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Appropriating Appropriateness, Ability, and Authority: Indexicality and Embodiment in Second Graders’ Academic Language Use in Peer Interactions


Academic language has long been viewed as playing a crucial role in students’ academic success, conceptual understanding, and cognitive development. More recently, academic language has come to occupy a prominent place in the discourse surrounding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which are said to place an unprecedented emphasis on speaking and writing academically. However, clear and effective ways of theorizing and teaching this register remain elusive, both within the CCSS and within education research more broadly. Because research in this field is still in its nascent stages, there is a scarcity of observational studies on students’ actual use of academic language in classrooms, particularly at the elementary level. Hence, to derive more empirically grounded theories and pedagogies related to academic language, there is an urgent need to understand how and whether young students use academic language in their interactions, a need which I addressed in this study.

Drawing on a range of sociocultural theories including Bakhtin’s dialogicality, sociocultural linguistic theories of enregisterment and indexicality, theories of multimodality, and (neo-)Vygotskyan theories of learning, in this dissertation I take an action-based perspective that defines (academic) language not solely in terms of where it is used or who uses it, but rather with an eye to how it works—along with other semiotic and embodied resources—to accomplish action in the social world. I propose a novel, ethnographically informed framework that defines academic language as context-specific uses of semiotic resources that allow language users to index ideologies and identities related to appropriateness, ability, and authority. Conducted during Beachside Elementary School’s first full year of implementation of the CCSS, the ethnographic study described in this dissertation investigates peer interactions during language arts and math activities in one second-grade classroom. To understand how students used academic language in peer interactions, what ideologies were apparent in their understandings of academic language, and how their uses and understandings of academic language shaped their constructions of identity, I engaged in participant observation for nine months, writing fieldnotes, capturing hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings, and collecting classroom texts. This dissertation presents an interactional analysis of recordings of students’ peer interactions, with fieldnotes and classroom texts serving as secondary sources of data.

Through these analyses, I found that students frequently appropriated academic communication norms in multiple and complex ways. Even in the absence of adults, students used a range of semiotic resources locally understood as “academic” to accomplish a variety of actions and construct a multitude of identities. I also found that not only can “everyday” or “social” language do academic work, but “academic” language can do social work, and indeed, both registers can simultaneously accomplish both kinds of action. Importantly, then, the meaning of any given academic semiotic resource was not predictable solely on the basis of its enregisterment as (non-)academic or on the basis of its referential meaning. Another finding was that the teaching and learning of academic communication norms was bound up with hegemonic ideologies of intelligence, gender, and class, suggesting that far from being a neutral resource tied only to the learning and expression of objective facts or academic concepts, academic language expresses an array of sociopolitical meanings.

On the basis of these findings, I discuss implications for theory and practice. Overall, I argue for an action-based, sociocultural linguistic approach to researching and teaching academic language, emphasizing that such a perspective allows researchers and educators to see a wider range of students’ semiotic strengths than are made visible by the structuralist accounts of language that have been predominant in this field.

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