Language puts ordinary people at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system


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‘Now, did you understand all that?’
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David Wright, Nottingham Trent University

Language is pervasive throughout the criminal justice system. A textual chain follows a person from the moment they are arrested until their day in court, and it is all underpinned by meticulously drafted legislation. At every step, there are challenges faced by laypeople who find themselves in the linguistic webs of the justice system.

Anyone who reads a UK act of parliament, for example, is met with myriad linguistic complexities. Archaic formulae, complex prepositions, lengthy and embedded clauses abound in the pages of the law. Such language can render legal texts inaccessible to the everyday reader. Some argue (see Vijay Bhatia’s chapter) that this is a deliberate ploy by the legal establishment to keep the non-expert at an arm’s length.

But closer to the truth is the fact that legal language, like all language in all contexts, is the way it is because of its function and purpose. Those drafting laws must ensure enough precision and unambiguity so that the law can be applied, while also being flexible and inclusive enough to account for the unpredictability of human behaviour.

The cost of this linguistic balancing act, however, is increased complexity and the exclusion of the uninitiated. Legal language has long been in the crosshairs of The Plain English Campaign which argues for its simplification, claiming that “if we can’t understand our rights, we have no rights”.

It is not only written legal language that presents difficulties for the layperson. Once someone is arrested they go through a chain of communicative events, each one coloured by institutional language, and each one with implications for the next. It begins with the arresting officer reading the suspect their rights. In England and Wales, the police caution reads:

You do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.

This may seem very familiar to many readers (perhaps due to their penchant for police dramas), but this short set of statements is linguistically complex. The strength of the verb “may”; what exactly constitutes “mentioning” or “relying”, and what “questioning” is and when it will take place, are just some of the ambiguities that may be overlooked at first glance.

What the research says

Indeed, research has found that, although people claim to fully comprehend the caution, they are often incapable of demonstrating any understanding of it at all. Frances Rock has also written extensively on the language of cautioning and found that when police officers explain the caution to detainees in custody, there is substantial variation in the explanations offered. Some explanations add clarity, while others introduce even more puzzles.

This issue of comprehensibility is compounded, of course, when the detainee is not a native speaker of English.

The word of the law.
Shutterstock

The difficulties in understanding legal language are typically overcome by the hiring of legal representation. Peter Tiersma, in his seminal 1999 book Legal Language, noted that “the hope that every man can be his own lawyer, which has existed for centuries, is probably no more realistic than having people be their own doctor”.

However, in the UK at least, cuts in legal aid mean that more people are representing themselves, removing the protection of a legal-language expert. Work by Tatiana Tkacukova has revealed the communicative struggles of these so-called “litigants in person” as they step into the courtroom arena of seasoned legal professionals.

Trained lawyers have developed finely-tuned cross-examination techniques, and all witnesses who take the stand, including the alleged victim or plaintiff, are likely to be subjected to gruelling cross-examination, characterised by coercive and controlling questioning. At best, witnesses might emerge from the courtroom feeling frustrated, and at worst victims may leave feeling victimised once again.

The work of forensic linguists has led to progress in some areas. For instance, it is long established that the cross-examination of alleged rape victims is often underpinned by societal preconceptions and prejudices which, when combined with rigorous questioning, are found to traumatise victims further. Recent reforms in England and Wales provide rape victims with the option to avoid “live” courtroom cross-examination and may go some way towards addressing this issue.

Further afield, an international group of linguists, psychologists, lawyers and interpreters have produced a set of guidelines for communicating rights to non-native speakers of English in Australia, England and Wales, and the US. These guidelines include recommendations for the wording and communication of cautions and rights to detainees, which aim to protect those already vulnerable from further problems of misunderstanding in the justice system.

The ConversationLanguage will forever remain integral to our criminal justice system, and it will continue to disadvantage many who find themselves in the process. However, as the pool and remit of forensic linguists grows, there are greater opportunities to rebalance the linguistic inequalities of the legal system in favour of the layperson.

David Wright, Lecturer in Linguistics, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Is there such a thing as a national sense of humour?


