Carnegie Mellon University

The Lexicon of the Classroom: Language and Learning in Writing Classrooms

Author: Michael Palmquist
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1990

This dissertation employs a methodological approach not previously used in classroom studies to explore the relationships between language and learning in two writing classrooms. While classroom teaching and learning are typically accomplished through the use of language (e.g., through talking and writing), few studies of the classroom have considered the relationship between student learning outcomes and the language used by students and teachers to discourse course content. In particular, researchers have not investigated the often unacknowledged assumption underlying classroom instruction that the way academic activities are discussed in the classroom will shape students' efforts to engage in those activities. An important obstacle to such studies has been the lack of appropriate methodological tools. In this dissertation, a methodological approach that draws upon techniques from content analysis, cognitive mapping, and text analysis was used to investigate two introductory college writing classes. Because the approach had not previously been used to study classrooms, an important goal of the study was to assess its efficacy as an observational and analytical tool. The study investigated the extent to which the methodological approach could be used to characterize the shared lexicons that developed in the two writing classrooms over the course of an academic term. Shared lexicons were defined as sets of terms and associated terms that students and teachers use to refer to academic activities. It was expected that the students and teacher in each classroom would negotiate the meaning of specific terms (e.g., "revision") and the associations made between those terms (e.g., between "revision" and "rough draft") as they discussed writing over the course of the academic term. Data was collected through (1) observing all class meetings for one semester, (2) interviewing students, (3) tracking student interaction, and (4) asking students to provide written descriptions of writing activities. Data analysis indicated that the methodological approach was a useful way to track the development of consensus concerning curricular concepts and the associations between those concepts over the course of the semester. Specifically, this approach allowed us to see that (1) shared language use increased over the course of the semester, (2) students' use of language reflected the curricular goals of the classroom, and (3) students interaction was strongly correlated with shared language use and the use of language which reflected the curricular goals of the classroom.