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Thursday, July 4 • 2:15pm - 2:55pm
Code match: Semantic-autonomy waves in junior secondary literary analysis

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This paper shares findings from a multi-dimensional LCT analysis of the underlying patterns of knowledge-building in student literary analysis. It explores principles distinguishing highly successful from less successful literary analyses in an 8th grade subject English classroom in the southeastern United States. Data from the study included video, pictures of board notes, interviews with the teacher, and written student products from a classroom lesson designed to cultivate students’ abilities to critically interpret literary texts. The LCT dimensions of Semantics (Maton, 2014) and Autonomy (Maton and Howard, 2018) were employed in an analysis of writing samples selected by the teacher as representative of high, medium, and low achievement on the assignment.

Student products were analyzed using the LCT concepts of semantic gravity (SG) and positional autonomy (PA) to explore how the students connected broad claims with specific textual evidence and connected information from the literary texts with knowledge from beyond the lesson’s target to build up judgments of the characters. Findings contribute to the body of research on Semantics and Autonomy in classroom activities and suggest implications for teaching and learning in school subject English.

Semantic gravity was used to map the movement between specific details from the text and more abstract thematic claims valued in subject English. The development of a translation device (Maton and Chen, 2016) for the data revealed a broad range in semantic gravity, from information grounded in the source texts (SG+) to meanings that went beyond the context set by the writing prompt (SG–). Between these poles, neutral semantic gravity (SG∅) referred to information with the same semantic gravity as the writing prompt, which asked students to explain the three main Harry Potter characters’ attitudes toward elvish enslavement in the wizarding world of the novels. For success on the assignment, students were required to do more than answer the question using general information from the passages (SG∅). Specific details and quotes from the source texts (SG+) were necessary to support the claims made about each character. The most highly evaluated writing, however, also reached beyond the world of Harry Potter to make broad philosophical claims or references to contemporary and historical social attitudes towards slavery and other forms of oppression, extending the field of the text and expanding the context of the discussion (SG–).

Autonomy was subsequently employed to explore the degrees to which each written product remained ‘on topic' and how movement around the autonomy plane related to changes in semantic gravity. The concept of positional autonomy (PA) was used to analyze the extent to which students remained focused on the task's targeted subject knowledge (characters’ attitudes toward elvish enslavement) while relational autonomy (RA) conceptualized the degree to which the writing aligned with the purpose of the task (to critically interpret a literary text). Variations in relational autonomy were relatively minor, with all products aligned with the lesson’s purpose. All products also exhibited strong positional autonomy (PA+) throughout the majority of the text. Highly evaluated products, however, also briefly moved into positions of weaker positional autonomy (PA–) by bringing in non-target information, such as historical knowledge of slavery in the United States. The autonomy analysis showed that highly evaluated products brought in information from beyond the target knowledge of the literary source texts to bolster interpretations of the characters, and that these shifts in positional autonomy often aligned with shifts in semantic gravity.

Bringing the two analyses together shows how bringing in non-target knowledge broadened the students' axiological claims by drawing on common cultural knowledge relevant in contexts beyond this particular classroom.

Students who took such an autonomy tour clearly positioned themselves and the reader with regard to the subject of the text and task while intensifying their moral evaluations of the characters. Importantly, this assisted their critical readings of the text by intensifying the negative evaluations the text's main character, and because the values of equality and social justice with which the student text are aligned are often met with resistance in the cultural context of this community.

This study offers a model for multidimensional LCT analysis of classroom products in the discipline of subject English. The findings have implications for the development of curriculum, instruction, and assessment that are conducive to powerful knowledge-building within the discipline and beyond.

Thursday July 4, 2019 2:15pm - 2:55pm SAST
Room B45

Attendees (5)