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A statue celebrating Monty Python’s sketch The Dead Parrot near London’s Tower Bridge ahead of a live show on the TV channel Gold.
DAVID HOLT/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gary McKeown, Queen’s University Belfast

We’re all aware that there are stereotypes. The British are sharply sarcastic, the Americans are great at physical comedy, and the Japanese love puns. But is humour actually driven by culture to any meaningful extent? Couldn’t it be more universal – or depend largely on the individual? The Conversation

There are some good reasons to believe that there is such a thing as a national sense of humour. But let’s start with what we actually have in common, by looking at the kinds of humour that most easily transcend borders.

Certain kinds of humour are more commonly used in circumstances that are international and multicultural in nature – such as airports. When it comes to onoard entertainment, airlines, in particular, are fond of humour that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries for obvious reasons. Slapstick humour and the bland but almost universally tolerable social transgressions and faux pas of Mr Bean permit a safe, gentle humour that we can all relate to. Also, the silent situational dilemmas of the Canadian Just for Laughs hidden camera reality television show has been a staple option for airlines for many years.

Just for laughs.

These have a broad reach and are probably unlikely to offend most people. Of course, an important component in their broad appeal is that they are not really based on language.

Language and culture

Most humour, and certainly humour that involves greater cognitive effort, is deeply embedded in language and culture. It relies on a shared language or set of culturally based constructs to function. Puns and idioms are obvious examples.

Indeed, most modern theories of humour suggest that some form of shared knowledge is one of the key foundations of humour – that is, after all, what a culture is.

Some research has demonstrated this. One study measured humour in Singaporean college students and compared it with that of North American and Israeli students. This was done using a questionnaire asking participants to describe jokes they found funny, among other things. The researchers found that the Americans were more likely to tell sex jokes than the Singaporeans. The Singaporean jokes, on the other hand, were slightly more often focused on violence. The researchers interpreted the lack of sex jokes among Singaporean students to be a reflection of a more conservative society. Aggressive jokes may be explained by a cultural emphasis on strength for survival.

International humour?
C.P.Storm/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Another study compared Japanese and Taiwanese students’ appreciation of English jokes. It found that the Taiwanese generally enjoyed jokes more than the Japanese and were also more eager to understand incomprehensible jokes. The authors argued that this could be down to a more hierarchical culture in Japan, leaving less room for humour.

Denigration and self-deprecation

There are many overarching themes that can be used to define a nation’s humour. A nation that laughs together is one that can show it has a strong allegiance between its citizens. Laughter is one of our main social signals and combined with humour it can emphasise social bonding – albeit sometimes at the cost of denigrating other groups. This can be seen across many countries. For example, the French tend to enjoy a joke about the Belgians while Swedes make fun of Norwegians. Indeed, most nations have a preferred country that serves as a traditional butt of their jokes.

Sexist and racist humour are also examples of this sort of denigration. The types of jokes used can vary across cultures, but the phenomenon itself can boost social bonding. Knowledge of acceptable social boundaries is therefore crucial and reinforces social cohesion. As denigration is usually not the principle aim of the interaction it shows why people often fail to realise that they are being offensive when they were “only joking”. However, as the world becomes more global and tolerant of difference, this type of humour is much less acceptable in cultures that welcome diversity.

Self-denigration or self-deprecation is also important – if it is relatively mild and remains within acceptable social norms. Benign violation theory argues that something that threatens social or cultural norms can also result in humour.

Importantly, what constitutes a benign level of harm is strongly culturally bound and differs from nation to nation, between social groups within nations and over the course of a nation’s history. What was once tolerable as national humour can now seem very unacceptable. For the British, it may be acceptable to make fun of Britons being overly polite, orderly or reluctant to talk to stangers. However, jokes about the nature of Britain’s colonial past would be much more contentious – they would probably violate social norms without being emotionally benign.

Another factor is our need to demonstrate that we understand the person we are joking with. My own ideas suggest we even have a desire to display skills of knowing what another person thinks – mind-reading in the scientific sense. For this, cultural alignment and an ability to display it are key elements in humour production and appreciation – it can make us joke differently with people from our own country than with people from other cultures.

‘Fork handles’.

For example, most people in the UK know that the popular phrase “don’t mention the war” refers to a Fawlty Towers sketch. Knowing that “fork handles” is funny also marks you as a UK citizen (see video above). Similarly, knowledge of “I Love Lucy” or quotes from Seinfeld create affiliation among many in the US, while reference to “Chavo del Ocho” or “Chapulín Colorado” do the same for Mexicans and most Latin Americans.

