Silence speaks volumes

Jeurissen, Maree Jayne
Bitchener, John
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Master of Arts in Applied Language Studies
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Auckland University of Technology

The continuing failure of our education system to meet the needs of minority group students, who continue to walk through classroom doors in increasing numbers, provided the initial impetus for this research project. Researchers, academics, and school practitioners need to examine carefully 'taken for granted' patterns of talk and behaviour that occur in schools every day, because for many children, these are not effective. This study is situated in a mainstream primary school classroom where children from diverse language and cultural backgrounds work and learn together. The importance of the interaction that occurs between teachers and children is discussed and numerous studies which focus on the role of discourse in students' language learning are critiqued. The fact that students in mainstream primary schools must learn language while using language for content learning, is considered to be of paramount importance, and so discourse that occurred during small group mathematics lessons provided the major source of data for the project. An aspect of this discourse, language functions of student initiated interactions, was examined in depth. A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods was used to look beyond the surface level of classroom discourse in an attempt to better understand why children interact as they do, or why they remain silent, appearing to be on the periphery of the learning opportunities which are designed to help them to succeed. Classroom observations and individual interviews provided insights into the complex and competing forces which shape the talk that occurs between students and their teachers. It was revealed that successful students have effective relationships with teachers, regardless of whether or not they share the same cultural background. These successful students are able to deploy a range of thinking and learning strategies. The importance of making the 'culture of the classroom' explicit is highlighted, along with the fact that teachers feel constrained by the demands of an overcrowded curriculum and the need to address individual learning needs of all of their students. Implications for classroom practice along with teacher training and professional development are proposed.

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