The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective

September 2004 — Volume 8, Number 2

The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective

Mary J. Schleppegrell (2004)
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xii + 190
ISBN: 0-8058-4677-8 (paper)
US $19.95

One of the problems that language educators are facing today is that of teaching learners the “language of schooling.” Learning difficulties “may be related to inexperience with the linguistic demands of the tasks of schooling and unfamiliarity with ways of structuring discourse that are expected in school” (p. 16). Consequently it is important to analyze linguistic problems because language is the primary medium of learning and instruction. For both native and non-native speakers of a language, it seems that there are challenges in the language of schooling because of the unfamiliar way this variety of language is presented in school textbooks. The influence of the language of schooling, which starts “in the early years of formal education” (p. ix), is felt either positively or negatively in later years in the different levels of formal education. The Language of Schooling is a unique book that addresses this issue of the language of schooling from the sociolinguistic, discourse-analytic, and applied linguistic evidence. In addition, more interpretation from those different perspectives focus on functional linguistics perspective; that is, ” describing the linguistic demands of schooling in ways that illuminate how particular grammatical choices make meanings in the texts students are asked to read and write at school” (p. ix). The present book is composed of six chapters. This book seems to be rooted in an article that the author published in 2001. The author of this book has been greatly involved in ESL and linguistic issues since the early 1990s, right after obtaining her doctorate in the late 1980s.

The major purpose of this book, as perceived by the author, is to help both researchers and teachers to draw more attention to different grammatical and discourse organization in order to discover their different values of schooling contexts. Thus, more collaboration between linguists and educators will result in the development of more linguistic learning strategies. Additionally, the development of these new and more effective and efficient learning strategies will productively affect learning in other school subjects. It should be noted here that, this type of functional linguistic analysis “can move us toward a classroom environment that build on the strengths children bring to school and assists them in gaining control of the linguistic resources that are powerful for maintaining or challenging the current social and educational order” (p. x). Therefore, researchers in possession of the information based on such an approach will be more efficient in providing important resources directly needed in educational contexts; while educators will feel confident in their work of facilitating learning in their daily teaching.

The book opens with an overview that summarizes the six chapters and underlines its importance and unique contribution. After the overview come the six constituting chapters of the book. In the first chapter, entitled Characterizing the Language of Schooling, three topics are developed: the linguistic context of schooling, the challenges of literate language, and a functional theory of language. In this first chapter, the academic language is characterized with important concepts related to usual description of “literate language”: decontextualization, explicitness, complexity, and cognitive demands. To these concepts were added two aspects that make the study of a language of schooling more complete: the cultural and the experiential aspects of language use. [-1-]

The second chapter-Language and Context-analyzes the importance of context in language development. Life experience and language development, language in school tasks, and language and success at school are the three major topics that are analyzed in this chapter. From the data of studies done about linguistic features of school tasks, the present chapter sets the stage for the next chapters.

The third chapter-linguistic features of academic registers-is developed under two major topics: grammars as meaning-making resource, and linguistic choices in social contexts. Chapter three, with the evidence from studies and theories of functional grammar, is “an overview of the linguistic features typical of the language expected at school” (p. 43). The chapter contrasts the linguistic registers of schooling with those of informal interaction in order to set the stage for chapters four and five, which describe the types of texts needed at school. This chapter helps the reader to understand the nature of school texts, which has special influence on both research and teaching. Writing school genres is the fourth chapter. Many teachers today complain that “advanced” students-middle school and higher-do not know how to write academic texts, because they write the way they speak. In other words, educators are complaining that students do not know the elements discussed in chapter three of this book. The variety of linguistic registers and the different levels of schooling pose many difficulties to students who are trying to survive in educational settings.

The fourth chapter intends to introduce the different genres in order to describe the different types of writing tasks through three different lenses: personal, factual, and analytical. In this chapter, grammar and writing development, genres of schooling, and expository essays are the focus of discussion. This chapter demonstrates how a variety of register features is needed in order to write an authoritative text at a “literate” level. The chapter shows how the different register features work together for the success of students. Both particular grammatical and lexical features are needed for an authoritative presentation of good ideas in academic writing. The task of the teacher, therefore, is to move students from the usual informal interaction level to school-based writing level, a slow process in both first and second languages. To do this, both the teacher and the students need to be equipped with specific knowledge, which was the focus of chapter four.

Chapter five discusses the functional grammar in school subjects. In this chapter, the author illustrates how to make meaning in science and history, addresses the functionality of academic registers, and describes the challenges of academic registers. While the focus of the previous chapter was more on writing and on general description, the present chapter focuses on both reading and writing, and describes illustratively some register features through science and history. From this chapter, it is found that each school subject has its own distinctive patterns underlying its disciplinary registers, goals and methods. The last chapter-language development in school-presents the pedagogical implications of everything discussed in previous chapters, and suggestions for future research. Therefore, the following topics are at the center of discussion in the last chapter: issues in language pedagogy, learning the language of schooling, grammar as resource for learning; and language, knowledge, and ideology. [-2-]

The topic of language of schooling—as well as those of language policy and language education—is an important topic under investigation in this new millennium. For instance, many books that addressed this topic earlier in the 1980s are already out of print (see for example, Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework, 1983, Stephen N. Tchudi’s Language Schooling and Society, 1985, and Russel Dobson’s The Language of Schooling, 1981). The only influential book on the topic of the language of schooling is this book. Though there are other books that have addressed the topic of language of schooling, this book, in a special way, has approached the topic from a functional linguistic perspective, a perspective much needed in the practical aspect of the topic under discussion. This is a book that both practitioners and researchers need.

Surely, this book is a comprehensive tool to teach or to conduct research in the area of language of schooling. First, this book is one of the rarest textbooks to address the topic of the language of schooling in general, and to address it from the functional linguistics perspective in a unique way. Second, it is one of the few that addresses comprehensively most of the themes needed practically by teachers and researchers concerned with the language of schooling. Third, it takes a descriptive approach; which, in language education and research, is needed more than the prescriptive approach. Fourth, the different chapters of this book are organized in such a consecutive way that a chapter is a prerequisite of the following, and the last chapter summarizes the whole book and provides directions for future research. Fifth, this book is one of the few that can successfully address a topic from both the theoretical and practical perspectives. Many times, authors address topics from only one perspective: if the book is written by a researcher, it becomes difficult for a practitioner to apply the findings in real-life contexts and vice versa. It is important to underline the efforts the author made to sustain the information presented in this book with evidence from empirical studies. Finally, this book is published at the right time, when there is no other book that addresses successfully the topic under discussion.

At present, there is no other book that could replace this book. Every teacher and researcher writing about the topic of language of schooling should own or read a copy of this book. It is especially important that all language teachers in particular and educators in general read this book in order to learn more of how language can be effectively taught for better success of students in all the school subjects. Surely, reading this book will help educators to be more efficient in their profession.


Schleppegrell, M.J. (2001). Linguistic features of the language of schooling. Linguistics and Education, 12(4), 431-459.

Safary Wa-Mbaleka
Northern Arizona University

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