These shared cultural motifs – here drawn mostly from television – are one important aspect of a national sense of humour. They create a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They make us feel more confident about our humour and can be used to build further jokes on.

A broadly shared sense of humour is probably one of our best indicators for how assimilated we are as a nation. Indeed, a nation’s humour is more likely to show unity within a country than to display a nation as being different from other nations in any meaningful way.

Gary McKeown, Senior Lecturer of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The world’s words of the year pass judgement on a dark, surreal 2016


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Philip Seargeant, The Open University

Every December, lexicographers around the world choose their “words of the year”, and this year, perhaps more than ever, the stories these tell provide a fascinating insight into how we’ve experienced the drama and trauma of the last 12 months.

There was much potential in 2016. It was 500 years ago that Thomas More wrote his Utopia, and January saw the launch of a year’s celebrations under the slogan “A Year of Imagination and Possibility” – but as 2017 looms, this slogan rings hollow. Instead of utopian dreams, we’ve had a year of “post-truth” and “paranoia”, of “refugee” crises, “xenophobia” and a close shave with “fascism”.

Earlier in the year, a campaign was launched to have “Essex Girl” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Those behind the campaign were upset at the derogatory definition – a young woman “characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” – so wanted it to be expunged from the official record of the language.

The OED turned down the request, a spokeswoman explaining that since the OED is a historical dictionary, nothing is ever removed; its purpose, she said, is to describe the language as people use it, and to stand as a catalogue of the trends and preoccupations of the time.

The words of the year tradition began with the German Wort des Jahres in the 1970s. It has since spread to other languages, and become increasingly popular the world over. Those in charge of the choices are getting more innovative: in 2015, for the first time, Oxford Dictionaries chose a pictograph as their “word”: the emoji for “Face with Tears of Joy”.

In 2016, however, the verbal was very much back in fashion. The results speak volumes.

Dark days

In English, there are a range of competing words, with all the major dictionaries making their own choices. Having heralded a post-language era last year, Oxford Dictionaries decided on “post-truth” this time, defining it as the situation when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In a year of evidence-light Brexit promises and Donald Trump’s persistent lies and obfuscations, this has a definite resonance. In the same dystopian vein, the Cambridge Dictionary chose “paranoid”, while Dictionary.com went for “xenophobia”.

Merriam-Webster valiantly tried to turn back the tide of pessimism. When “fascism” looked set to win its online poll, it tweeted its readers imploring them to get behind something – anything – else. The plea apparently worked, and in the end “surreal” won the day. Apt enough for a year in which events time and again almost defied belief.

The referendum that spawned a thousand words.
EPA/Andy Rain

Collins, meanwhile, chose “Brexit”, a term which its spokesperson suggested has become as flexible and influential in political discourse as “Watergate”.

Just as the latter spawned hundreds of portmanteau words whenever a political scandal broke, so Brexit begat “Bremain”, “Bremorse” and “Brexperts” – and will likely be adapted for other upcoming political rifts for many years to come. It nearly won out in Australia in fact, where “Ausexit” (severing ties with the British monarchy or the United Nations) was on the shortlist. Instead, the Australian National Dictionary went for “democracy sausage” – the tradition of eating a barbecued sausage on election day.

Around the world, a similar pattern of politics and apprehension emerges. In France, the mot de l’année was réfugiés (refugees); and in Germany postfaktisch, meaning much the same as “post-truth”. Swiss German speakers, meanwhile, went for Filterblase (filter bubble), the idea that social media is creating increasingly polarised political communities.

Switzerland’s Deaf Association, meanwhile, chose a Sign of the Year for the first time. Its choice was “Trump”, consisting of a gesture made by placing an open palm on the top of the head, mimicking the president-elect’s extravagant hairstyle.

2016’s golden boy, as far as Japan’s concerned.
Albert H. Teich

Trump’s hair also featured in Japan’s choice for this year. Rather than a word, Japan chooses a kanji (Chinese character); 2016’s choice is “金” (gold). This represented a number of different topical issues: Japan’s haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, fluctuating interest rates, the gold shirt worn by singer and YouTube sensation Piko Taro, and, inevitably, the colour of Trump’s hair.

And then there’s Austria, whose word is 51 letters long: Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung. It means “the repeated postponement of the runoff vote for Federal President”. Referring to the seven months of votes, legal challenges and delays over the country’s presidential election, this again references an event that flirted with extreme nationalism and exposed the convoluted nature of democracy. As a new coinage, it also illustrates language’s endless ability to creatively grapple with unfolding events.

