ASFLA Conference 2013 – Day 1

After successful pre-conference workshops yesterday by expert linguists Sally Humphrey, Susan Feez, David Rose and Peter White, the ASFLA Conference was officially opened this morning by Professor Clare Wyatt-Smith, the Executive Dean of Education at the Australian Catholic University.

This was followed by the first key note speaker Emeritus Professor Frances Christie, with a paper titled ‘Seizing the moment: the case of English literature studies.’ Christie unpacked how students are expected to adopt a particular ‘gaze’ or knower code in order to respond to literature. The paper was heavy in systemic functional linguistic terminology such as semantic waves, semantic gravity and semantic density, which are rarely – if ever – used in teacher education or in the classroom. However, as the talk unfolded, it became apparent that as teachers we refer to the same or similar elements of responses to literature that Christie was discussing, but we use different terms that are more accessible in a classroom setting or to those whose training is not in the field of systemic functional linguistics. These new concepts acquired through Christie’s presentation were very useful for coming to a deeper understanding of how students need to create meaning in their responses to texts.

After morning tea, delegates broke off into concurrent sessions. Len Unsworth’s presentation considered ‘visual grammatics’ through a study of student interpretive responses to images in picture books. The data was collected and divided into three kinds of responses:
tactical – seemed like students were simply tying to find something to say
mimetic – students were aware of interpersonal meaning but did not technicalize awareness
semiotic – three levels within this response 1) descriptive of interpersonal meaning, 2) technical naming of interpersonal meaning, 3) interpretive, where students relate interpersonal positioning in an image to thematic concerns of the story

The first round of data collected was simply written responses, and very few students from the sample of Year 4 through to Year 10 managed to go beyond the mimetic or early semiotic responses. Interestingly, however, the second round of data, in which both written and oral responses were collected, showed that students could begin to express the interpretive response verbally even at Year 5, when they struggled to express it on writing. This raises questions for educators in terms of how we help students to express the same meaning in an interpretive way through writing. It’s not that they are not capable of the necessary thinking skills , but they don’t necessarily have the formal written language to express these ideas.

Another fascinating concurrent session was that of Lars Salomonsen and Winnie Ƙstergaard, titled ‘Developing a language-based teaching of Maths in primary school using the mode continuum as a teacher planning tool.’ This paper followed how the presenters worked with trainee Maths and Danish as a Second Language students in Denmark to enhance the learning of Year 1 students through language. The presentation provoked fascinating discussion between linguists and educators of varying backgrounds, but a general understanding was met that language, visuals, and symbols are equally important to student learning in mathematics, reaffirming the importance of a cross-curricular approach to literacy.

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More concurrent sessions followed after lunch before the first day concluded with the second key note speaker, Peter White. White spoke about “issues associated with authorial identity or persona.” This identity is often seen as flexible – constructed, produced or performed through language according to the requirements of specific communicative events.

Day One of ASFLA’s Conference was engaging and stimulating. The conference attracts delegates from a range of backgrounds, providing the opportunity for academics, linguists, educational consultants and educators to come together and understand the practicalities of each other’s work. This is crucial given that the work of one does, in fact, impact upon the work of the other. What better opportunity to bridge gaps, come to better understandings, translate academia into practical classroom approaches and celebrate the amazing work that is going on in our universities, education departments and schools.

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