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Teacher training needs a rethink to integrate language, subject learning

Opinion & Analysis
IN many countries, English is often the language of teaching and learning in schools. Learners get their knowledge of school subjects through the use of English — be it reading, writing or speaking and listening.

IN many countries, English is often the language of teaching and learning in schools. Learners get their knowledge of school subjects through the use of English — be it reading, writing or speaking and listening.

Nhlanhla Mpofu/ Mncedisi Maphalala

Learners, who are comfortable using English structures, phrases and terms as they are used in each school subject, have greater academic success. Some school systems, therefore, aim to teach language and subject content at the same time.

Organising the curriculum this way is known as Language Across the Curriculum. In South Africa — a country with 11 official languages — it’s referred to as English Across the Curriculum. This is because English is the language of learning and teaching from Grade 4, where pupils tend to be 10 years old.

The English Across the Curriculum strategy is to develop English language skills across all high school subjects, not just by studying English itself. It pays attention to how English is used for developing knowledge in other subjects such as Life Sciences, Mathematics or Geography.

Realising the importance of this approach, South Africa’s Department of Basic Education published a Manual for Teaching English Across the Curriculum in 2014. The manual provided high school teachers with subject-specific activities and lesson preparation demonstrations so they could follow the language strategy.

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But in 2017, the department reported that high school teachers weren’t using this approach as was expected of them. This meant some high school learners would find it difficult to acquire subject knowledge. Subject concepts and skills can’t be understood outside the language they occur.

We decided to explore whether this problem arose from the training that teachers were getting. Our study explored how student teachers in different universities were prepared for integrating language and subject learning.

Student teachers in our study sample acknowledged the importance of developing English language in subject learning. But most of them indicated that their preparation to use the English Across the Curriculum strategy was largely incidental. Their curriculum didn’t ensure it.

Secondly, they rarely saw their own lecturers modelling the strategy.

Preparing teachers

We held several focus group discussions with 102 final year Bachelor of Education students from three universities in South Africa.

The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation also supports the English Across the Curriculum strategy. It states that teachers who successfully complete an initial professional qualification should be proficient in at least one official South African language as a language of learning and teaching.

We found that at University A, there were no specific English Across the Curriculum courses or activities. A course that the student teachers mentioned as coming close was academic literacy. But this was a generic course that all first-year students took to develop academic language skills. It had little to do with English Across the Curriculum.

At University B there was a well-defined curriculum for the study of English Across the Curriculum. It allowed the students to choose between two languages of instruction, namely, Afrikaans and English. Student teachers who selected English as the medium for teaching enrolled for a number of courses in their four years of study which modelled how to infuse language and subject learning. The student teachers seemed confident that they would be able to do this in their future classroom. But they worried that during their teaching practice, they didn’t observe the mentor teachers using the strategy.

At University C student teachers were prepared as English Across the Curriculum practitioners using one course in their fourth year. The aim of this course was to guide student teachers on how learners acquired language skills that would develop their thought processes in subject specific content. This course focused on how student teachers could use listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in subject learning.

Overall, we found that the student teachers weren’t confident that they could create the conditions for subject learning using English as a language of instruction. They didn’t have a thorough understanding of integrating English language skills and subject learning.

Some universities, like University B, are making efforts to prepare student teachers to follow the strategy. In others, like A and C, this preparation is largely fragmented, unintentional and left to chance. It shows a mismatch between policy and practice.

Identifying gaps

There’s no perfect teaching approach guaranteed to prepare student teachers to practise English Across the Curriculum. But there are a number of opportunities that universities can use.

Based on our research, we propose a specialised language knowledge for content teaching approach. This is different from the current strategy in teacher education, where English language is used for academic activities but not meant to enhance subject-specific proficiency.

In the approach; we recommend lecturers in different disciplines across the teacher education curriculum use language to represent content knowledge in an accessible way.

This goes beyond linguistic forms such as vocabulary and grammar. It looks at how language is used for communication in a specific subject.

Learning activities such as lectures, micro-teaching, lesson planning, portfolio development, reflection exercises and teaching practice should all be used to develop student teachers’ specialised language knowledge for content teaching.

Going forward

Our study initiates an important discussion that various universities through their faculties of education can have. But planning for the simultaneous development of student teachers’ subject and language knowledge isn’t easy. It requires a review of the teacher education curriculum, reworking the knowledge base for student teachers and providing professional development for lecturers who teach student teachers.

With creative thinking, universities and government departments can find practical solutions that should enhance the academic success of school children through quality language and subject learning.