Which brings us, finally, to “unpresidented”, a neologism Donald Trump inadvertently created when trying to spell “unprecedented” in a tweet attacking the Chinese. At the moment, it’s a word in search of a meaning, but the possibilities it suggests seem to speak perfectly to the history of the present moment. And depending on what competitors 2017 throws up, it could well emerge as a future candidate.

The Conversation

Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Slang shouldn’t be banned … it should be celebrated, innit


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Rob Drummond, Manchester Metropolitan University

Geezers and girls literally ain’t allowed to use slang words like “emosh” (emotional) anymore. The head teacher and staff of an academy in Essex, England appear to have taken great pleasure in banning the type of slang used in reality television series TOWIE, including many of the words in the above sentence, in a bid to improve the job prospects of their students.

Head teacher David Grant reportedly believes that by outlawing certain words and phrases and forcing students to use “proper English”, they will be in a better position to compete for jobs with non-native English speakers who may have a better command of the language. The way forward, he believes, is for young people to be using “the Queen’s English”, and not wasting time getting totes emosh about some bird or some bloke.

While nobody would doubt the good intentions behind such a scheme, it simply isn’t the way to go about achieving the desired aims. Of course, there’s always the possibility that this is all part of some clever plan to raise awareness and generate debate among the students about the language they use; in which case, great. Unfortunately, phrases such as “proper English”, “wrong usage” and “Queen’s English” suggest a very different and alarmingly narrow-minded approach to language.

Indeed, banning slang in schools is a short-sighted and inefficient way of trying to produce young people who are confident and adaptable communicators. What we should be doing is encouraging students to explore the fluidity, richness, and contextual appropriateness of an ever-changing language.

Slang: the real English.
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The fact is, there really is no such thing as “proper English”; there is simply English that is more or less appropriate in a given situation. Most of us would agree that “well jel” (very jealous) or “innit” have no place in most job interviews, but they do have a place elsewhere. Similarly, some people might get annoyed at what they see as the overuse of “like”, but it’s as much a part of young people’s language as “cool”, “yeah”, or “dude” might have been to their parents in their day.

This isn’t the first time a school has gone down this particular route in the quest to create more employable school leavers. In 2013, Harris Academy in south London produced a list of banned slang words and phrases including “bare” (alot), “innit” and “we woz” in a bid to improve their pupil’s chances. Fast forward to 2015 and the policy was hailed a success, with the “special measures” school now being rated “outstanding”. But are we really to believe that this turnaround was purely due to eager staff policing children’s use of a few slang words? Isn’t it perhaps more likely that the new leadership team brought with them rather more than a naughty words list?

Language in flux

What is always missed in these discussions is that English is in a constant state of change, and this change simply can’t be stopped. You can hang on to your belief that “literally” can only mean “in a literal manner” as much as you like, but you can’t change the fact that it has another, equally legitimate, meaning. You can disapprovingly count the number of times your teenage son or daughter says “like” in a single conversation, but you can’t stop its rise in English in general.

Which is why a ban is so pointless. All it can possibly achieve is to make young people self-conscious about the way they speak, thus stifling creativity and expression. Do we really want the shy 13-year-old who has finally plucked up the courage to speak in class to be immediately silenced when the first word he or she utters is “Like…”? Or would we rather the teacher listens to what they have to say, then explores how the use of language can change the message, depending on the context? In other words, celebrate language diversity rather than restrict it.

And this is precisely what English language teachers do every day in their classes. Learning about language variation, about accents, dialects, and slang is all part of the curriculum, especially as they head towards A level. I can only imagine how frustrated they must be when their senior staff then seek to publicly undo their good work by insisting on outdated, class-based, culturally-biased notions of correct and incorrect usage.

In an English language class, students are taught how the ways in which we use language are part of how we construct and perform our social identities. Unfortunately, their break-times are then patrolled by some kind of language police who are tasked with ensuring those identities aren’t expressed (unless, presumably, they happen to be performing an acceptably middle-class job applicant identity at the time).

Different language is appropriate for different contexts. Yes, using TOWIE slang is inappropriate in a job interview, but no more inappropriate than using the Queen’s English in the playground. Unless you’re the Queen, obvs.

