Language Sensitive Design and Technology Lessons Gerald van Dijk

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Language Sensitive Design and Technology Lessons Gerald van Dijk

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Language Sensitive Design and Technology Lessons

Gerald van Dijk

(gepresenteerd tijdens de PATT-22 conferentie in Delft op 25 Augustus 2009)

It has long been established that limited language proficiency results in poor learning outcomes for all subjects. However, language learning does not only take place in language classes, but instead across a broad spectrum of didactic settings, including technology classrooms. Moreover, technological practice often involves the use of language, particularly when it attempts to find a solution for human needs and wants. These needs can only be expressed and understood through the use of language. In other words, language does not just provide the means to deliver technology content, but it is also an inherent part of already existing learning targets in a technology curriculum.
The teaching materials presented in this article were developed in collaboration between experts in language pedagogy and experts in design pedagogy. All materials were tested, evaluated and revised. The project has provided design and technology teachers, as well as teacher trainers, with prototypical materials, that may help them to integrate language pedagogy in their work.
1 Language proficiency in the technology classroom.
In the Netherlands, a large group of students, often with a non-Western background, is facing considerable academic problems at school, due to limited language proficiency. In subjects like mathematics, the effects of limited language proficiency on subject mastery have extensively been researched. (Boer C. van den, 2003). Two aspects of poor language proficiency have become particularly apparent: limited awareness of the problems and lowering of demands by teachers.
Firstly, both the students and the teachers have limited awareness of these problems. They presume mutual understanding and attribute academic problems to difficulties with subject matter, rather than to language skills or a combination of these. One of the underlying reasons is that teachers and students do not recognize the gap between basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) (Cummins J. 2009). Students seem to be able to express themselves well using every day language and their academic language skills may subsequently be overestimated. As a result, language is not targeted by the teacher as a source of the problem. (Van Eerde, 2008) Secondly, teachers often lower cognitive and linguistic demands when faced with these difficulties. That in turn has a negative effect on learning outcomes for these students (Hajer, 2009). Obviously language is the medium through which one learns in didactic settings. Consequently, technology teachers, like other subject teachers, need to address language problems in order to get content matter across. Language, however, is not just the medium through which one learns a subject, it is also a target. More specifically for the field of technology education, there are several key aspects of the intertwined nature of language and subject teaching.
Technology as well as science, is to some extent a language in itself, since it has its own vocabulary and syntax. Mastery of the language that comes with the subject is mastery of the subject itself.
The term “energy” for example, has a specific, reserved meaning in science [and technology sic]. Yet it has a very unscientific range of applications beyond that discipline when children in class claim they “have no energy today!” Nonetheless, effective teaching and learning should still have enabled the child to gain a grasp of the notion of the principle of the conservation of energy. The word “energy” in the dedicated scientific sense is loaded with meaning and shared across the scientific community (Parkinson, 1999)
Not only is this true at the level of words and expressions (jargon), but also at the level of more general skills that are needed to be successful in the field. Where design and technology is for instance meant to prepare students for a vocation, or to facilitate a well-informed choice for a vocation, general language as well as specific technological vocabulary and expressions need to be mastered in order to be competent. Representatives of industry have, in an effort to describe technology education for the 21st century, stated:
Competence based learning in the domain of technology must incorporate communicative skills such as writing about work done, working successfully with colleagues, communicating with clients. (platform vmbo TI, 2008)
Where technology education is used as a means to empower students in a technological world, the same applies. It has for instance become very difficult to buy a new television or computer without the skills to read advertisements, read customer reviews on the internet, or engage in a discussion with salesmen who indulge in technological jargon.
Another view on technology education is that it should involve learning about technology
The process of becoming technologically literate requires participants to become sensitive to the impact of new and emerging technologies upon their technologically mediated world (Dakers, 2006)
Clearly this sensitivity can only be developed by means of activities that involve and target the use of language.
2 Methodology

The research that is described here, was meant to provide technology teachers, as well as the wider educational field, with prototypical materials that would help them to make technology education more language sensitive. Authors of teaching materials were assisted by experts in content-based learning of second language, to write a first version of a booklet and a teacher’s guide. For design and technology, the booklet was tested in two classes at different schools. The teacher (Tom) whose trial was most extensively researched, has been a design and technology teacher for many years. He has a sound reputation and has ample experience as an author of teaching materials. Data collection involved video taping of lessons and semi-structured interviews with the teachers. Results were discussed among researchers, authors and experts in pedagogy of language acquisition. In the results section of this paper we will focus on our experience with working with Tom.

3 Results
Language sensitive teaching

Much of the language pedagogy we adopted in this project is influenced by second language acquisition (SLA) theory and content-based learning of second language. In this approach, language acquisition is embedded in learning of subject matter. Key elements that were used:

  1. Rich, challenging, comprehensible input: There should be extensive exposure to new concepts and language forms, adapted to the learner in such a way, that it just would exceed the actual acquisition phase. The teacher’s talk is one oral form of input, but the textbook also gives written input. The teacher can play an active role in making the language of the textbook comprehensible and available as a resource for learning (Eerde van, 2008) Students receive support when they are faced with difficult language. New words and expressions that come along with the subject matter are learned in four steps: 1) orientation on the contexts in which the word is generally used 2) semantization: giving meaning to the word 3) consolidation: the student uses the word or expression in different ways 4) checking for correct understanding and use of the word.

