Doctoral studies

Doctoral thesis established framework for teaching text-based school subjects and language learning

A good command of the language is not developed only in Estonian Language classes. Text related operations and literacy are supported in all subjects at school. Merilin Aruvee, Lecturer at Tallinn University's School of Humanities, examined in her doctoral thesis language instruction from the perspective of teaching of the native language and school subjects, to develop text-based teaching more consciously.

Merilin Aruvee

While language-aware teaching, that integrates subject-related texts and their reading and writing strategies with subject specific knowledge, has been introduced in many parts of the world, has this approach not yet gained enough popularity in Estonia. Language is taught at school on several levels: knowledge in a subject is mediated through texts, communication is practiced by way of various text-based actions (e.g., dialogue, presentation, discussion, reasoning, retelling in one's own words, etc.), Estonian Language classes delve into the depths of the word and the sentence, and develop writing skills. All school subjects are related to the development of language skills, yet Estonian Language classes should ensure deeper language awareness. Language awareness is one of the goals of the Estonian Language subject syllabuses, while communication competence related thereto is one of the general objectives of the curricula. 

However, thus far it is not quite clear how communication competence is taught within the framework of teaching in school subjects or what the division of roles between school subjects in this matter is. This is important information for native language teaching where it has been endeavored to implement a text-based approach which, in turn, requires a strong integration with instruction in subjects as texts vary. In native language teaching, meta-level language knowledge is developed, i.e., knowledge about the language itself is taught, not only knowledge how to use it. Such deep and systematic language awareness is called metalinguistic awareness, i.e., the student's ability to make language choices and to provide reasons for and reflect on these choices. In her doctoral thesis, Merilin Aruvee examined native language instruction in Estonian schools and created a framework for language-aware teaching of subjects and metalinguistic awareness-based teaching of Estonian Language in primary schools. 

The thesis is novel: this is the first time in more than several decades that the methodology of native language lessons is examined as part of a doctoral thesis, and for the first time, design-based research is used as regarding native language teaching. Relevant design-based research consisted of six smaller studies within the framework of which interviews, an intervention study, surveys, and document analysis were conducted. The text usage practices of Estonian Language and Literature, History, Physics, Handicrafts, and Music teachers were determined through interviews and document analysis, texts and text-based actions noted in the syllabuses were pinpointed through document analysis, and genre teaching in the integration of History and Native Language lessons was applied as a method of text-based approach in the intervention study. 

The interviews revealed that the studied teachers increasingly use non-textbook texts and prepare reading exercises. The choice of texts was based on the desire to arouse students' interest and develop functional reading skills. Writing was given less attention as compared to reading. Document analysis indicated that writing is indeed expected in school subjects, yet the texts that should be taught require teachers to have thorough skills in working with text. Although the subject teachers gave reading suggestions and even a poem was read in Physics class, it seemed at the same time that teachers had relatively little methodological support for teaching literacy. Text-based language teaching in the native language’ classes is also complex and rarely used; rather, the focus is on orthography that benefits from long traditions and is firmly rooted. The focus is primarily on spelling, leaving language choices and grammar as a means of creating meaning wanting for attention. The intervention study revealed that the implementation of genre teaching would require even better methodological support and sharpening of teachers' skills related to working with texts. 

Aruvee's dissertation is important in the context of curriculum and methodology development and offers support for applied integration of subject and language lessons, paves the way for school-oriented text research and linguistically aware promotion of native language classes. As a result of the study, it became clear that in the future texts related to school subjects should be studied more closely and reviews of subject specific texts should be prepared that would make it easier for teachers to teach reading and writing. The approach to communication competence in the curricula would also need to be clarified so that literacy would be developed in school subjects based on field specific peculiarities. In addition, Aruvee's doctoral thesis pointed to several requisite methodological developments: teachers' skills in working with texts, especially the teaching of writing, should be polished, text-based ways of integrating subject and language teaching should be developed; genre teaching should be spread and developed and the development of metalinguistic awareness in native language instruction should be supported, i.e. the teaching of grammar as a means of creating meaning.

On March 6, Merilin Aruvee, PhD student at Tallinn University's School of Humanities, defended her doctoral thesis „Text-based instruction in school subjects and language learning: theoretical framework and practical recommendations“ (originally in Estonian:  „Tekstikeskne aine- ja keeleõpetus: teoreetiline raamistik ja praktilised soovitused“). The dissertation was supervised by Professor Emeritus Krista Kerge from Tallinn University and Associate Professor Helin Puksand from Tallinn University. The opponents were Associate Professor Kristiina Praakli from University of Tartu and Associate Professor Anne Uusen from Tallinn University.