Functional Grammar in Support of Literacy in History
Mary J. Schleppegrell, May 2012
Every discipline has recurring ways of using language to construct its particular discourses, genres, and ways of making meaning. History is primarily a textual construction, presented to students in the language of the primary sources that historians explore, the language of interpretation of nontextual artifacts, and the language of textbooks and other documents used in history classrooms. Linguists have shown the traits distinctive to the language of history, highlighting the linguistic technology students will need to control in order to master the discipline. In particular, discovering ways that the language of history presents meaning motifs such as agency, causality, and judgment is key to reading with understanding. Recognizing how history is constructed in language in particular ways also helps students write the kinds of texts that are expected in history classrooms: historical accounts, explanations, and arguments that enable students to display their knowledge about history and engage in discussions and debates.
Recent research based on collaboration between historians, history educators, and functional linguists offers teachers explicit ways of exploring meaning in the texts students read, and supporting the development of powerful ways of writing about history.1 This research demonstrates that paying explicit attention to language helps students explore typical patterns in the ways history is written as they learn to examine sources and evidence, think about cause and effect, assess significance, and recognize an author's point of view. Two key linguistic constructs that teachers and students can use to explore the texts they read are genre and text structure and grammar and sentence analysis. Through different genres and in different choices of grammar, authors present interpretations of history that students should be able to recognize and consider.
History is presented to students through a range of written genres, and teachers can use the notion of genres to better understand the purposes and features of the different kinds of texts their students read, as well as to assign writing tasks that are informed by clear goals for the students' learning of history and development of literacy.2 For example, some texts assigned to students are accounts of what happened, while others are explanations or arguments. Awareness of genre differences helps teachers think about whether their students are getting good models for the written explanation and argument tasks often assigned in high-stakes assessments. Learning about genre patterns can help teachers recognize that students need opportunities to read and engage with historical arguments and explanations. Through this learning, teachers often realize that they have been asking their students to write arguments without having provided models for arguing, as many of the texts read in history classrooms are chronologically organized and not presented as arguments or explanations. Teachers need to provide explicit scaffolding to help students understand the expectations of those genres.
Going more deeply into the analysis of the texts they read, students can also learn to recognize some typical patterns in the grammar used to write history. For example, analysis of grammar and sentence structure helps students think about historical agency, the presentation of time and cause, and the construal of interpretation, key aspects of meaning in history.
Often, historical agency is obscured in textbook language, as in the use of reduced clauses to introduce a sentence, in which the 'actor' in the first clause may not be obvious. For example, when a 7th grade textbook asserts that, "to finance Rome's huge armies, its citizens had to pay heavy taxes," students have to recognize that citizens financed the armies. Or when an 8th grade textbook states that, "ignoring the Cherokee's treaty rights, Georgia officials began preparing for the removal," students can consider who is ignoring the treaty rights, and what kinds of actions and actors are buried in the word "removal." Using a functional, meaning-based understanding of grammar and clause structure, students can break sentences and texts into their meaningful segments and discuss what the text says and what it does not say, recognizing issues that may be implicit.
Two major motifs in history writing, especially in textbooks and other secondary sources, are notions of time and cause. History is about events over time, and historians build causal explanations into their discourses in different ways. Time is chronology, while cause is explanation, and helping students recognize how time and cause are often linguistically conflated helps them begin to see the subtle ways that causality is constructed, positioning them to concur with certain interpretations. For example, in textbook language such as "Over the next decade, further events steadily led to war," students can learn to see that the author has presented the events as a chronology but also subtly as the cause of war. Through this literacy work teachers are helping students recognize the different ways that time and cause are constructed, and students read with greater understanding as they learn to see how causal reasoning is built into texts.
Interpretation is present in every historical account, and students can to learn to recognize the author's perspective as they read. Language analysis gives teachers explicit ways to focus on the meaning-making of historians, teachers, and textbooks, and offers students language for thinking historically and seeing the points of view embedded in every text in order to evaluate and contrast them. By discovering the interpretation built into the text, students can recognize how its author may be positioning them to accept a particular point of view. This helps students read more critically.
Exploring the purposes and features of historical genres, and examining how an author's language presents historical agency, time, and cause—and infuses interpretation into every text—engages students more deeply with meaning.3 This exploration enables teachers to open up the discipline to participation by students who otherwise might find the discourses of the history classroom opaque and alienating. In today's classrooms, to which students bring a wide range of literacy skills, background knowledge, and cultural perspectives, this explicit pedagogy offers a means of showing students a "way in" to learning history and developing historical literacy. The focus on language is not separate from the focus on content; the discussion of language illuminates content, as the meanings that are presented in language also reveal and reinforce the historical content. In our work with teachers, we have found that they are able to adopt these new ways of talking explicitly about language and meaning and that doing so gives them new ways of engaging students in richer learning of history.4
Mary Schleppegrell is professor of education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research studies the role of language in learning with particular attention to the needs of English language learners. She has collaborated with the California History Project to design professional development for teachers that helps them support the literacy development of their students, and has published several articles about the challenges of teaching and learning history.
1. See, for example, L. C. de Oliveira, Knowing and Writing School History: The Language of Students' Expository Writing and Teachers' Expectations (Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, 2010); Zhihui Fang and Mary J. Schleppegrell, chapter on history in Reading in Secondary Content Areas: A Language-Based Pedagogy. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008); M. J. Schleppegrell, The Language of Schooling: A Functional Linguistics Perspective (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004).; Schleppegrell, M. J., "Supporting Disciplinary Learning through Language Analysis: Developing Historical Literacy," In F. Christie and K. Maton (eds.), Disciplinarity: Functional Linguistic and Sociological Perspectives (London: Continuum, 2011), 197–216; M. J. Schleppegrell, S. Greer, and S. Taylor, "Literacy in History: Language and Meaning," Australian Journal of Language and Literacy (2008).