Written and oral language practices exist within specific social and cultural contexts.13 This means that individuals are members of a society (which consists of groups or organisations that are not all organised on a formal basis) and the language practices of individuals can be seen as part of the activities of those groups or organisations. The group both influences and is influenced by the communications of its members. For example, consider the graffiti and rap music associated with hip-hop culture, in which the graphic and oral forms of communication are important parts of the identity of the group. The legal jargon used by lawyers is another example of the way in which a group influences the form of communication used by its members and is in turn influenced by it.
This has implications for adult education, where social and cultural factors are particularly significant for adults who are developing their expertise with written and oral language. Adult learners bring a wealth of diverse social and cultural experiences to most learning situations and belong to a wide variety of social and cultural structures, all of which influence and inform their learning.
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Purpose and audience
All oral and written texts have a meaning and a purpose. The ability to distinguish between the different purposes of texts may be developed through examining the purposes that adults themselves have as they prepare to listen, speak, read or write. These purposes can be very diverse, for example, to entertain, to build a friendship, to get something done, to comfort, to influence, to subvert, to deceive, to persuade, to build community or to shock. The purposes can be direct, indirect, or a combination within one text. The purpose may be to express the writer’s or speaker’s point of view, perspective or attitude and these may be expressed in direct or indirect ways. Listeners and readers who think critically are able to consider different perspectives along with the different intentions of texts.
Given that all texts (oral and written) have a purpose, it follows that all texts have one or more intended audiences. Even personal diaries have the writer of the diary as an audience. The audience may be obvious (a children’s picture book is usually assumed to be written for children), less obvious, or even obscured (sometimes adults may speak to children in a way that carries a different meaning for an adult audience).
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The concept of vocabulary, as used in the progressions, encompasses understanding as well as recognising words in written and spoken language. More than this, knowledge of vocabulary includes knowledge of how words work in relation to each other and within specific contexts.
Learning vocabulary is a complex and sometimes difficult task for adults. For many adults, understanding the differences between oral and written language can pose problems. The fact that about 70 percent of English words have more than one meaning14 adds to the complexity of the task and the different ways in which words are learnt can make it even more complicated. Learning new words takes time. A word is unlikely to become part of a learner’s vocabulary after a single exposure to the word or one definition of it.
Adult learners have several different and overlapping kinds of vocabulary. Stein (2000) identifies the following four:
- Receptive vocabulary. The words an individual understands, either orally (heard) or in print (read).
- Productive vocabulary. The words an individual is able to use orally (by speaking) or in print (by writing).
- Oral vocabulary. The words an individual can use or recognise in speaking or listening.
- Reading vocabulary. The words an individual recognises in a printed form.
Because of this complexity, word learning is incremental and occurs over many exposures. For example, the word bright has numerous shades of meaning and it takes multiple exposures to the word in different contexts to understand the full complexity of its meanings and applications (The light is bright; The future looks bright; John is bright; Sarah has a bright personality).
Researchers’ interest in vocabulary size has mainly focused on the needs of ESOL learners. Different researchers use different methods for counting vocabulary size, making estimates hard to compare. Some use word families as the basis for counting and others use total numbers of individual words. Paul Nation15 estimates that a five-year-old starting school generally has a vocabulary of 4,000 to 5,000 word families and a university graduate generally knows about 20,000 word families. A word family is taken to include a root or base word, its inflected forms and a small number of reasonably regular derived forms.16 For example, the word family of concept includes concepts, conceptual, preconception and other words. The notion of a word family makes for more efficient learning because when the learner knows the root or base word, it is easier for them to learn the related items.
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Texts are never neutral. The values and beliefs of the writer or speaker affect the messages that are communicated. For this reason, it is important for adult learners to develop the skills for thinking critically about the texts they read, view or hear. Thinking critically involves analysing and interpreting meanings, responding critically to texts when reading and listening, and being critically aware when writing and speaking. Adult learners need to develop their awareness of speakers’ and writers’ different perspectives and purposes in order to gain deeper levels of meaning, to avoid being manipulated by writers and speakers, and to gain insights and enjoyment from the texts they engage with.
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The interrelationships between listening, speaking, reading and writing
The learning progressions describe the development of expertise across the four strands that relate to listening, speaking, reading and writing. Within these strands, progressions have been developed for specific areas of learning, such as vocabulary and comprehension. However, these divisions do not mean that each area of learning is isolated. They overlap one another and in some cases certain learning in one progression is a prerequisite for learning in another. The interrelationships between reading and writing and between listening and speaking also mean that no one strand should be considered on its own. To emphasise the strong interrelationship between listening and speaking, there is a progression for Interactive Listening and Speaking that is repeated in both the Listen with Understanding and the Speak to Communicate strands.
Many learners who are native speakers of English may not seem to fit into the lower steps of the listening and speaking progressions, but they may fit the lower steps of the reading and writing progressions. This reflects the fact that their oral skills development outstrips their written skills development. This can be seen, for example, in adult learners who have strong oratory skills but who have not had similar success with reading and writing.
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Second language learning
A number of premises distinguish these progressions from ones that may describe or account for second language learning in general. These relate specifically to the nature of interaction and transfer between the ESOL learner’s reading and writing skills and knowledge in their first language, and their reading and writing skills and knowledge in English.
These premises are detailed in Appendix A: Second language learning of reading and writing.
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