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Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281

Positioning proficiency: How students and teachers (de)construct

language proficiency at school

Melinda Martin-Beltrán ∗

College of Education, 2311 Benjamin Building, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, United States


This study examines the social construction of proficiency and the discursive practices prevalent in linguistically diverse schools

that afford or constrain participation in language learning communities. Drawing from discourse studies, positioning theory and a sociocultural framework, this study analyzed data from audio recordings and ethnographic observations of a fifth grade dualimmersion classroom. Analysis of moment-to-moment interactions and the construction of classroom language norms throughout the school year shed light on the ways that students and teachers work together to enact perceived proficiencies and position learners as (non)participants across different school contexts. Findings suggest that educators can orchestrate learning contexts that re-position students as proficient language users and sources of language expertise. This study contributes to research in educational linguistics by making the case for perceived proficiency as a construct to make visible the ways that language proficiencies are reified and shifted throughout interactions with others.

© 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Discourse; Dual/two-way immersion; Bilingual proficiency; Sociocultural theory; Positioning

1. Introduction In schools where administrators and teachers are under increased political pressure to assess student proficiency and measure yearly progress of English language learner (ELL) populations, teachers and students are constantly organizing each other in ways that designate some as “limited proficient” and “re-designate” others as “fluent English proficient”.1 The term proficiency has assumed a powerful grip on student and teacher educational destiny, yet definitions of proficiency are slippery and difficult to apply in a way that fully captures students’ engagement in language learning processes. Several studies have shown that ELLs’ proficiency2 in English is a major determiner of their participation in class and ultimately their academic success (Dooly, 2007; Gebhard, 1999; Haneda, 2008; Harklau, 2000; Kanno & Applebaum, 1995; Valdés, 2001; Yoon, 2008), yet few studies have closely examined how that proficiency is constructed in school settings. To better understand the labels placed on students (i.e. ability or language proficiency levels), McDermott (1996) argues that it is “essential that we take into accountthe interactional circumstances that ∗ Tel.: +1 301 405 4432; fax: +1 301 405 9055.

E-mail address: memb@umd.edu 1 These are common labels linked to results on English language development assessments, which are used for placement and designation of subgroup populations to measure adequate yearly progress (AYP) for the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act.

2 Although previous studies have not used the term “perceived proficiency”, this paper makes the case that these studies are actually referring to perceptions of proficiency (rather than any single measure of proficiency), which determine academic success.

0898-5898/$ – see front matter © 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1016/j.linged.2010.09.002 258 M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 position people in the world...” (p. 383). This study attempts to do this by investigating the construction of proficiency through discursive positioning during student and teacher interactions in one dual-immersion school. In this paper I analyze the discursive construction of learners’ proficiencies and the ways these proficiencies are reified and shifted within a school context. Although similar discourse and positioning practices happen every day in classrooms around the world, educators and researchers have rarely theorized or analyzed the processes and consequences of these practices that construct perceptions of proficiency.

2. Conceptual framework

This study examines aspects of language proficiency that are relevant to a particular school context. I use the term proficiency because it holds currency in the local school context; however, the term may be imperfect since this study refers to the enactment and perception of a broader notion of communicative competence, including grammatical, pragmatic, sociolinguistic, strategic and discourse competence (see definitions in Canale, 1983; Canale & Swain, 1980; Hymes, 1972; Lee, 2006). Scholars have suggested that proficiency is a term that lacks a “satisfactory operational definition” (Nunan, 1986). Seminal studies in SLA have found that modifications, foreigner talk and child-directed speech are common accommodations when interacting with others who are assumed to be less proficient speakers (Ferguson, 1971; Gass & Varonis, 1985; Giles, 1979; Hatch, 1983; Long, 1983); yet, the question remains as to how speakers perceive interlocutor proficiency. This paper argues for a reconceptualization of proficiency and offers an operational definition of perceived proficiency as socially constructed.

Proficiency is often described as a measurable, individual feature in SLA research, and the construct of perceived competence has been examined as individuals’ self-reported perceptions of their own proficiency operationalized with survey measures that capture motivation and anxiety (Farhady, 1982; MacIntyre, 1994; McCroskey & Richmond, 1991;

McIntyre & Charos, 1996; McIntyre & Gardner, 1994). Although the field of SLA has much to learn from individual motivational factors, this study contends that the social co-construction of perceived proficiency is especially important inside classrooms and in naturalistic settings where community participation is part of the learning context.

Recent research has suggested that learner perception of interlocutor proficiency more significantly affects the nature of peer assistance in interactions than measured proficiency (Watanabe & Swain, 2008). In their study, Watanabe and Swain (2008) examined how one learner interacted differently with peers of different proficiency levels (as measured by a standardized language assessment) during pair writing activities. While “measured proficiency” did not necessarily affect the nature of peer assistance in the interactions, how learners perceived each other’s proficiency was more significant (Watanabe & Swain, 2008, p. 115). This study showed the importance of perceived proficiency in interactions; however, the authors acknowledged the limitations of their data analysis that did not focus on the construction of perceptions and was limited to one core participant in a controlled setting. Other scholars (Olmedo, 2003) have found that children, as early as kindergarten, make judgments about the proficiency of their peers. These studies have not problematized these perceptions nor examined the moment-to-moment evaluation of interlocutors’ competence.

