The language dimension in all subjects

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A Handbook for curriculum development and teacher training

Language Policy Unit
DGII – Directorate General of Democracy

Council of Europe, 2015



A Handbook for Curriculum development and teacher training

Jean-Claude Beacco

Mike Fleming

Francis Goullier

Eike Thürmann

Helmut Vollmer
with contributions by Joseph Sheils

Language Policy Unit
Education Policy Division

Education Department

Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation

DGII – Directorate General of Democracy

Council of Europe, 2015

French edition:

Les dimensions linguistiques de toutes les matières scolaires.

Un Guide pour le développement de curriculums et la formation
des enseignants

© Council of Europe, 2015
This text was initially published for the Conference on
The language dimension in all subjects: equity and quality in education, held in Strasbourg on 14-15 October 2015.
An ISBN edition will be published in 2016.


Mastery of the language of schooling is essential for developing in learners those skills that are necessary for school success and for critical thinking. It is fundamental for participation in democratic societies, for social inclusion and cohesion.

This Handbook is a valuable resource for education authorities and practitioners in Council of Europe member states. It will help them to reflect on their policy and practice in language education, and support them in developing responses to the current challenges of education systems.

It has a strong practical orientation but it also embodies key principles and values of the Council of Europe. It emerges directly from two recent Recommendations of the Committee of Ministers. The Recommendation on ‘ensuring quality education’ emphasises the importance of preventing underachievement and draws attention to the key role of language in ensuring fairness in access to knowledge. The Recommendation on ‘the importance of competences in the language(s) of schooling for equity and quality in education and for educational success’ highlights the importance of language not just as a separate subject in school but in all subjects across the curriculum.

The recommendations and proposed measures in the Handbook will support education policy makers and professionals in their efforts to support migrant children as well as native speakers who may be at a disadvantage, and will contribute to raise the quality of education for all learners.

I invite education policy deciders in our member states to raise the awareness concerning the language dimension in all school subjects and to support all professionals in charge of education in making this dimension explicit and transparent in curricula and in the whole teaching process. This will contribute to ensuring equity and quality in our education systems.

Snežana Samardžić-Marković

Director General of Democracy


Preface iv

Introduction 9

The language dimension in all subjects: an important issue for quality and equity in education 13

2. The role of language in the construction and application of knowledge 21

3. Forms of classroom communication and the acquisition of subject-specific knowledge 33

4. Acquiring a command of academic expression 39

5. Language diversity, subject literacy and academic achievement 47

6. Building up a command of the language of schooling during primary education 59

7. Language as Subject 67

8. Subject-specific language requirements in secondary education 77

9. Teaching Approaches 91

10. Curriculum development 101

11. The language dimension in initial teacher training and continuous professional development 115

12. The quality of training regarding the linguistic dimensions of subject-specific teaching 123

Conclusion 129


APPENDIX 1 Recommendation CM/Rec(2014)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the importance of competences in the language(s) of schooling for equity and quality in education and for educational success 131

APPENDIX 2 References and proposals for further reading 131

APPENDIX 3 Language sensitive teaching of so-called non-language subjects: a checklist 131

Table of Contents 159


In April 2014 a Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe drew attention to ‘The importance of competences on the language(s) of schooling for equity and quality in education and for educational success' (Recommendation CM/Rec(2014)51. One of the key principles in the Recommendation highlights the importance of language not just as a separate subject in school but in all subjects across the curriculum. This is an aspect of language education that presents a particular challenge for policy-makers and practitioners, since it requires new insights and a whole-school, cross-curricular perspective. This Handbook has been written, therefore, in order to support the implementation of the principles and measures set out in the Recommendation. It aims to show why language in all subjects is important, and what the implications are for policy and practice.

The Handbook builds on and enriches the work of the Language Unit’s project on ‘language(s) of schooling’ carried out under the aegis of the Steering Committee for Educational Policy and Practice of the Council of Europe. The Committee has recognized that the acquisition of competences in language is an essential foundation both for success in school and for participation in modern democratic and diverse knowledge societies. The languages(s) of schooling project have sought to underpin that principle and explore its practical implications with a series of seminars, conferences and publications. A rich variety of studies and conference papers arising from this work are available on the Platform of Resources and References for Plurilingual and Intercultural Education2. However it was thought that a Handbook that could stand as a publication in its own right would be a useful addition. Each chapter contains a number of selected references (with links in the electronic version) to those sections of the Platform where particular issues are treated in greater depth.