  2. Language production: Students are encouraged to produce new language, both in written and in oral form. In addition to teacher-student interaction, there are ample opportunities for student-student interaction.

  3. Feedback: Learners receive feedback on their use of written and oral language.

  4. Use of contexts: New concepts are firmly embedded in meaningful contexts.

The next section will describe how the above mentioned pedagogy was incorporated into a design task (designing a holder for an mp3 player or cell phone) and how the teaching materials were revised after the trials.

Examples from booklet

Firstly we will focus on the translation of SLA theory and content-based learning into teaching materials.

  1. Rich, challenging, comprehensible input

Rather than avoiding possibly difficult words and expressions, we gave language support (scaffolding) by providing contextual cues as well as explicit translation into daily life language.


Preliminary model:

An early model made by a designer to play with ideas.

What you will do at this stage is to make a preliminary model. You use cheap materials and tools, such as clay, carton and glue, to start ‘thinking with your hands’. You can still change your ideas about your design at a later stage. Take pictures of your preliminary model and paste them into your design portfolio.

Key concepts were also placed in a concept map in order to visualize relations between them.


In the teacher’s guide, we explained how the meaning of new words can be negotiated in Socratic dialogue, using the sequence orientation, semantization, consolidation, and checking.

  1. Language production

Written and oral language production and interaction (student ↔ teacher and student ↔ student) was promoted in a variety of tasks, almost always as a function of the design task, rather than as an extra language task.


  • Write down your new ideas after you have received feedback from a fellow student.

  • Talk to your customer about his wishes. Your customer will appreciate it if you manage to engage him in a flowing conversation. You are not very likely to find out what your customer really wants, if you ask a lot of ‘yes/no’ questions. In fact, your customer may not even know what he wants at this stage. It is your task as a designer to help him find out. Write a short report about the conversation, so you can use this information later.

  • Present your proposed design to the customer. You want to give the customer the confidence that it is a good design, so you may want to use designers’ words and phrases. It does help the customer to understand that you know what you are doing.

  • Look at the picture of a newly designed foldable, lightweight rollator. You are going to describe the entire design process that led to this new model, using the box below.

Firstly the designer investigated problems with existing rollators. He went to talk to ………..
He then wrote down the program of requirements, which he divided into two categories, namely ……………. and ………….

The reader will note that in this specific case the task has no direct function within the students’ design task. This was done in order to help the students to make the transfer of knowledge of design concepts, from the context of their own design task to other contexts. The example, however, serves to show how written language production was facilitated.

  1. Feedback

The teacher’s guide contains a few suggestions on how to give students feedback on their production of typical subject language. It also encourages teachers to expect high standards on this aspect of their work.

  1. Use of contexts

At the level of the entire text, references are made to different contexts where design concepts are involved (see previous examples). Furthermore, new concepts are embedded in the context of the students’ own design task, thereby allowing them to derive meaning from contextual and experiential cues. At the level of sentences and words, explicit attention is given to the different meaning of a word in different contexts.

(first lesson)

The word design is frequently used in daily life. Write down three sentences with the word design.

(last lesson)

The word design sometimes refers to just the shape (form) of an object. At other times it refers to the function as well. What does the word design refer to in the next sentences?

  • The design of the cell phone I am going to buy is really flashy and cool.

  • The design of the new cell phone makes maximum use of new technologies such as high bandwidth.

  • My customer was happy with the design of the mp3-player holder.

Teachers’ skills and beliefs

Technology education is a contested field that is claimed by those who look at it as mostly hand work, rule-driven, serving the needs of industry and those who favor a more academic and philosophical approach (Dakers, 2006). Many teachers and students belief that technology education should be about doing rather than about thinking. Language, particularly in written form, is much more strongly associated with thinking than with doing. It was therefore clear from the onset that the teachers as well as the students had to be helped to understand the entanglement of language and subject content.

Although the first version of the booklet and the teacher’s guide did stress the importance of language pedagogy, it became clear during the trial that Tom was hesitant to adopt the suggested teaching strategies. He complained that there was too much thinking before the doing, which would put students off. When we reviewed our own work, we could only agree with his criticism. We had proposed a design pedagogy whereby students had to establish the requirements for the design and engage in a lot of academic work, partly language related, before they could start making their design. Since the materials needed to be prototypical with regard to language sensitive technology teaching, we decided to adapt the design pedagogy, rather than the language pedagogy. At the beginning of the project an ‘inspiration table’ was introduced, which now allowed students to start ‘thinking with their hands’ right away (Kimbell, 2004).
During a number of discussions with the researcher, Tom said that he began to understand the importance of what we were trying to achieve. Whether this shift in attitude could be achieved without such discussions remains unclear, but we nevertheless decided to enhance our work with more explicit attention to the importance of subject-based used of language, not only for a designer but for anyone who engages with technology.
In order to address the students without needing the teacher as an intermediate, we also decided to incorporate a comic video into the lessons, in which a television cook is trying to explain how to prepare a Christmas dinner without using any jargon at all (“you take that stuff and chop it up with a special thing and then you put it into one of these things” )

