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Languaging For Understanding

Language or rather languaging is the key to successful internalisation of concepts which is a prerequisite of deep learning. The two continua of our model (the conceptualizing continuum and the communicating continuum) are like rotor blades of a propeller, a plane will only fly if both of them are perfectly aligned. Languaging is the force that sets the blades in motion, accelerates them and keeps the propeller spinning.

What is languaging and why is it important?

Languaging is a means to mediate our thinking. Languaging is the process through which we express our thinking and thus make it visible  to others ans well as ourselves. It is through the process of languaging that learners make meaning, shape knowledge and experience, thereby reaching increasingly sound understandings and developing the ability to express them appropriately. This continuous process of refining understanding and expression of understanding makes it possible for students to abstract their concept construction from the more anecdotal instance that triggers it. This, in turn, will allow for transfer of the knowledge, strategies and procedures developed through this process of refining to other contexts. It also surely and successfully moves the students beyond the simple parroting of knowledge that constitutes a danger in any subject learning. In other words, we have to dig deep before we can begin to develop transferable knowledge and skills.  

How do we help learners develop languaging?

 Teachers are familiar with the importance of higher order thinking when they design learning tasks. Cognitive discourse functions are the building blocks of higher order thinking. We language through cognitive discourse functions (CDFs). It is through these CDFs that learners build and structure knowledge, which allows them to make sense of new content, for example by:

  • describing and labeling the parts of a cell
  • explaining and defining a complex process such as photosynthesis
  • comparing different types of volcanoes
  • assessing and evaluating the opportunities/threats of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)

A pluriliteracies approach to learning stresses the need to help learners become literate in their subjects. That means that we have to make sure that learners are enabled to actively use CDFs  at increasingly complex levels.

 Clearly, asking our learners to “define x” or to “explain y” is not enough for them to fully understand a concept. In addition to that, we have to make visible how to language and, more importantly, how to language increasingly well. So teachers need to know more about the nature of CDFs and how to make them accessible to all their learners.

Summing up:

 Teachers and learners need to become aware of the various aspects of teaching CDFs. For example, in the case of explanation, they need to ask themselves questions such as
1. What different types of explanations exist (i.e. sequential, simple causal or multi-causal)?
2. What do these explanations consist of (i.e. cause and effect structures)?
3. What makes a good explanation?  What distinguishes a basic explanation from a more sophisticated one? (i.e. sequential explanation vs multi-causal explanation).
4. How can I help my students improve their explanations? What language materials, tasks or exercises will they need to succeed?

 Show me how:

 Anja Woike’s Geography materials demonstrate how cognitive discourse functions, in her case different types of explanations at different levels of complexity, can systematically and explicitly be incorporated into materials and tasks for different age groups. Learners are systematically supported in gaining an in-depth understanding of the relevant content and how to communicate their increasingly sophisticated knowledge successfully at increasingly complex levels of language.

Putting pluriliteracies into practice
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The Pluriliteracies wheel

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Cognitive Discourse Functions, operators & corresponding genres (Graz Group 2015)

(Based on Polias 2015, Dalton-Puffer 2015)