The Handbook is primarily addressed to those with responsibilities for curriculum development, for the development of pedagogical material and for teacher education, whether working at national or school level. It will also be relevant for teachers who have a particular interest in deepening their understanding of the importance of language. The Handbook has a practical orientation but it is not a 'manual', in that it is not intended as a 'how to do it' book with a recipe list of prescribed activities. It does, however, seek to clarify the basic insights and principles underlying the need for support for language education in all subjects. The implementation of policy and practice related to language education requires not just a mechanical application of rules but understanding and awareness of what is appropriate in particular situations as determined by the context. The intention, therefore, is to raise awareness and develop understanding of the issues that have implications for practice and above all to influence practice at national and school level. In order to enhance the practical value of the Handbook, each chapter contains illustrative material to exemplify the issues, and appendices have been included to provide further material to aid reflection. The Handbook is not intended as an academic text but it does offer some theoretical perspectives and an underlying rationale. These are essential because the importance of language in all subjects can easily be misinterpreted and met with opposition if not fully understood. This is one of the challenges faced by policy-makers. For example, the idea that language is important in all subjects can easily be reduced to a focus on surface features of spelling and grammar. While these are important, they represent only one aspect of what language education entails. Subject teachers may argue that if they focus on language this will be a distraction from their main responsibility for teaching their subject. This line of argument tends to arise if the implications of the relationship between language and cognition are not fully recognised; attention to language in the subject classroom will not only improve the pupils' competence in subject-based as well as general language use, but will help deepen their understanding of the subject matter and their wider learning in the subject. It is sometimes argued that a focus on language in all subjects is important for higher attaining pupils but less significant for those who are pursuing less academic goals. This view underestimates both the role of language in all learning and the importance of competence in language for full participation in a democratic, knowledge society. By acquiring the language of a subject and reflecting on it consciously, all learners, independent of their background, will master the content and accompanying tasks more successfully.

The misunderstanding that the importance of language in all subjects is more significant for higher attaining pupils may arise from the use of term 'academic language'. This term is widely used now in education to refer to the language characteristics of the school subjects and the aspects of language proficiency that are valued and required by the school. These go beyond the spontaneous and generally informal language used in the everyday social life of most pupils. The specific competences which need to be mastered for successful knowledge building are often unfamiliar to many pupils before they enter school. They may not be made sufficiently explicit, giving rise to a 'hidden curriculum' that makes the linguistic challenge posed by the school even more demanding. This is an issue for all learners, but particularly for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, or whose home language is different to the main language of schooling. Recognition of the importance of academic language is not elitist but, on the contrary, is rather an essential aspect of working towards equity in educational outcomes. Academic language provides access to more differentiated ways of thinking and expression.

Deciding on what terminology to use in this Handbook was a challenge and the subject of much discussion for the authors. The term ‘language of schooling’ is widely used to describe the dominant language of instruction in school which is normally the main national or regional language. The plural language(s) is sometimes used to show that in some contexts more than one language is used for this purpose. However the term ‘language of schooling’ is also employed by some writers to refer to those uses of language that are particularly important for learning in subjects. In this Handbook we have adopted the term ‘academic language’ for this purpose and kept ‘language of schooling’ as the more general term for describing the language used in teaching the subject. Although the term 'academic language' has some potential for ambiguity, it has been adopted because it is now so widely used in educational writing about language education. Decisions on other terms were more problematic. One of the central arguments of this Handbook is that it is necessary to break down the general concept 'language' into more refined categories in order to support classroom teaching. However terms like 'form', 'function', 'genres', 'domains' and 'text types' are often the subject of dispute in the academic literature and have different connotations amongst linguists and literary theorists depending on their tradition or context. There was the further complication that this Handbook will be published in two languages and is likely to be translated into more languages. The intention therefore has been to keep the use of categories and specialist terminology to a minimum and not to get involved in the various disputes about the use of the terms in the wider fields. In most cases the meaning will be clear from the context.

The Handbook moreover does not aim to be fully comprehensive for that would make it too long and run the risk of making it inaccessible. For example, the issue of sign language is not addressed but it is acknowledged that this could well feature in the language policy of a school. Also, the impact of digital technology and other 'new literacies' on pupils' language use is not given separate attention, although the importance of this area of research is recognised. The Handbook has been written to support policy implementation and teacher development with compulsory schooling in mind, and the content has been selected accordingly. A number of issues are addressed transversally rather in a separate chapters. For example the importance of quality education features in many of the chapters as do the needs of vulnerable learners. We are aware that language education is not the only factor in ensuring quality in schools: teaching expertise, resources, socio-cultural context and a host of other influences are also relevant. However language education is of the utmost importance, closely related to some of the other factors, and often not sufficiently addressed. A further reading section has been provided at the end so that readers can pursue particular issues in more depth.

