English (corpus) linguistics at center stage

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My subject area of English linguistics is where I found my greatest source of confidence in my new life as a university lecturer, and this has continued to grow in the years since, taking on new shapes and forms as my research interests have both broadened and narrowed with time. Early on, I found motivation in the idea that I may be able to spark in my students some of the same enthusiasm for language that was sparked in me. Later, I have attempted to bridge the gap between my research interests and the courses I teach, in the belief that this will improve the quality of both.

The clear connection I have felt between subject confidence and teaching confidence has not always been easy to articulate, and I have had to reflect on it and discuss it with colleagues to truly understand and appreciate its significance. In their study of “What the best college teachers do” (2004), Ken Bain and colleagues found that outstanding teachers were teachers «who know their subjects extremely well” (p. 15). This meant, among other things, that the teachers they studied were enthusiastic about and able to «reflect deeply on the nature of thinking within their fields” (p. 25), and to draw on this knowledge and ability their teaching:

“They can then use that ability to think about their own thinking — what we call “metacognition ” — and their understanding of the discipline qua discipline to grasp how other people might learn. They know what has to come first, and they can distinguish between foundational concepts and elaborations or illustrations of those ideas. They realize where people are likely to face difficulties developing their own comprehension, and they can use that understanding to simplify and clarify complex topics for others, tell the right story, or raise a powerfully provocative question.” (Bain, 2004, p. 25)

Through the courses that are part of a teacher education program (in particular) I aim to show students how didactic creativity in the English language classroom may develop with linguistic confidence and solid content knowledge as its foundation, and how this can contribute to motivation and learning. So far, attempting to model this for my students has been a central concern for me in designing courses and planning my teaching.

Emphasizing my enthusiasm for language and connecting it to my teaching practice also helps me narrow the distance between my own identities as researcher and lecturer, and to maintain a sense of coherence between the two most important components of my professional life. According to Wittek (2006), lecturers ought to strive for “creating a logical and coherent connection between beliefs about learning and teaching, content and pedagogical aims, and teaching and assessment” (p. 31, my translation), and beliefs about research and its connection to teaching seem to me to be crucial threads in this tapestry. While the concept of “research-based teaching” may lack a clear definition and its proposed benefits have been called into question (Strømsø, 2006), research is, like teaching, fundamentally about learning: “They both involve questioning one’s own pre-existing knowledge and understanding in the light of new ideas and new evidence” (Brown, 1999, p. 297, as cited in Strømsø, 2006, p. 52). Bringing in both the knowledge that springs from my own and others’ research – as well as the underlying principles that guide research and learning alike – I view as beneficial to my teaching, and not merely a requirement, as stated in the Norwegian Government’s white paper on quality culture in higher education (The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, 2017).

There is also a more specific connection between my teaching practice and my main research interests, which involve spoken learner language and exploring language through language corpora[1]. The benefits of “data-driven learning” in language pedagogy at all levels are often highlighted in corpus-based research (e.g. Lénko-Szymańska & Boulton, 2015), and while this insight may not easily find its way into the language classroom (Caines, McCarthy and O’Keeffe, 2016), there is now an increasing awareness of the use of corpora for language learning and discovery in higher education (Hasselgård, 2018; O’Keefe, Clancy, & Adolphs, 2019). We know that active, learner-centered activities have positive effects on student engagement and learning outcomes (Messineo, 2018), and language corpora provide a potential for the “deliberate practice on authentic problems” (Messineo, 2018, p. 13) that has proved beneficial for information storage and retention.

Fiona Farr (2008) makes the connection between (socio-)constructivist educational theories (Kozulin, 1998) and the use of technology in corpus-based instruction, with cognitive development, discovery-based learning and the co-construction of knowledge as central facets here. She argues that an emphasis on digital literacy in language teacher education “will help provide a strong cognitive basis for one of the most crucial roles of language teachers in today’s climate, that of lifelong learner” (Farr, 2008, p. 27). A similar case could be made for equipping student teachers with the “cognitive basis” and the skills needed to help their own pupils take on the same role, in line with the (re)new(ed) emphasis on active learners in the renewed curricula for Norwegian schools (The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Research, 2021).

Inspired by these perspectives, I believe bringing language exploration into language instruction is crucial in order to develop the knowledge and skills required to understand language, and to be able to apply this knowledge and these skills to the increasingly complex world beyond the university classroom.

[1] A language corpus can be defined as “a machine-readable collection of (spoken or written) texts that were produced in a natural communicative setting, and the collection of these texts is compiled with the intention (i) to be representative and balanced with respect to a particular linguistic variety or register or genre and (ii) to be analyzed linguistically” (Gries, 2009, p. 411).

–>3. Student motivation and activation

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