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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Improving languages education

Angela Scarino
Associate Professor and Director, Research Centre for Languages and Cultures, University of South Australia

Teaching and Learning Languages: A Guide is a new resource that has recently been provided to all Australian schools, as well as to many individuals and groups involved in languages education. The Guide, by Angela Scarino and Anthony Liddicoat, is designed to promote reflection on language education, including languages programs, and the roles and pedagogical approaches of language teachers. It can be used by school leaders, policy makers, curriculum consultants and the wider community as a tool to support the ongoing development, evaluation and renewal of languages programs in schools.

The Guide recognises that language learning needs to take into account the importance of language and culture to people’s everyday lives. It therefore promotes languages teaching with consideration given to two complementary goals: students’ development of their sociocultural, experiential identities on the one hand, and on the other, their communicative repertoires in the target language.

The Guide builds on national collaborative research and development work undertaken with funding from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. This research was completed under the auspices of the National Statement for Languages Education in Australian Schools and the National Plan for Languages and Education in Australian Schools 2005-2008, developed by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA).

It also draws upon the results of two major professional learning projects, the Intercultural Language Teaching and Learning in Practice Project (ILTLP) and the Professional Standards Project (web-based materials that provide online, practical examples of how the principles and ideas covered can be incorporated into languages education to improve student learning).

Some of the concepts and features of contemporary languages teaching and learning captured in the Guide are as follows:

The notion of ‘stance’
Teachers need to continuously analyse their ‘stance’: the personal and professional positions or ideologies, such as political or cultural perspectives, they apply to both their work as teachers and their own learning. These fundamental perspectives shape their teaching programs, pedagogical approaches, and assessment practices. The Guide aims to develop teachers’ teaching identities and self-understanding, and their awareness of how their personal perspectives affect students’ learning. This knowledge and awareness is an essential step in embracing pedagogical growth.

Languages education to develop intercultural capability
Languages teachers must have a sophisticated understanding of the increasing complexity of the context and purpose of language and language use, and the way in which their teaching must evolve as a result. Teachers must recognise that today’s learners are increasingly exposed to diverse languages and cultures, and that to engage competently across global social, cultural and professional networks they need to develop intercultural capability, which is the capacity to negotiate and mediate understanding across diverse linguistic and sociocultural contexts.

The nature of language
Languages are tied to users’ culture and identity. The learning and teaching of languages is a linguistic, social and cultural process. In learning to use an additional language, learners need to be exposed to language in a way that goes beyond it being seen as a code. They need to be exposed to language as a social practice. In this context, learners participate in shared meaning-making and come to understand the reciprocal process of mutual interpretation in communication. Language, culture, and identity are intertwined, and all language users and learners will bring their own culture and identity to their communicative interactions. Teachers and learners must therefore be aware of how language use involves the bridging or negotiation of meaning: by learning another language, students enter into an additional linguistic and cultural system, that is, another system of viewing, understanding and negotiating the world.

The diversity of learners and their life-worlds
Sociocultural perspectives of learning see learning not in terms of fixed ability, but in capability, or students’ potential. The diverse experiences, social perspectives, and values of learners affect how they experience and engage with the world. As a result, learners’ life-worlds, the sum of these experiences, are central to how and why they learn. Teachers need to understand the social and cultural diversity of their students, and how students’ culturally shaped identity, or intraculturality, influences learning. To help students develop as both language learners and users, notions of meaning, experience, culture, and language need to be addressed in terms of these evolving identities.

Changing pedagogies
Pedagogical approaches to language teaching are constantly changing and evolving, and teachers need to take into account social and technological developments. Communication technologies can facilitate global interactions between language users, providing opportunities for language use and participation in the target language’s communities. It is essential that language learners be provided with frequent and varied opportunities for interaction, and that these opportunities are meaningful and ongoing. Promoting purposeful interaction extends students’ learning and requires them to use language in ways that move beyond the superficial. Through language use in interaction learners develop the capability to engage in instances of increasingly complex meaning-making and interpretation.

Developing programs for learning languages
Language programs need to be flexible in order to take into account the diverse life-worlds of learners, and should encourage genuine learning. Teachers should consider the context of learning when developing a language program, and should take into account the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of learners. Their planning should include both short-term and longer-term learning goals. Spontaneity is a prominent feature of the language learning classroom, and requires that teachers be prepared for divergences from planned learning sequences. In developing language programs teachers need to interweave content and plan connections and interactions, make use of engaging, contemporary resources and technologies, and apply diverse assessment and evaluation methods to obtain evidence of students’ learning.

Ultimately, the Guide promotes the development of a learning culture for teaching and learning languages that involves understanding teachers and students and the identities and experiences that inform their approaches, as well as promoting intercultural interaction, exchange and sensitivity.

Key Learning Areas

Languages

Subject Headings

Globalisation
Language and languages
Languages other than English (LOTE)