As the Handbook underlines, teachers of all subjects have to become aware of the challenges posed by the need to support their pupils in mastering the specific language competences that their school disciplines demand. For this reason much of the document is devoted to examining and illustrating some possible ways in which teachers can provide language-sensitive subject teaching, offering pupils specific forms of support in acquiring the general ‘academic’ and the subject-specific or ‘scientific’ language characteristic of their school subjects. It is the case that teachers in schools are already subject to heavy demands. However a focus on language does not have to be seen so much as an additional responsibility but rather involves some re-focusing of their subject teaching to make it more effective and even more enjoyable. The thematic chapters contribute in different but complementary ways to an analysis of competences in the language of schooling, approaches to language in and across the curriculum, and teaching/learning factors that can support learners in acquiring ‘subject literacy’.

Although the Handbook is intended to have coherence as a linear text, some readers may wish to focus on particular sections that are more relevant to their concerns. For that reason some of the key principles have been reiterated in several chapters, although the intention has been to avoid too much repetition.

The opening Chapter One, in recalling the guiding principles underpinning the Recommendation referred to above, highlights the importance of competences in the language of schooling not only for school success, but also for equity and quality in education. It introduces basic concepts and issues, and summarises the implications for curriculum development and implementation. The chapter points out that language education must always be viewed in relation to values.

Chapter Two addresses the role of language in knowledge building, and the relationship between language and cognition. This is one of the key perspectives underlying the importance of language in all subjects. Subject teachers need to be aware of the different functions that language can perform that are both cognitive and linguistic in nature. The concept of 'subject literacy', as a useful term for describing the broad goals of subject learning is also addressed and characterized.

Chapter Three examines the different forms that language takes in classroom communication and how these relate to learning in subjects. These will be largely familiar to readers but examining them specifically from a language perspective brings new insights and makes them less likely to be taken for granted, for they are not all equivalent in terms of their role in knowledge acquisition

Chapter Four examines what is practically involved in acquiring academic language and the importance of the teachers' role in providing support or 'scaffolding' so that pupils can progress from ordinary, everyday forms of expression to those that are knowledge-related. This will involve, for example, building bridges between familiar genres and those which help to generalize insights and knowledge beyond immediate experience or observation.

Chapter Five looks in more detail at the issues raised by language diversity in schools. This can have a positive or negative impact on pupils' performance, depending on a number of factors that are explored in the chapter. The types of provision that can be made for students who have limited proficiency in the language of schooling are also examined, including provision for the development of academic literacy.

Chapter Six addresses the importance of the language of schooling at primary level. It stresses the importance of including language objectives when planning the curriculum. This is particularly important for pupils who are not native speakers of the language of schooling. All pupils at primary level need to be helped to move from a focus on self to a more decentred use of language e.g. from narrative to reporting, but also from informal to more formal uses of language.

Chapter Seven examines the role of language as subject when it is accepted that language is central to all subjects. Although it should not be seen simply as a 'service' subject, language as subject does have a special role in language education. The importance of a school language policy is emphasized as a focus for sharing approaches across the curriculum.

Chapter Eight examines the language requirements specific to subjects. These are quite complex and varied, and depend in part on how the subject's aims are conceived. The chapter also addresses, through examples, the importance of scaffolding language in the classroom, and offers considerations for further research.

Chapter Nine describes some practical implications of being ‘language sensitive’ in the subject classroom. Attention is also drawn to the importance of creating a supportive classroom culture (as opposed to simply employing particular methodologies or techniques) that develops openness and curiosity towards language, and encourages the development of language strategies within and beyond content learning.

Chapter Ten addresses the need for a curriculum in which goals for subject-based language learning are spelled out explicitly. Different approaches are possible and various examples which have been tried out or which are in the process of being implemented are given in this chapter. This leads to a general discussion of the various approaches to curriculum development and implementation with some of their advantages and limitations. It is argued that language competences as part of subject teaching and learning have to be identified and made transparent whatever the educational context may be.

Chapter Eleven stresses the importance of teacher training as crucial for perceiving and integrating the language dimension into content teaching. Various implementation strategies are discussed: integrating the language dimension into continuous professional development of teachers, establishing a system of literacy coaches and encouraging schools to develop a language-sensitive culture of content teaching and learning across disciplinary boundaries through sharing and cooperation amongst teachers.

Chapter Twelve argues that the pursuit of quality in education means that the quality of educational provision overall, including measures to promote inclusion and equity, need to be evaluated, in addition to evaluation of the curriculum and learning outcomes. Making an overall assessment of a form of education is a necessary though complex undertaking.

The conclusion provides a brief overview of the central arguments in the Handbook, with a call to readers to respond to its challenges and suggestions.

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