments and have joined the researcher in delivering external practitioner workshops. Teacher–researcher partnership can be mutually beneficial, and teachers’ sustained engagement in research that plans for professional learning and avoids the robotic implementation of pedagogical principles can enable teachers to implement and advance pedagogical initiatives with understanding and agency.

The research reported in this article is supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
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