Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 2

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Highlighting in Language Teacher Education


Tamara Warhol, University of Mississippi


Tamara Warhol, Ph.D., is assistant professor of TESL & linguistics at the University of Mississippi, University, MS.



How novice language teachers interpret research on writing pedagogy is based, in part, on how their professors present the research in class.  A professor may highlight salient aspects of research to socialize novice language teachers into integrating theory into the practice of teaching second language composition.  This article, thus, describes the highlighting practices of one professor in a course on teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).



How novice language teachers interpret research of writing pedagogy is based, in part, on how their professors present the research in class.  A study of the themes of second language writing theory and research only offers a static picture of the literal texts presented in a course of teaching ESL writing.  Such exploration does not investigate the dynamic practices associated with socializing novice language teachers to select among and reinterpret second language writing theories to apply to their own teaching.  In contrast, the examination of how professors highlight what they perceive as the more salient aspects of second language research provides insight about the processes of socialization in language teacher education courses (Goodwin, 1994; Rymes, 2009).  This article, thus, analyzes an exemplary excerpt from a course on teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) writing to illustrate the socialization function of the professor’s highlighting practices in language teacher education courses.  First, the article situates the study within the research about language teacher education.  It then defines highlighting practices and demonstrates how a professor uses these practices in classroom discourse through a microethnographic analysis of an exemplary excerpt.  The article concludes by suggesting that in order to improve language teacher education, researchers should study not only the content presented in the courses but also the practices of the professors who present the content.


Literature Review

Since Long (1983) first suggested that classroom language instruction did “make a difference” in second language acquisition, language teacher education has grown from inquiry into how to train language teachers in best methods to questions of teacher “identity, socialization, and situations of practice” (Freeman, 2009, p. 14).  Recent studies have included research about teacher cognition and expertise (e.g., Borg, 2009; Tsui 2011), teacher identity and the question of native-speaker status (e.g., Clark & Paran, 2007; Norton, 2006), content area knowledge (e.g., Johnson, 2009), contextual influences (e.g., Hawkins, 2011; Kumaravadivelu, 2012) and professional socialization (e.g., Clarke, 2008; Hedgcock, 2009).  This study specifically focuses on how one specific practice, highlighting, may contribute to the socialization of future ESL writing teachers.


Focusing on the practice of highlighting builds on the work of scholars who have characterized language-teacher education as a process of language socialization into the discourse of the discipline (e.g., Clarke, 2008; Hedgcock, 2009).  Although language teacher educators do agree that language socialization is a process in which novices acquire the communicative practices needed to participate in a particular community (Rymes, 2009), they do not agree upon actual disciplinary discourses.  Instead they have questioned (a) whether or not applied linguistics and language teaching are two distinct discourses and (b) whether research from applied linguistics helps future practitioners with their language instruction.  For example, Hedgcock (2009) draws on Gee’s (1996) distinction between between discourse, “stretches of language that make sense, like conversations, stories, reports, arguments, essays, and so forth” and capital “D” Discourse, “ways of being in the world, or forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities, as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes” (p. 127) to argue that the Discourse of applied linguistics is an intrinsic part of the Discourse of language teaching rather than its own unique Discourse.  He argues that knowing the Discourse of applied linguistics offers a means of teaching language: “acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities.”  In contrast, Clarke (2008) suggests that theories and research in applied linguistics and actual teaching practice represent two competing discourse communities.  Applied linguistics researchers investigate hypotheses related to best practices, second language acquisition, and pedagogical grammar and use a metalanguage, a language about language, to discuss them.  In contrast, language instructors use “teacher talk” (Chaudron, 1988) to simplify their speech to make it understood to language learners. Bartels, thus, does not believe that applied linguistics researchers and language teachers use the same Discourses.  As these examples illustrate, what Discourses constitute the knowledge base of language teacher education remains one of the primary questions in the field (Freeman, 2009).  Nevertheless, these researchers do agree that language teacher education is a form of socialization.  However, no published studies of language teacher education have examined how highlighting may serve as a tool in this process. 


Highlighting occurs when professionals employ some semiotic resource to signal the importance of a category, utterance, or event for the discipline (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004; Goodwin, 1994). Semiotic resources used to highlight a particular aspect of a social situation may include various contextualization cues (Gumperz, 1982) – extralinguistic features of language used to interpret how interactants are using language – such as gesture, eye gaze, change in register, and change in variety (Bloome, Carter, Christian, Otoo & Shuart-Faris, 2005).  Furthermore, contextualization cues such as word repetition, pauses, stress, and intonation, all associated with emphasis, may prompt students to aurally attend to these particular words that the professor wants to signal their importance. Highlighting may also take the form of graphic representations or other semiotic resources such as gesture and in the classroom sometimes these other forms of highlighting emerge as well.  Using microethnographic analysis, this study closely examines one exemplary excerpt to illustrate how a professor in a language teacher education course highlights what she perceives as the more salient aspect of second language research to socialize students into adopting those practices.



This article is based on a larger microethnography conducted in two sections of a course in a M.S.-TESOL program in an elective course, Teaching Writing to ESL Students, in a graduate school of education in the northeastern United States over the course of one semester (Warhol, 2011).  For the larger study, I engaged in participant observation, videotaped class time, interviewed students, and collected course artifacts.  Videotapes were transcribed using Jefferson’s transcription conventions as reproduced in Schegloff (2007).  The data were then analyzed using Goodwin’s (1994) framework articulated in “Professional Vision” and this article specifically discusses uses Goodwin’s theoretical construct of “highlighting,” as defined above, to analyze this excerpt.  



