Oliver St johnTitle: Senior Lecturer School/office: School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences
Phone: +46 19 303302
About Oliver St john
Oliver St John is a senior lecturer in education and teacher educator at Örebro University, Sweden. With a background in secondary school language teaching, he has taught and initiated research within the fields of second or additional language acquisition and pedagogy.
His thesis – Approaching classroom interaction dialogically – accounts for multilingual pedagogical encounters in a ‘bilingual’ secondary school as both local accomplishments and dialogic action. The thesis seeks to show how both conversation analysis and dialogism are relevant for exploring some of the studies’ central questions such as “What contextual features of a target event deserve analytic attention?”, “What are the dynamics that create meaning making possibilities in the classroom?” and “Given the formative potentials of any sociocultural milieu, how may we understand the agency of social actors?”
Treating classroom interaction as dialogic action implies a counter stance to the educational pursuit of results linked to predetermined goals. Rather than viewing learning in terms of transmission and predictable outcomes, learning is conceived as co-actualized in and through coherent counter response to others and their different, even alien, kinds of orientations. This insight, in turn, implies a pedagogy which addresses, first and foremost, not school subjects, but pupils, students, on particular topics and is oriented towards an answer from a full range of responses. Working dialogically in the classroom assumes that any pedagogic encounter is part of the unfinalizable dialogue within a particular subject sphere. It seeks to capitalize on the interanimation between bounded instruction and emergent counter engagement for making distinct wider parameters of possible perception.
Newly arrived pupils and translanguaging
Oliver’s current research focuses on the learning conditions for newly arrived students and the kind of school-based provision that enables them to succeed at school. The extent to which these pupils experience inclusion in schools is critical for their chances to find haven and participate meaningfully in the wider social community.
Translanguaging offers a challenging and expansive conceptual lens for understanding the linguistically hybrid yet fluid meaning-making practices of multilinguals (Garcia & Wei 2014; Creese & Blackledge 2010; 2015). It highlights the capacity of bi- and multilinguals to make themselves understood and produce nuanced meanings by gliding between languages so that they use a variety of features and practices from their whole linguistic repertoires. Such communicative mobility on the basis of all a speaker’s linguistic resources has significant promise for gaining opportunity to contribute to instructional processes and collaborate with other students so that (language) learning is maximized. Translanguaging is communicatively enabling and therefore affords great potential to support newly arrived pupils and students in their efforts to master additional and academic languages in schools while maintaining their mother tongues.
Current research and projects
The bilingual language assistant project (Autumn, 2018)
The use of a learner’s mother tongue during additional language acquisition is widely heralded as a crucially important learning asset (Cummins, 2017; Hyltenstam & Milani, 2012; Nilsson & Axelsson, 2013). To understand and be understood is central in all learning and knowledge formation (Bruce et al. 2016). While bilingual educational policy in Sweden highlights the use of pupils’ pre-existing linguistic knowledge as a learning resource, monolingual norms and pedagogies stifle such intentions and pupils’ indigenous voices (Björk-Willén, 2006; Duek, 2017; Jalali-Moghadam & Hedman, 2016). With regard to second or additional language learning, one strategy for providing newcomer students with language support is to introduce bilingual language assistants (språkstödjare) into the instructional design of language learning courses (Macaro et al., 2014). Bilingual language assistants (BLAs) are those who speak a learner’s mother tongue and can use it alongside teachers who do not speak this language, to support the learner in acquiring an additional language.
Project background and aims
The bilingual language assistant project (BLAP) has developed from the vision of a Swedish for immigrants (SFI) teacher team whose concern over the low number of students who reach the minimum requirement levels of courses A and B spurred them to bring about organizational change. Their commitment led to the recruitment of nine mother tongue BLAs in August, 2017, employed 50% for the autumn term, and the launch of a 6-month pilot study carried out by researcher and practitioners in concert. The LAs’ mother tongues included several Arabic varieties, Dari and Somali. The aim of the current practice-based research project is to build on the findings of the pilot study and, in cooperation with the teachers and school leadership, to gauge the value of using BLAs by documenting the development of the project and investigating the quality of the pedagogical conditions created through BLA-mediated teaching for student learning. A further aim is to prepare the ground for a two-year project which combines qualitative and quantitative research strategies in the task of measuring the effect of BLA support on newly arrived students language performance and success rates. The ultimate purpose of researching the effect of BLA-supported teaching on student progress is to develop this teacher-BLA partnership, enhance its pedagogical value and share this practice-based research knowledge.
Pilot study results
The pilot study results point to significant positive effects of BLA participation in the first SFI study course. The middle and final student interviews provide evidence of advantageous learning experiences and a strong sense of personal and pedagogical support from the mother tongue assistants. Both students and BLAs emphasize the critical role bilingual assistance plays in building up students’ self-esteem and giving them hope as a necessary condition for motivating language learning. All the participants agreed that, given the BLA’s understanding of the students’ cultural differences and linguistic vulnerability, they are able to explain language and cultural difficulties in a way which the teachers simply cannot.
The BLA’s interview responses coupled to observations of their classroom performance show a strong learning curve connected to an evolving realization of the role they need to play. A significant pedagogical result was a general appreciation of the need to make a clear distinction between helping (doing the work for the students) and supporting (enabling students to do the work themselves) students in their language learning and the significant benefits of achieving the latter. From a tendency to supply the correct answer immediately, the BLAs developed scaffolding techniques which moved significantly towards maintaining a strategic balance between challenge and support. Another finding is that the way BLAs use Swedish, the target language, with the students is as important for understanding instruction as mother tongue use.
While there may be potential disadvantages connected to the inclusion of BLAs into SFI education such as a dependency on assistant support and an incongruity between methods used by teachers and BLAs, the evidence is overwhelming that the advantages of bilingual language assistance at this level of language learning outweigh possible disadvantages.
ECER conference (September, 2018)
The ECER 2018 conference “Inclusion and Exclusion, Resources for Educational Research?” takes place in Bolzano, Italy, 4-7 September, 2018. At this conference, the paper “Supporting newly arrived students in learning Swedish through bilingual language assistance” will be presented by Oliver within the Network on Language and Education.
Special edition on translanguaging, Translation and Translanguaging in Multilingual Contexts (Autumn, 2018)
As an outcome of Translanguaging – researchers and practitioners in dialogue, the two-day international conference on translanguaging organized by The School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences (HumUS) at Örebro University, Sweden, on 28 and 29 March 2017, a special edition on translanguaging with the same title is due to be published during the Autumn, 2018, in the international journal, Translation and Translanguaging in Multilingual Contexts. The special edition comprises a number of articles developed from papers presented at the conference under the guidance of three guest editors (Lina Adinolfi, Holly Link and Oliver St John). One of these articles, ‘Between question and answer: Mother tongue tutoring and translanguaging as dialogic action’, is authored by Oliver.
Article-in-progress (Autumn, 2018)
Enabling newly arrived students to learn Swedish through the mediation of bilingual language assistants.