Christine Bowmaker

  • “I thought I spoke the language”

    Christine Bowmaker and Celia Bishop, University of the Arts, London

    Research seminar

    Themes: teaching methods, diversity and inclusivity, supporting learners

    Tuesday 8 September 2009, 16.00 - 17.00 in room G65

    Language can present enormous barriers for all sorts of students entering higher education (Lillis 2001). The students may be new to several different discourses: “academic” language, the language of their particular subject and the language of Higher Education, particularly that of assessment, as well as the language of their particular institution 

    This research seminar will consider the (often unexpected) linguistic barriers that students may face on an undergraduate degree, based on the main findings of our current research into the perceptions of students and staff of the (in)accessibility of educational discourse at the University of the Arts London. The methodology followed is based round the work of Blair, Blythman and Orr (2007) in their work on “the crit”.

    The focus of the research is first year undergraduate students on Graphic Design courses, particularly those from working class backgrounds, many of whom come from linguistically diverse ethnic minorities. Language plays a powerful part in the student experience and is a key factor in accessing the curriculum and understanding what is expected by teaching staff. It is therefore a very real source of potential (in)equality, particularly for those with little of the cultural and/or social capital (Bourdieu 1997) that the University privileges. ‘..even on a degree course with a very high proportion of working-class students, the discourse comprising not only the language, but a set of structured beliefs, understandings and behaviours, remains outside the remit of a working class life-world.’ (Devas 2008 p.12)

    The ability to understand and confidently use the discourse of your particular community of practice (Barton & Tusting 2005) is essential to student success particularly and this is particularly relevant for first generation students making the transition from school, college or work into full-time Higher Education. It is too easily assumed that  all students can decode and apply the discourses they are faced with  to their own learning experience and therefore feel confident and secure in their progress.

    Graphic Design has its own specific terminology which is often made explicit for students. However the general educational discourse of Higher Education is rarely focused on and teachers infrequently explain it or realise that some students do not understand what it means nor what is expected of them. This can have a direct impact on their learning experience and success.

    Discussion will focus on our findings so far and how participants can usefully apply the methods we have used to analyse potential barriers for an increasingly diverse student body. Effective strategies for making new discourses more accessible to students will also be shared and considered.


    • Barton, D., & Tusting, K. (eds.). (2005). Beyond Communities of
      Practice: Language, Power and Social Context. New York: Cambridge
      University Press.
    • Blair, B., Blythman, M., and Orr, S. (2007) Critiquing the Crit.
    • Bourdieu, P. (1997). The Forms of Capital. in Halsey, A. H., Lauder, H. Brown, P.& Wells, A. S. (eds.), in  Education: Culture, Economy and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.