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A Research Agenda for Educational Linguistics

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Please share how this access benefits you. Your story matters.

Uccelli,P., & Snow, C. E. (2008). A research agenda for

Citation educational linguistics. In B. Spolsky, & F. M. Hult (Eds.), The

handbook of educational linguistics (pp. 626-642). Malden,

MA:Blackwell Publishing.


Published Version

November 25, 2016 1:09:23 PM EST Accessed http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:11654981 Citable Link This article was downloaded from Harvard University's DASH Terms of Use repository, and is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:dash.current.terms- of-use#LAA (Article begins on next page) 626 Paola Uccelli and Catherine Snow 44 A Research Agenda for Educational Linguistics



Our task was to respond to the papers in this volume by suggesting what the most pressing research agenda within educational linguistics might be.

Given the wealth of evidence and ideas already presented, it may seem super- fluous to develop a further agenda for research activity. But consider the representation of knowledge in any domain as a circle, set in a field that represents the unknown. As knowledge accumulates, the circle grows in area.

But the circumference of the circle – representing the questions at the bound- ary between the known and the unknown – also increases in length, such that adding to knowledge inevitably means generating new questions and reach- ing new touchpoints with the unknown. Thus it seems appropriate to respond to the wealth of insights accumulated in this volume by identifying the new questions and problems revealed.

Furthermore, educational linguistics, like educational research in general, suffers from inadequate resources in the face of pressing need. Under such circumstances, identifying the most promising and the most urgent issues to attend to can help us use resources wisely, thus demonstrating most effectively the value of pursuing work in this area.

Research in educational linguistics shares a number of challenges with its mother field, research in education. Educational research is a somewhat ill- defined domain. It encompasses work that has disciplinary bases as disparate as neuroscience and anthropology, economics and developmental psychology, demography and discourse analysis, history and political science. What has traditionally brought these many strands of work together? Unfortunately, all too often very little. Perhaps the studies made reference to educational settings, or were carried out by researchers working in schools of education, or were published in educational journals, or were presented at one of the several, large meetings of educational researchers, such as those sponsored by the American Educational Research Association or by the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction. In other words, these strands of research cluster sociologically, but do not necessarily share common features or defining characteristics.

THOC44 626 8/8/07, 2:55 PM A Research Agenda for Educational Linguistics 627 The lack of a shared definition for educational research might account in part for its lackluster reputation. There are two major complaints about educational research: its poor quality, and its limited effectiveness in helping solve the problems of educational practice. The complaints about quality may be inevitable in a field that encompasses disciplines with very different methodological histories and proclivities. Quality is relatively easy to identify and to maintain in a field where the standards of proof are uniform, but if everything from ethnography to psychometrics, from qualitative analysis of interview data to hierarchical linear modeling are accepted methods, the criteria for rigor are inevitably less shared.

Even within the subfield of educational linguistics, the nature of evidence and standards of proof accepted by various members of the field differ greatly;

quantitative sociolinguists and language acquisition researchers present data of quite a different sort from that accepted by experimentally inclined psycholinguists or by discourse analysts. While all those methods have the potential of illuminating educational questions in complementary ways, some greater clarity about the relation of methods chosen to the nature of the data available and the questions being asked would at least help educational researchers counter the claim that their enterprise lacks rigor.

A more important and, we argue, more serious charge against educational research is that it has not contributed sufficiently to the improvement of educational practice. Why is this so? One reason is the absence of procedures to ensure that research-based knowledge about effective educational practice can accumulate. Researchers in older, more prestigious, and more ‘scientific’ fields see their job as contributing to a growing body of knowledge.

The entire enterprise moves forward as researchers use prior studies to define what is not known and thus decide where their energies should be focused.

Educational research tends all too often not to proceed in a forward direction determined by what we know. Instead, ‘knowledge’ swings back and forth, dominant understandings replacing rather than building on each other.

For example, educators go back and forth from Thorndike to Dewey, from Piaget to Vygotsky, from skills-focused to constructivist notions of learning, from experimental to interpretive methods, from biological to transactional explanations of development. As long as educational researchers are arguing about such basic notions as whether reading requires using information from print or constructing representations of text (when, of course, in fact it requires both), we can hardly hope to be taken very seriously by classroom practitioners.

Furthermore, we argue in this chapter that educational research writ large, and educational linguistics more specifically, would benefit from taking more seriously the implications of being educational. Research should not be characterized as educational simply because it involves school-aged children, or because it is conducted in schools. We argue for the importance of locating the questions that guide educational research in schools. Any teacher formulates in the course of any day dozens of insights and questions about learners and learning, yet teacher knowledge is not taken very seriously by THOC44 627 8/8/07, 2:55 PM 628 Paola Uccelli and Catherine Snow researchers. Serious attention to those insights and questions would not only improve the teacher’s effectiveness, but might also lead researchers to deeper understanding.

