Today’s takeaways are from Petra Claflin.
In this Format Matters section of TLAC 2.0, Lemov talks about holding students accountable to speaking in proper format, specifically grammatical format, complete sentence format, and audible format. He goes on to introduce Collegiate Format, a new addition in TLAC 2.0 based on research from Basil Bernstein that has important implications for educators that we would be wise to pay attention to – both academically and relationally. Bernstein theorized that there are two modes in which people communicate:
Restricted code: when the speaker assumes that listeners share their own context and perspective. For example, someone might say “It was great” if they can assume the listener already knows the context and what ‘it’ is.
Elaborated code: when the speaker makes a point of not assuming a shared perspective with the listener, even when there is good reason to assume one. When speaking in elaborated code, “It was great” would turn into, “The trip Chris and I went on to Florida was great.”
In Bernstein’s research, he observed class differences in the use of restricted versus elaborated code. To quote Lemov:
Bernstein found a strong correlation between its [elaborated code] use – between knowing when you were supposed to use it – and things like class mobility and future success. In the most economically robust segments of British society – in universities and white-collar offices – people spoke differently and noticed when others failed to do so.
Lemov goes on to connect this to the expectations that exist for how people speak in a collegiate setting, dubbing it College Format. It is the ‘language of opportunity’ and, for those of us working with lower income populations, it plays a huge role in whether or not our students are truly college-ready.
From a strictly academic standpoint, speaking more elaborately can have powerful positive results.
- It allows for deeper processing. How many times have you called a friend or colleague to run an idea by them or talk through something? Or maybe turned to your journal to work through a struggle? In both of these instances, we’re elaborating on our ideas through spoken or written language in order to refine or better understand our ideas. Our students will benefit similarly by elaborating more on their ideas.
- It can uncover misunderstandings. When Elisa, Sarah, and I were discussing this, Elisa pointed out the implications of elaboration in math class. She’s had many experiences where students would share a correct answer and she’d assumed they understood. When prompted to elaborate, though, it was clear the student didn’t really understand.
When I looked beyond the strict academics of teaching kids that format matters, though, I was struck by some troubling reflections.
The ‘ah-hah’ here for me was not that language matters. While Bernstein’s research was new to me, the idea was immediately familiar. As a former ELA teacher, I remember consistently giving my students feedback that they needed to write their literary essays as if I had never read the book. Of course, I had read the books, but I didn’t bother to reflect on why they illogically needed to write as if I hadn’t. I just took for granted that that’s the way it worked.
What did strike me when reading about College Format was the reminder that issues of class, race, and bias impact college readiness as much as academics do, if not more so. And that when we talk about making our students college-ready, we are also talking about helping to make sure they can negotiate the persistent and often unintended classism and racism that will consistently try to impede their progress. And language is a big part of this negotiation.
In Lemov’s words, “It’s a language you have to speak – and know you have to speak – to participate in academic discourse and have the fullest opportunity for social mobility.” I appreciate his candor and transparency around the ‘language of opportunity’ and would like to push us all to analyze our role in both the giving and taking of opportunities based on language.
As educators, we need to make sure we understand how language is impacting our perceptions of our students. While we need to teach our students the ‘language of opportunity,’ we also need to acknowledge the biases it may impress upon us and work to minimize its power over our perceptions.
Here are some ideas:
And above all, keep your expectations high. While we don’t want to unfairly assess our students based on how they communicate, the fact remains that the format they speak and write in will have a huge impact on whether or not they are accepted into and succeed in college and beyond. And that’s the goal that will help usher in real change for our students!
- Ratio – getting students to think more, write more, and discuss more.
- Checking for Understanding – doing it well to get the data you need.