Writing conversations: students’ metalinguistic talk about decision-making in writing.

Year: 2019

Author: Myhill, Debra

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This presentation considers the place of metalinguistic talk about writing within a functionally-oriented pedagogy of writing, and examines how students in both primary and secondary reveal metalinguistic decision-making in writing through their metalinguistic talk.

Adopting a socio-cultural view of grammar, as espoused by Halliday, we argue that grammar and its conceptual terminology are resources to highlight the possibilities of language choice in shaping meanings in written text, a way of helping young writers in ‘learning how to mean’. Moreover, in learning how to mean and how to exercise choice and agency as writers, we are developing young writers’ metalinguistic understanding about writing and writerly choices. Pedagogically, metalinguistic talk in the classroom allows language to be used for cognitive purposes , opening up thinking space for ‘deeper level of attention’ to the relationship ‘between meaning, form and function’(Storch 2008) and making thinking visible through verbalisation. Yet, whilst research has argued for the learning benefits of purposeful classroom talk, orchestrating such talk has been recognised as challenging.

The presentation draws on a data a four-year funded longitudinal study in the UK, tracing how four classes developed metalinguistic understanding about language choices in writing. The research design was a cross-phase qualitative study, involving two primary and two secondary classes in four different schools, beginning with 9-year olds in primary and 12-year olds in secondary (n=109). A substantial data set of student writing samples, lesson observations, and ‘writing conversation’ interviews with students, was collected. The writing conversation interviews invited students to reflect on the metalinguistic choices made in their own texts, or in a peer’s text. This presentation draws on the writing conversation interviews (n=187).

The writing conversation interviews were analysed in Nvivo using open and axial coding. The analysis of the student writing conversations reveals that students can articulate their metalinguistic decision-making and the capacity to do so increases with age. At the same time, many students struggle to verbalise the reasons for their decision-making, perhaps because the decisions are made implicitly, or epilinguistically, or perhaps because this kind of verbalisation is a new way of thinking about and reflecting on writing. The data also shows the close relationship between teachers’ management of metalinguistic talk and students’ capacity to express metalinguistic reflection, underlining the importance of metalinguistically-discursive writing classrooms.

Storch, N. (2008) Metatalk in a Pair Work Activity: Level of Engagement and Implications for Language Development, Language Awareness, 17:2, 95-114.