Academic literacies approach
We all have an important role in steering the current drive for internationalised and inclusive teaching in line with the Advance HE Internationalising Higher Education Framework. By collaborating with Sociology specialists I am developing a better understanding of how we can help our diverse body of students succeed and have stronger agency in their academic community, regardless of their linguistic, cultural or educational background.
The dominant model in most HE institutions has been to target academic support to international and non-traditional students which implies they are deficit in academic language and literacy skills. However, there is a growing literature on how an academic literacies approach (Lea and Street, 1998) is a more holistic and inclusive pedagogy which allows all students to be given the opportunity to advance in the discipline rather than be offered an add-on or remedial service (Lea, 2004, Haggis, 2006, Wingate, 2016, Fenton-Smith and Humphreys, 2016).
Embedded literacies support
This belief underpins our work in the Language Centre at the University of Leeds and many of us Lecturers in EAP are now seconded to different Schools in order to build a better understanding of the disciplinary needs of our students.
In recognition of the fact that “learning in higher education involves adapting to new ways of knowing: new ways of understanding, interpreting and organising knowledge” (Lea and Street, 1998: 158), collaboration with subject specialists allows both parties to share our understanding of how students construct meaning in each discipline (Wingate and Tribble, 2012; and Wingate, 2016). Wingate and Tribble (2012) argue that collaboration works best when the EAP specialist identifies opportunities for literacy instruction and genre analysis and the subject specialist helps students and the EAP specialist understand the social context and communicative purpose of the genre.
Despite evidence that contextualising and embedding academic language and literacies in the discipline and mapping it to assessment is best practice (Alexander et al, 2017, there are few published examples, especially in the UK (see Li, 2019 for a literature review). This is why I decided to share my experience, at last year’s Advance HE conference, of collaborating with the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds to provide academic support to their students.
Since the conference I have continued to build relationships within the School and make improvements to the curriculum as being embedded in this way is enabling me to build a specialism in their students’ academic literacy needs. The curriculum has largely consisted of co-designing and co-teaching weekly seminars in which academic language and literacies development is embedded on a core MA module in semester one.
Challenges and responses
Despite increased levels of student engagement on the module, feedback has highlighted the challenges of balancing our students’ diverse content, language and literacy needs and fostering a sense of shared agency in advancing in the discipline rather than reinforcing ‘them’ and ‘us’ identities around remedial support.
For the students who have a background in Sociology and the language ability to process and communicate concepts quickly, applying their conceptual understanding to analysis of the discipline is easier than for those who are studying, in their second language, a discipline of which they have limited knowledge.
This is where embedded academic literacies instruction can help as it allows for a higher level cognition of the discipline and access to the hidden curriculum than a more formulaic approach to teaching study skills does (Lea and Street, 1998 and Wingate, 2016).
However the way in which these literacy interventions are packaged and delivered is crucial to its success (Fenton-Smith and Humphreys, 2016 and Alexander et al, 2017). For example, we have learnt that literacy needs to be embedded more discreetly and framed as thinking, reading, speaking, listening and writing like a sociologist, so it doesn’t appear remedial. Consequently, this semester I am running a series of stand-alone optional workshops for students who want to improve how they communicate Sociology.
In order to develop my own understanding of the epistemology and discourse of Sociology I attend content lectures and have discussions with lecturers about how knowledge is created in the discipline. This takes time and together with investment in staffing are commonly cited challenges to collaborative academic development happening in practice (Murray and Nallaya, 2014; Fenton-Smith and Humphreys, 2016; Green, 2016). In my case the School has invested in my time and a change to colleagues I was co-teaching with on the core MA module this year created an opportunity to get different perspectives on the discipline and how we implement inclusive practices into our teaching.
For example we scaffold seminars with student-led Academic Reading Circles (see Seburn, 2016) outside the seminar to help students engage more critically with their set reading. In the seminar students collaborate in small groups on producing a digital reading log on One Drive or a concept map on flipchart paper which shares their understanding of the text. These artefacts are then used as a springboard for discussion of the seminar questions which are based on the core reading.
Some Sociology tutors have commented that previously they would struggle to foster meaningful discussion of the core reading in a seminar and would often resort to ‘filling the silence’ with their own thoughts. Scaffolding the discussion with activities which allow students to explore meaning with peers first can be less threatening and more inclusive. We have also found that facilitating these activities together allows for mutual reinforcement of key learning strategies, for example how to manage multiple sources.
These challenges are ones I continue to explore together with my colleagues in the School of Sociology as we share our commitment to inclusive student education and managing the teaching of larger and more diverse cohorts. Who do you collaborate with to help your students develop academic literacy practices and how?
Due to Covid-19 the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2020 will now take place online on 7 July. This year the conference will focus on exploring creative thinking for enhancing the student experience and improving educational outcomes and experience. Follow the link to find out more and book your place.
Alison joined the University of Leeds in 2008 to study for a Masters in International Development in Education in the School of Politics and International Studies and as a Teaching Fellow in the Language Centre. Her main remit is preparing international students for academic study but she also delivers global citizenship education to both home and international students.
Advance HE (2018) Framework for Internationalising Higher Education
Alexander, O.; Sloan, D.; Hughes, K. and Ashby, S. (2017) ‘Engaging with quality via the CEM model: Enhancing the content and performance management of postgraduate in-sessional academic skills provision’ Journal of English for Academic Purposes 27, 56-70
Fenton-Smith, B. and Humphreys, P. (2016) ‘Language specialists’ views on the academic language and learning abilities of English as an additional language postgraduate coursework students: towards an adjunct tutorial model’ Higher Education Research & Development, 36:2, 280-296
Green, S. (2016) ‘Teaching Disciplinary Writing as Social Practice: Moving Beyond ‘text-in-context’’ Designs in UK Higher Education
Haggis, T. (2006) ‘Pedagogies for diversity: retaining critical challenge amidst fears of ‘dumbing down’’ Studies in Higher Education 31:5, 521-535
Lea, M. (2004) ‘Academic literacies: a pedagogy for course design’ Studies in Higher Education, 29:6, 739-756
Lea, M. and Street, B. (1998) ‘Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach’ Studies in Higher Education, 23:2, 157-172
Li, Y. (2019) ‘Language–content partnership in higher education: development and opportunities’ Higher Education Research and Development
Murray, N. and Nallaya, S. (2016) ‘Embedding academic literacies in university programme curricula: a case study’ Studies in Higher Education, 41:7, 1296-1312
Seburn, T. (2016) ‘Academic Reading Circles’ TESL Ontario
Wingate, U. (2016) 'Academic literacy across the curriculum: Towards a collaborative instructional approach' Language Teaching, 51:3, 1-16
Wingate, U. and Tribble, C. (2012) 'The best of both worlds? Towards and English for Academic Purposes/ Academic Literacies writing pedagogy' Studies in Higher Education, 37:4, 481-495