Article 06: Developing critical understanding of the specialised language of school science and history texts

6 Developing critical understanding of the specialised language of school science and history texts: A functional grammatical perspective.

Len Unsworth (1999)
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 42: 7 April, pp 508-521
I couldn't find a free version of this, but there is a link in ERIC. and there is a related articles which is freely available from Unsworth on similar topics.
Changing dimensions of school literacies

In brief:
Unsworth explains that the language of curriculum subjects is lexically dense and that most people speak in a longer drawn out way with more clauses, and less content carrying words. He writes about moving from the 'grammar of talk' to the 'grammar of writing'.
His argument is clear and that is that students who have control over the formal written language of the subject do well in the subject. The inverse is equally true, those students who write as they talk will do less well.
Unsworth also describes how subject areas differ in their specific grammars and that Science and History each need their own specific approach based on these differences.
A further point Unsworth makes is that by having an understanding of how grammar is used in the subject, students develop a critical literacy which will serve them well as 'readers' of content texts.

At length:

The article takes two distinct curriculum areas, Science and History, and analyses specific language structures for each. Unsworth uses a functional grammar approach to describing this language, writing that such a description can be used across subjects while at the same time effectively show the distinct 'literacies' of different subjects.

As with other pieces on literacy in the curriculum, I found myself drawn to the bibliography highlighting other works that I will go and look for (literacy for Maths, Veel, R, which is given as 'in press' at the time of writing).

Unsworth argues for explicit teaching of the language specifics of different subjects to learners as part of the subject learning itself (music to the ears!).

Both Science and History languages are full of nominalisation - turning actions, processes, verb phrases, into 'things', noun phrases. This allows the writer to pack more content carrying words into sentences, use less words to say what they want (and a whole host of other reasons). Science does this for expressing the technical and scientific meanings in the subject, History does this for example for 'colouring' descriptions of events. This may be making a period of time into a noun phrase so that the period can be described as the actor in a chain of events, and make a period carry 'responsibility' for an outcome (and a whole host of other reasons). This is a technique a writer may use to express their own opinion about the events, or hide it. This language is very characteristic of written subject area texts, or the written language of learning.

page 514 'effective access to knowledge and understanding in curriculum areas entail access to the grammatical resources characteristic of the written mode'

One of the aspects of the article which I found particularly entertaining is what Unsworth calls 'talking out' texts. That is taking a chunk of text from a textbook and turning it into 'spoken language'. Spoken language we learn is usually full of many linked clauses, each clause with only a few content carrying messages, words. Written language carries less clauses to say the same thing, and with many more content carrying words in each clause. There is a message, which I don't think Unsworth makes completely explicit, and that is that you have to start with the language the learners use to express their ideas about a given content area and then show/teach them how to turn it into the formal language of the subject. Apologies to Mr Unsworth if I've mistaken his idea, but this does make a lot of sense and would show a way forward to implementing all of the important ideas and information in the article into classroom practice.

Subject teacher to students: How would you describe this? explain this? define that?

This is what it looks like in scientific language...

That classroom practice has explicit focus on subject specific grammar.

I'm going to go on now and seek out other papers referred to in Unsworth's piece.