Watanabe and Swain (2008) have called for future studies to address the situatedness of the perception of interlocutors’ proficiency. My study responds to that call by looking at how perceptions of proficiency are constructed and shifted within the culture of a classroom. In this study, I offer a theoretically based argument for the social production of perceived proficiency drawing upon theories of positioning and discursive construction.

Building on the work of others who have called for closer attention to issues of learner identity and social dimensions of learner interactions (Block, 2003; Block, 2007; Firth & Wagner, 1997; Firth & Wagner, 2007; Larsen-Freeman, 2007;

Leung, Harris & Rampton, 1997; Norton, 2000; Peirce, 1995; Swain & Deters, 2007), this study closely examines the social construction of proficiency occurring during learners’ participation in school discourse communities. To pull together linguistic and social dimensions of language learners’ interactions, this study draws from sociocultural literature that that has expanded the notion of acquisition with the metaphor of participation to capture ways in which language is used within communities of practice (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Sfard, 1998; Swain, 2000; van Lier, 2000). Using the participation metaphor to examine language learning in this study, I focused on how learners were positioned as (non)members of discourse communities, rather than focusing on learners as isolated individuals. Applying an ecological framework (van Lier, 2000), this study considers contextual affordances and the relationships among participants as necessary to understand proficiency and engagement with language practices. I argue that if we view language learning as involving participation in a community of speakers, we must attend to discursive patterns and positioning practices that promote participation or act as gatekeepers into these communities.

M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 259 Drawing from the traditions of ethnography and discourse analysis (Garfinkel, 1967; Sacks, 1984; Schiffrin, 1994), I view data with a lens that assumes the performative nature of social reality: social conditions and contexts are constantly produced “locally by participants and intersubjectively ratified” (Titscher, Meyer, Wodak, & Vetter, 2000, p. 106). In order to understand the contexts and conditions that afforded or constrained language learning opportunities and interactions with peers at this school, I drew upon the work of linguistic anthropology that conceptualizes context as constructed by members through and across moment-to-moment interactions (see Castanheira, Crawford, Dixon, & Green, 2001; Duranti & Goodwin, 1992; Garfinkel, 1967; Giddens, 1979). Indexicality and reflexivity were theoretical assumptions from ethnomethodology that informed my research approach. Indexicality refers to how discourse is bound to the situational conditions and the language people use to position others (i.e. use of indexicals, referentials, pronouns, names, demonstratives, etc.). The assumption of reflexivity recognizes that action, talk, and context are reciprocally constituted and situated. The lens of positioning theory (Davies & Harré, 1990; Harré & Moghaddam, 2003; Harré & van Langenhove, 1999) revealed ways that proficiency is situated, that is, dependent upon how one is positioned within a particular context. Rather than static or fixed, I argue that perceptions of proficiency are fluid as positionality changes. Positionality also allows for an analysis that examines both how students are acquired by particular positions and how they engage in positioning of self and others. Davies and Harré (1990) explain that an individual’s identity and position are “constituted and reconstituted through the various discursive practices in which they participate” (p. 35). Anderson (2009) suggested an expanded view of positioning theory that included an analysis of micro-level practices (face-to-face interactions), meso-level factors (school level categories), and macro-level (societal, ideological) factors. She illuminated these different levels through a comparison of discourse and participation patterns across five mathematical problem-solving activities.

Similar to Anderson’s (2009) analysis, I did not limit data analysis to individual snippets of discourse without understanding the larger context in which “perceived proficiencies” are built up over time within a classroom culture.3 My analysis is different than Anderson’s because I draw upon ethnography (rather than bounded cases of classroom interaction) to interpret larger stories at the school, and I referred to different planes of analysis as personal, interpersonal, and institutional Rogoff, 2003 (Rogoff, Topping, Baker-Sennet, & Lacasa, 2002). Through my observations and participation in their daily activities throughout the school year, I grew attuned to the way students and teachers talked about and used language within the larger ecosystem of the school. My approach to the data analysis was informed by a larger picture of the classroom culture from ethnographic field notes and by close analysis of discourse from line by line transcription of student and teacher talk.

In this study I use the term discursive practices to capture how spoken and written text is produced and interpreted by participants in a particular context (see Castanheira et al., 2001; Palmer, 2009), and acts of positioning describe local social practices within the school that position students as members or non-members of discourse communities (Anderson, 2009; Gebhard, 1999). I drew up these concepts to analyze the data as I categorized forms of evidence and flagged key interactions. In the methodology section that follows, I identify key discursive practices as threads of the analysis (see Fig. 1). The constructs described in this conceptual framework were developed as I grappled with theoretical issues in the literature, shifted to close analysis of the data, and returned to the theoretical issues with new insight from the multiple layers of ethnographic and discourse data.

3. Research methods

3.1. Data collection This research was a recursive process (as described in Bloome, Carter, Christian, Otto, & Shurat-Faris, 2005), beginning with a consideration of conceptual issues, diving into data collection, observing what emerged as salient in the data, closely reading discourse, re-considering conceptual issues, and looking upon the data again. The research methodologies for this paper are modeled after ethnographic and sociolinguistic studies that include participant observation, interviews and audio recordings of classroom discourse (Freeman, 1998; Harklau, 1994; Palmer, 2009; Potowski, 2004;

3 I began this research understanding that this dual language school was embedded within a highly contested sociopolitical context in which the use of languages other than English was largely prohibited for instruction in schools. For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen not to foreground this context in order to focus more closely on classroom practices at this school.

260 M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281

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