Example from teacher’s guide

At the end of the project, students should understand the entanglement of design skills and language skills. However, they will not automatically make the transfer to contexts where technological skills and knowledge are less apparent. The teacher can help to achieve this transfer with Socratic dialogue, involving different technological contexts. Possible starting points are:

    1. A gardener is asked to redesign a garden of an old couple. He first visits the customers to have a look at the old garden, to talk about their wishes and to try to get the job. What could happen if the gardener uses excessive technical language? What could happen if he uses no technological language at all?

    1. Did you ever come across some professional who used difficult technological words and sentences? Think about for instance a dentist’s assistant or a computer salesman. Did that person speak to you, or to a colleague? Describe your feelings about that

When we studied the video footage of Tom’s lessons, it became clear that Tom had tried hard to help the students with words such as ‘prototype’, but we also saw that we had not achieved our goal to let him use content-based pedagogy as described in the teacher’s guide. Rather than to negotiate meaning (orientation, semantization, consolidation, checking), Tom frequently described the meaning of the word and repeated that a few times. We then realized that it would take more than a booklet, a teacher’s guide and a few discussions to achieve our goals. Our findings resonate with research in mathematics and science classrooms, where teachers were observed to merely tell the students what a word means. Contextualization and promoting interaction (language production) were mostly absent. (Prenger, 2005)

In contrast to the recognized role of language in science, the common conception amongst many science teachers is that the discourse of science is essentially transparent and that language offers some unique ability to represent the physical world in an unambiguous manner (Lemke, 1990). From such a perspective, the primary difficulty associated with science is merely the acquisition of complex mental concepts and the mental processing required to develop understanding (Shayer & Adey, 1981). Implicit in such a view is a correspondence theory of language often coupled with a naive realism, both of which are positions that have long been philosophically questioned. For the thread that runs from the work of Saussure to Wittgenstein to the latter day social constructivists is that language can only be understood in the context of its use. (Osborne, 2002)

4. Discussion

As authors of teaching materials we have discovered that it is possible to incorporate pedagogy of language acquisition into our writing. Technology education has its own challenges in this respect. On the one hand there is a challenge because of people’s beliefs about the nature of technology and the nature of words, but on the other hand we have found it relatively easy to use the design task as a vehicle for the ambitions we had. Design is about human needs and such needs can only be met when designers manage to engage in effective communication. It is precisely this communication that can be used as a vehicle to teach language.

We have not yet investigated how teachers and students engage with the revised version of the booklets. Because of the drastic changes that were made after the trials, this would be very useful. Neither can we say anything about the effectiveness of our approach. We don’t know whether students’ and teachers’ attitudes, skills and knowledge change as a result of working with the materials we produced. Nonetheless, we are confident that our work can be used by technology teachers as an example of language sensitive technology teaching material. We are now taking our work forward, for instance by using the booklet and the teacher’s guide as prototypical material in a course on content-based language learning in initial teacher training. Of course, teachers will have to adapt our ideas to their own circumstances, but we hope to have given them a little jumpstart. We also need to be modest about our achievements, since people’s beliefs about the nature of technology and the best way to teach it, will not drastically change as a result of the above mentioned interventions.
Where we can also make a promising start, is in our own work as university lecturers at the department where technology teachers are trained. It is there, where we ought to demonstrate that pedagogy of technology and language pedagogy can complement each other effectively. In a next round of research we will continue to collaborate with experts in the field of language pedagogy, in order to learn to practice what we have preached in this article. Not only will we try to serve as models, but we will also have to be rigorously explicit about the pedagogy we employ. Only by doing so, can we expect future technology teachers to question their own beliefs and ultimately improve their own practice.


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Biancarosa G. Catherine Snow C.E. (2006) Reading Next, A vision for Action and Research in Middle and High schools literacy, Carnegie Corporation
Cummins J. (2009) BICS and CALP
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Mc Cormick R. (2006) Technology and Knowledge, in: Dakers (2006) Defining Technological Literacy, and epistemological framework. Palgrave Macmillan

Osborne J. (2002) Sciende Without Literacy, A Ship Without a Sail? Cambridge Journal of Education , Vol 32, no 2

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Parkinson E. (1999) Talking Technology: Language and Literacy

in the Primary School Examined Through Children’s Encounters with Mechanisms, International Journal of Technology and Design Education, vol 11, no 1

Platform VMBO Technische Installaties (2008) Realistisch Leren, Leren met bedrijfssimulaties,




  • 1 Language proficiency in the technology classroom.
  • 3 Results Language sensitive teaching
  • Rich, challenging, comprehensible input
  • Feedback
  • (first lesson)
  • Teachers’ skills and beliefs

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