The Conversation

Rob Drummond, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How teachers can help migrant learners feel more included


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Helen Hanna, Leeds Trinity University

Children are often at the forefront of working out what it means to be a new arrival in a different country. They feel the anxiety that comes with being the new girl or boy at school. They’re in an environment that emphasises “integration” – learning new rules, making new friends, possibly learning a new language and grappling with a new testing regime.

Amid all of these changes, teachers may not realise how important it is simply for children to feel included. Even making their home countries a feature of lessons in, for example, geography can help children feel more at ease. It is a valuable opportunity for them to contribute. If their identities are ignored these children may feel detached from school. This sense of detachment has been shown to negatively affect learning. It may also have more serious consequences for a child’s sense of belonging and, ultimately, well-being.

Research I am currently doing in South Africa and England – countries with long histories of migration – looks at the inclusion of migrant learners in primary schools through their own lens, quite literally. The children take photographs in school as a way of explaining and engaging with their environment as a place of inclusion and exclusion.

Children as migrants

South Africa’s 2011 census showed that almost 2.2 million people living there were born elsewhere. Some are economic migrants, seeking work. Others are refugees or asylum seekers. There is also a large population of undocumented migrants. Most come from other African countries.

It’s not known exactly how many migrant children attend South African schools. New arrivals – especially refugees – may lack the formal documentation required for school registration. Added to this challenge is the reality of xenophobic attacks against new immigrants.

On paper, at least, children enjoy good protection. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires all signatories – South Africa and the UK included – to adhere to a long list of rights. These include the right to free primary education, non-discrimination and to be consulted on anything that affects them.

But my previous research in conflict-affected societies revealed that children and adolescents, particularly those from marginalised groups, struggle with freedom of speech in school. They also don’t often feel represented in the curriculum.

A new, visual voice

My new, ongoing research explored inclusion in primary schools from the point of view of recent migrant children. The learner-researchers, who are nine or ten years old, worked in small groups, each child using a digital camera. We worked with The Arrival, a wordless picturebook that has recently started to be used in this sort of research. It helped the children think about what it’s like to arrive in a new country and stimulated memories of their own experiences.

Then we walked together around school photographing signs, classrooms, playgrounds and people – anything that the children thought was important to know about their school. Finally, we talked about the photos and came up with some advice for teachers and other learners about how to help new arrivals feel included.

Three ways to include migrant learners

So how can we include migrant learners in school? Here are three tips based on a combination of what the learners in the two countries shared while taking part in the photographic project.

First, ask them. Children struggle with the idea that they are free to make suggestions to adults. I found that when we tried to come up with a list of advice for teachers, it turned into a list of rules for the learner to keep. It emerged that some things teachers did to be helpful, like getting the learner to introduce themselves on the first day, were the opposite of what the children wanted – to be welcomed quietly while sitting with a classmate.

Part of the process of doing research that involves children as participants includes building their capacity so that they can see themselves as individuals who have something important to say. Simply explaining that “We, as adults, know some things about school, but you also know many things that I don’t know because you go to this school” can empower them.

Second, be creative. Use picturebooks, photography, music and dance. These methods can engage new arrivals in a way that doesn’t demand great proficiency or confidence in using the school’s language. Of course the school day is very demanding for both learners and educators, but finding time to do something outside of the normal routine may pay great dividends in learners’ confidence and well-being.

Third, make sure that their identities are discussed and valued in the curriculum, and reflected in their school’s ethos. We must allow them to “find themselves in the story” of what they are learning in school. This will ensure their confidence in who they are, and is particularly important for marginalised groups. The very fact that these learners were chosen to take part in this project seemed to make them feel privileged and valued.

Children’s voices matter

The late statesman Nelson Mandela is quoted as declaring that:

Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.

Migrant children are a part of this great treasure. They must be included – and this will happen best when their own voices and stories are heard.

Author’s note: most of the children’s photographs featured their own faces, and so cannot be republished here. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Centre for International Teacher Education at the CPUT, where I have been working as a visiting researcher.

The Conversation

Helen Hanna, Lecturer in Education Studies and Visiting Researcher at Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Leeds Trinity University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Letting kids stand more in the classroom could help them learn


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Ranjana Mehta, Texas A&M University

Study after study has connected inactivity with negative health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. But most of this attention has been focused on adults in an office environment, and the negative impact of sitting on physical health. Hence, the growing popularity of standing desks in offices.

