After the coffee break this morning, the participants of the week got together to look at some literacy classroom activities implemented following a compulsory national directive in the UK. Sheena Gardner addressed its application in the classroom using transcripts of the interaction that was observed. The children were between 6 and 7 years old and at least bilingual, with English as their additional language. She presented the literacy activity Silly Questions, which was originally designed as part of the National Literacy Strategy Phonics: Progression in Phonics, Materials for Whole Class Teaching . This government protocol suggested some interactive classroom activities to help students learn in context consonant and vowel strings/clusters that are typical to the English language. In Silly Questions, the teacher holds up a simple, but “silly,” question (e.g. CAN A HEN DIG? or CAN A SLUG SWING?) and the children are asked to answer “yes” or “no.” This is followed by a brief discussion where the teacher asks the child to explain his/her reasoning for their answer.
Before looking at the transcripts, Sheena Gardner listed the procedure teachers were asked to follow. The only quote included from the original publication, presented as the “purpose” of the protocol was: “to read words in context” (1999:31). At this point in her presentation, the audience responded with chuckles. This didn’t allow for opening a clearly needed discussion and clarification of what “context” means to researchers studying the development of valid phonetic sequences in spoken language, which differ widely in different languages and represent a challenge to language learners. For clinical phoneticians, “context” is not a social or interactional one, but simply the phonetic environment in which a particular string of phonemes occurs. Reading words in contexts, in this view, means to be able to decode and encode strings of phonemes when they occur next to other phonemes from other words.
Much work on this subject has been done in clinical phonetics, especially in light of apraxia (e.g. studies on models of speech production). Certain consonant strings are more difficult to articulate than others (e.g. the cluster at the beginning of street is more difficult than the beginning of sit, both for patients with apraxia who need speech therapy as well as English learners coming from other languages). From a clinical phonetics point of view, there are clear stepping stones for coherent pronunciation in each language. Since we weren’t presented with more than a fragment of a sentence quoted from the original document upon which the classroom activities were based, we were left unable to judge the relevance of this in regards of the real goals of the activity.
Interestingly, the educational researchers studying these interactions were said to be “surprised” that this activity worked so well (i.e. on an interactional level since the teacher and the children had relatively long discussions about the Silly Questions that were presented to them). Furthermore, though not discussed in the session this morning, the teachers in the transcripts seemed to understand that the goal of the activity, in that they would never use the target words in their questions. Rather, they would ask “Why did you answer “yes”?” or “Why do you think that?” allowing the child to use the target words (i.e. phonetic strings) in yet a different context than that which it was read or heard when presented as a question.
We are anticipating at least one session – perhaps the final panel this week – where the floor will be opened for the participants to discuss and debate these emerging issues. Perhaps we’ll even be able to ask questions that our colleagues might think are silly within their approach. These differences are rooted in the different foci of the diverse theoretical and methodological backgrounds of the group: the interdisciplinary richness of studying multilingualism.