That so many questions of relevance to teachers have been formulated and addressed in the work reported in this volume is heartening. Indeed, much of the work on second and foreign language acquisition (Huhta, Chapter 33, this volume; Pica, Chapter 37, this volume) as well as on computer-assisted language learning (Chapelle, Chapter 41, this volume) constitutes a model of what we advocate: research that is practice-embedded and practice-inspired, thus practice-relevant by design rather than as a result of retro-fitting. In this chapter, we highlight examples of such work and suggest ways in which other subfields of educational linguistics might benefit from more central attention to the questions generated by practice. The work presented in this volume ranges widely, and in its range attests to the vibrancy of the field of educational linguistics. It may be time, though, to narrow the range of what we define as educational linguistics, in order to ensure that the relevance of knowledge about language to the improvement of educational outcomes be maximized.

The Main Streams of Work in Educational Linguistics It is worth noting, as a starting place, the major lines of work that comprise educational linguistics. Indeed, the table of contents of Part II of this volume provides a good overview of these lines of work. We would characterize these domains (deviating somewhat from the names provided by the volume

editors) as follows:

–  –  –

Clearly, the role of educational linguistics in each of these domains is somewhat different. In the first three domains, the primary customer for linguistic insight is the classroom teacher, who would benefit from knowing how his/ her own language use facilitates or interferes with student learning, from understanding the linguistic challenges inherent in texts and classroom discourse, from valuing (while also decreasing) the linguistic variability displayed by student language users, from understanding how to shape classroom discourse to promote active engagement, critical thinking, and rapid learning, and from specific techniques to promote language and literacy THOC44 628 8/8/07, 2:55 PM A Research Agenda for Educational Linguistics 629 development. In the last two domains, the primary customer is the ministry of education or the local educational authority, responsible for decisions about which language to use in schools, what standards for use of that language to impose, and how to assess whether those standards are being met.

Furthermore, work on educational linguistics will inevitably have varying priorities in different parts of the world. Each region faces unique challenges, and educational researchers need to attend to those challenges with a genuine focus on the specificity of each situation. In some places, for example, issues of educational language planning hardly arise. Yet, whether the focus is on the 781 million illiterate adults in the world (http://portal.unesco.org/education), on the need to prepare students for tertiary education beyond national boundaries and thus often in a second language (http://www.uis.unesco.org/ ev.php?ID=6028_201&ID2=DO_TOPIC), or on the design of education for either indigenous or immigrant students who do not speak the national language (http://www.cal.org/topics/ell/), certain fundamental questions


1 What should we be teaching our students about language to prepare them for academic success, for professional success, for their broader intellectual challenges in adult life?

2 What do teachers need to know about language in order to be effective in promoting the desired linguistic outcomes with the full range of students in their classes?

3 Once we have identified the desired linguistic outcomes of education and the required teacher knowledge, how do we go about fostering them?

In the sections that follow, we use these three questions both to organize the knowledge accumulated across the various chapters and as a first cut in specifying more precisely the most urgent questions for the future.

What Are the Desired Educational Outcomes?

What are the desired educational outcomes at each level of schooling, and how can we adapt them to diverse populations without abandoning high standards, yet taking into consideration the range of circumstances under which learning must occur? LoBianco (Chapter 9, this volume) insightfully lists eight overarching goals that display the range of secondary linguistic socializations schools aspire to produce. This enumeration of goals illustrates in great detail the complexity of the multiple tasks involved in socializing students into various modes of communication. The complexity only increases if we take into consideration that these eight discrete goals frequently overlap in the reality of many educational institutions, as language minority issues, multilingualism, disciplinary linguistic knowledge and language-related special needs are often coexisting factors that instruction needs to address.

THOC44 629 8/8/07, 2:55 PM 630 Paola Uccelli and Catherine Snow Two tensions seem to lie at the core of defining what the educational outcomes should be in various contexts. The first one is the tension between homogeneity and diversification. Defining the ‘standard language’ to be used at school is challenging as student bodies become increasingly diverse and successful communication outside the classroom often calls for alternative language forms. Indeed, Nekvapil (Chapter 18, this volume) argues that “the standard” should move toward a polycentric nature, formed by mixed home languages, and accessible to all, not only the elites. While this might constitute a controversial claim, it points to a core definitional feature that cannot be overlooked in establishing educational outcomes related to language.

The increasing mobility of the world population, generating contact among more languages and more cultures than ever before, raises to prominence the following questions: What is (are) the standard language(s) to be taught at school? What is the best way for students to have access to it (them) in harmonious coexistence with their primary forms of discourse? Recent projects that seek to develop dialect awareness (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes, & Hazen, 1997; Reaser & Wolfram, 2005) and strategies to help language minority students recognize and switch to academic English features (LeMoine, 2001) offer initial insights on the integration of language varieties in the classroom (see Reaser & Adger, Chapter 12, this volume). There is, however, a long road ahead for research that seeks to identify the optimal outcomes and the best instructional strategies for different populations under a variety of conditions.

The second related tension deals with centralization versus local control.

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