Moving more is good for our bodies. Over the past few years many researchers have begun evaluating the use of standing-height desks (allowing students to sit on a stool or stand at will) instead of the more traditional seated desks in school classrooms. Results have been promising, but until now, researchers have typically focused on utilizing standing desks as a way to combat sedentary behavior.

While studies shows that standing desks can burn calories, anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests that students also focus more and behave better while using standing desks.

But is there anything to these anecdotal observations? Our team at the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center decided to investigate whether standing desks had neurocognitive benefits for students. It turns out that letting kids move in the classroom helps boost attention and focus.

Standing desks let kids move more.
Your Milbura/Flickr, CC BY

Standing desks in schools help kids burn calories

My colleague, Dr. Mark Benden, first looked at classroom movement as a way to deal with the growing number of obese children. In the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have quadrupled, particularly in adolescents aged 12-19 years.

Benden found that students assigned to classrooms equipped with standing desks that allow the students to have the option to stand or sit on a stool, burned 15 to 25 percent more calories than those assigned to traditional seated classrooms.

While burning calories is certainly important, the question at hand is whether standing desks improve learning.

Standing helps students stay engaged

In a study of nearly 300 children in second through fourth grade over the course of a school year, Benden and his team found that kids in classrooms with standing desks exhibited 12 percent greater “on task” engagement when compared to kids in classrooms with the traditional seated desks.

Engagement was measured both during fall and spring by looking at behaviors such as answering questions, raising a hand or participating in active discussion. However, we aren’t sure if standing height desks were behind the increase in classroom engagement. For instance, the way desks are arranged in a classroom and how well teachers engage the students can also influence classroom engagement.

Thus, Dr. Benden and I set out to explore the benefits of standing desks on basic cognitive tasks such as reaction time, response inhibition, attention, memory and cognitive flexibility.

Together, these abilities are lumped as executive function. Figuring out how well someone’s executive function is working is a proxy for measuring goal-directed behavior that is integral cognitive development.

Maybe standing will help?
Boy in class via www.shutterstock.com.

Freedom to sit or stand makes more attentive students

We studied 34 high school freshman who used standing desks at two points during the school year. Desks were installed in the classrooms during the fall so we could compare the same kids before they got the standing desks and after. We wanted to see whether continued use of standing desks affected executive functions.

Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done. These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorize facts, understand what they read, solve multistep problems and organize their thoughts in writing.

We gave students a series of computerized tests to assess their executive function, which they took at standing desks in a computer lab. This allowed us to isolate the effects of the standing desk from classroom configuration and other classroom variables. Because executive functions are largely regulated in the frontal brain region, students wore biosensors on their foreheads while taking the tests. That way, our portable brain imaging device (functional near infrared spectroscopy) could track changes in frontal brain function.

Our test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant performance improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities. Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.

This is the first study to objectively examine students’ cognitive responses while using standing desks and provide a neuropsychological basis of the improvements observed. Moreover, by testing basic cognitive functions, we got to measure the impact of standing desks on the building blocks of child behavior in classrooms.

Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing desks improved neurocognitive function by seven percent to 14 percent, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programs.

Kindergarten students sing a song inside a classroom at Penjaringan district in Jakarta.
Beawiharta/Reuters

We all need to move more

We now plan to expand this research to multiple schools and to study more children across different age groups, and over several years. Further research could encourage policymakers, public health professionals and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable changes in classrooms to increase physical activity and enhance cognitive development and educational outcomes.

Let’s face it – society as a whole used to be more active. Standing desks allow for children to stand or sit at will and these transitions facilitate movement. If we can start slowly changing behaviors in children (and allow them to wiggle, fidget and move during the school day), movement could become the norm.

After all science says we think better when we move.

The Conversation

Ranjana Mehta, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health, Texas A&M University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Teaching artists’: creative ways to teach English to immigrant kids


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Liane Brouillette, University of California, Irvine

Bringing professional actors and dancers into the classroom may seem an unusual strategy for boosting the speaking skills of children who speak a language other than English at home. Yet, these creative drama and movement activities can help children struggling to improve their fluency in the English language.

English language learners face a daunting challenge in today’s classrooms, which have an increased focus on written work. To improve their English language skills, these children need frequent opportunities to engage in verbal interactions. Children who do not become proficient in reading by the end of third grade are at an increased risk of dropping out of school.

