Writing skills involving Turkish in lower secondary education - An empirical study on the effects of writing skills in subject lessons and in the heritage language Turkish

Introduction

Subject-specific writing (such as writing up experiments in science class) is a central aspect of language-sensitive teaching, as it is in the writing process that subject content is directly dealt with. This project investigates the interrelation between subject-based skills and writing skills in academic German and in the heritage language Turkish in view of overall biliteracy development. Innovative and interdisciplinary cooperation between the research disciplines German as a Second Language, social and natural science didactics and Turkish studies enables a comprehensive examination of subject-specific and language educational concepts.

What was investigated and how?

This study analyses linguistic-cognitive approaches (e.g. describing or explaining) and the functionally appropriate linguistic means of expression in texts produced by students in class. The text types explored in this project are: the experimental protocol in physics, technical analyses in technology, historical judgment in history, and diagram description in politics.

Data from 1,718 students in 7th and 8th grade were collected in accordance with parameters.

In the quantitative part of the study connections between texts from German lessons and subject lessons were examined. Specifically, it was examined whether pupils from 7th and 8th grade transfer text-specific competences from German to subject lessons and whether this occurs more in the case of descriptive texts or in graphics. Furthermore, the connection between language and subject learning was examined. A leading question was whether pupils with a higher level of language skills also showed higher levels of subject knowledge. Additionally, interlingual effects among Turkish-speaking pupils who attend lessons in the heritage language were investigated. The focus here was on linguistic-cognitive text features (e.g. text structure or perspective-taking).

In the qualitative part of the study, teaching and learning materials were developed on the basis of the quantitative findings for coordinated, genre-specific writing for the four  subjects (history, physics, politics and technology) as well as Turkish heritage language lessons. A qualitative model review took place for the subjects history, physics and Turkish as heritage language.  

Using approaches from multilingual support and scaffolding, the pupils independently produced texts pertinent to the subjects history, physics and heritage language lessons (Enli, 2015; Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools Programme, 1989) in three phases (deconstruction - joint construction - independent construction). This genre-based support for writing thereby included the demonstration and application of both linguistic and textual particularities. For the writing task in Turkish heritage language lessons, academic language texts were chosen as their features are also relevant to other subjects. The writing task for Turkish as heritage language was conducted prior to the other writing tasks in order to observe whether multilingual resources could be activated in subject teaching.

In line with the translanguaging approach (Roll, Gürsoy, & Boubakri, 2016), pupils were encouraged to use both languages during the group work phases. As the project concluded, group discussions were held with both pupils and teachers to obtain feedback on the materials used in the study and the writing intervention itself. It was revealed that some Turkish-speaking pupils used some of the linguistic structures acquired in heritage language lessons in writing in subject lessons.

Results

For history, politics and technology, correlations between the scales for subject-specific and linguistic writing skills could be observed. In all subjects there were high, positive correlations between academic and linguistic achievements in the texts produced by the participating pupils. The more students deploy the necessary linguistic means for subject-specific text types, the higher the subject-specific correctness of those texts. In addition, medium to high correlations are also shown for subject knowledge as well as interdisciplinary textual competence in German. Connections between subject knowledge, subject-oriented language and academic language skills can be proven.

The evaluation of the group discussions with the German and Turkish-speaking pupils shows that, when coordination between heritage language and subject lessons takes place, knowledge transfer from one to the other is possible and awareness of the linguistic requirements of different types of texts increases. The Genre Cycle approach proved to be effective, as the pupils came to understand, with the help of a ‘model text’, the linguistic and textual particularities of writing in various subjects. Initial observations show that German/Turkish-speaking pupils compose longer texts in both German and Turkish, while taking greater account of the linguistic means required for subject-specific texts. For example, in the post test, the passive voice used for writing up an experiment in physics was transferred to describing building instructions in Turkish (although emphasis in Turkish lessons lay on creating coherence in writing). In the pre-test, the same pupils seldom used the passive voice in Turkish, opting instead to address the reader directly. These qualitative results support the quantitative findings and indicate promising outcomes in terms of literacy development when subject and heritage language lessons are coordinated.

What does this mean for educational practice?

Language and subject-specific learning must be seen as two sides of the same coin. In order to create subject-specific texts, students require not only subject but also subject-oriented language knowledge. Text ‘types’ must thus be introduced to subject-oriented language education and taught explicitly in those lessons.

The mediation and appropriation of linguistic means and behaviours in heritage language lessons can trigger cognitive thought processes that can be used in subject lessons. The coordination of linguistic and textual knowledge in the heritage language and in German, as well as the systematic coordination of heritage language with subject lessons, may also reduce inhibitions among German-Turkish bilingual pupils to use their heritage language as a resource for learning.

Suggestions for coordinated language education between heritage language lessons and all subjects:

  1. Internal subject-specific considerations: Which language patterns are required in subject-specific texts? What means need to be acquired to produce such texts?
  2. Exchange with other subjects: Define common linguistic patterns means and behaviours required in written texts;
  3. Exchange between subject and heritage language teachers: Work out basic linguistic approaches in the heritage language that also prepare pupils for subject lessons.