The excerpt analyzed occurred in section one of the course when they addressed the topic, “Focus on Form.”  Assigned readings for that week included “Improving Accuracy in Student Writing: Error Treatment in the Composition Class” by Ferris and Hedgcock (2005), “Responding to ESL Writing” by Leki (1991) and “Grammar and the ESL Writing Class” by Frodesen and Holten (2003).  As the titles of the assigned reading indicate, terms such as “accuracy” and “grammar” and their derivatives are relevant in order to characterize aspects of writing methodologies.  The excerpt occurs during a class discussion after the students have had an in-class writing where they answered the following three questions: (a) When do we direct learner attention to form? (b) Which grammatical forms merit attention? and, (c) How do we engage learners in grammar activities that promote writing development? Following the in-class writing, the professor began the discussion asking students about their answers to these questions.  As the discussion continues she then asks the native-English-speakers if they ever had any recurring grammatical problems in their writing.  After one native-speaking student provides the example of struggling with the subjunctive, the professor then asks non-native-English-speaking students the same question (Warhol, 2011).  In the excerpt, the professor uses verbal, paralinguistic and kinesic contextualization cues to highlight one of the non-native-English-speaking student’s answer.  “P” indicates the professor and “S2” and “S3” are two different students.           


Excerpt 3


43    P: no ok and there are also some problems that um non-

44    native spea:kers face that are very very complex and

45    um some even like very very very advanced students

46    (0.2) don’t necessarily ever you know get that

47    completely can you guys think of anything like that

48    that’s very hard in English


50    S2:[prepositions


52    S3:[articles=


54    P:=uh let’s see what huh (points to S3)


56    S3: articles


58    P: articles! thank you! sco::re! ((P raises hands to

59    resemble goal posts)) yes you can teach it a billion

60    kagillion times and it might help to some extent but

61    does it help to get people to write as they’re writing

62    (0.8) I:: don’t think so, you might be able to help

63    them to some extent after they write to go back and

64    edit some? of their article problems (0.4) but a lot

65    of non-native speakers even the most advanced, still

66    have article problems after like these are professors

67    you know I am talking about people who are very

68    advanced in English it’s very hard to:: do correctly

69    the articles so sort of pounding it into them before

70    they write I think doesn’t necessarily really help, in

71    terms of their production of articles what was another

72    one somebody said


Word repetition, intonation, and pauses highlight the Discourse of applied linguistics related to teaching second language writing, but the professor also points (line 54) and raises her arms to resemble a goal-post (lines 58-59) to first distinguish and then highlight one student’s answer.


The professor repeats and intensifies through paralinguistic cues what she believes is the key lexical item or concept from applied linguistics.  In the excerpt, this item is articles.  The appropriate usage of articles, the metalinguistic term for, “a,” “an” and “the,” is a well-known challenge for English language learners in both spoken and written discourse (Trenkic, 2007).  To reinforce the metalinguistic term and related information, in 137 words, the professor repeats the word, “article,” 5 times, approximately 4% of the words she uses beyond the students initial answer.  Twice the professor uses the lexical item as part of the compound noun, “article problem” (lines 64, 66) to further demonstrate this concept.  The professor’s intonation likewise signals the importance of the student’s answer.  The professor uses and maintains an animated tone as she repeats the word, “article” and agrees with the students answer.  Additionally, one of the few pauses in the professor’s evaluation of the student’s answer occurs after she uses the compound noun, “article problem” for the first time.


As the assessment turn an initiation-reponse-evaluation sequence (Bloome et al. 2005), the content, timing, and gestures associated professor’s response also indicate her validation of student’s language and answer.  Goodwin and Goodwin (1992) write, “Assessments reveal not just neutral objects in the world, but an alignment taken up toward phenomena by a particular actor” (p. 166).  In the excerpt, the professor first aligns herself with S3 by pointing to the student and latching onto that particular answer without pause when S2 and S3 overlap (lines 50-54).  The content of the professor’s first words to S3 after the answer is repeated further suggests a positive evaluation of the student’s answer.  Not only is the professor speaking in an animated tone, but she also thanks the student and says “sco::re” in a voice similar to what soccer announcers do when players score goals, the main purpose of a soccer game (Excerpt 3, line 58). 


This elongated intonation is even further stressed when the professor’s concurrently raises her hands to resemble goal posts.  This iconic representation (Goodwin, 2003) calls attention to the overall superlative assessment of the student’s response.  The superlative assessment, in turn, reinforces behaviors, in other words socializes language behaviors that the professor believes appropriate for use in the profession.  Thus, the professor uses multiple highlighting tools to emphasize the student’s response as salient to the discipline of teaching second language writing.



How novice language teachers come to enact practices based on theory and research in applied linguistics is based, in part, by how it is presented to them by their professors.  Students come to see what is considered relevant for pedagogy not through their own passive consumption of texts but when an expert signals texts’ importance.  As illustrated in the analysis of this excerpt, the professor uses a preponderance of words associated with a Discourse from applied linguistics – a metalanguage.  She then selects among and emphasizes different aspects of the course material as relevant for pedagogy.  She highlights these practices include gesture and other paralinguistic cues so that students aurally and visually recognize what is important for professional practice.  Additionally, through her highlighting practices, the professor herself is a material representation of a language teacher.  As a language teacher educator, she teaches students how to teach writing. She serves as the model for how they should speak and act in their own writing classrooms.    



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