Schools in San Diego, California, are successfully leading the way in using creative ways to teach English.

Educators and teaching artists have come together in San Diego schools to demonstrate how theatre games and creative movement activities in early grades can help children improve their English language fluency.

Making it happen

Having begun my career as an educator in Europe, I was attracted by the idea of an arts-rich curriculum that motivated children through imaginative engagement.

As the director of the Center for Learning in the Arts and Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, I approached the Visual and Performing Arts Department of the San Diego Unified School District about setting up a pilot project in 15 San Diego elementary schools.

In 2007, our proposal was funded by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Over a period of several months, the San Diego Visual and Performing Arts Department recruited and trained the professional actors and dancers who would serve as “teaching artists.”

The idea of recruiting teaching artists was to have a group of professionals trained in dance and drama, who could visit as many as five classrooms each day and encourage English learners to use language as a tool of communication even during the first lessons.

Two teachers at Central Elementary lead a theatre warm-up.
University of California eScholarship Repository, CC BY

Classroom teachers co-taught with a teaching artist for 50 minutes each week for 28 weeks (14 weeks of drama, 14 weeks of dance). Teachers practiced with their pupils on the days between visits. Videos of lessons were made available online, so that teachers could remind themselves of details.

How it worked

In a way, this program was not all that new. These lessons were only an enhanced version of the theatre and dance curriculum that was available to all San Diego elementary schools before testing and budget pressures caused the school district to reduce its offerings.

Budget cuts over the years have forced the elimination of arts activities in kindergarten to second grade in many school districts nationwide. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2009–2010, only 4% of US elementary schools offered instruction that was designated as drama or theatre; just 3% offered dance.

When the teaching artists arrived in San Diego classrooms, children welcomed them enthusiastically and eagerly joined in.

The lessons generally started with the class standing in a circle, responding through words and physical movements to directions given by the teaching artist. Instead of memorizing vocabulary and studying grammar, children learned through active participation.

And English learners who were unsure of the meaning of verbal instructions could check their understanding by watching the teaching artist and other students.

Rigorous evaluation has shown that the program has helped children, especially those with the most limited English speaking skills.

Kindergartners at Balboa Elementary practice a dance activity with their teacher.
University of California eScholarship Repository, CC BY

Teacher interviews affirmed that the vocabulary and communication skills of all children were enhanced by the teaching artist visits.

The most striking improvement was in the speaking skills of the English learners.

Limited learning in classrooms

Today’s classrooms face many challenges.

Nearly 10% of the student population in the US now comes from non-English speaking homes. In California, children whose home language is not English make up over 20% of the public school enrollment.

The passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 has made the situation particularly challenging for non-English speaking children. Proposition 227 requires California public schools to teach even limited English-proficient students in classes that are taught nearly all in English.

In today’s classrooms, children’s learning is limited by several factors.

Contemporary kindergarten classrooms resemble the first grade classes of a generation ago. First graders are tackling assignments that were formerly taught in second grade.

Moreover, the demands of a highly structured curriculum and rising class sizes leave limited opportunities for rich verbal interactions between the teacher and the pupil. Chances for individualized feedback are also often limited.

This is reflected in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) data: only 11 of the 50 states are meeting adequate yearly progress targets for limited English-proficient students under NCLB. At the same time, the number of school-age kids who speak English as a second language is continuing to grow.

What English learners need

Unfortunately, preparation programs for elementary teachers currently dedicate little time to methods for teaching oral language skills.

Research has demonstrated that oral language proficiency in the primary grades is critical to the literacy development of children in general, but especially of English learners.

Drama and dance activities in which nonverbal communication is utilized in combination with verbal interactions can offer an effective substitute for one-on-one interactions with the classroom teacher.

Given that the weekly teaching artist visits constitute a relatively low-cost intervention, such programs may provide a means of affordably addressing an urgent problem.

The San Diego project did not just help English learners; it provided benefits for English-speaking students as well through increased engagement, attendance and exposure to the arts.

But clearly, the need is greater for English learners, for whom the arts can provide a bridge to understanding the language of the classroom.

Next: How should kids learn English: through Old MacDonald’s farm or Ali Baba’s farm?

The Conversation

Liane Brouillette, Associate Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.