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HELBLING READERS BLOG

Making connections: Experiences and abstract concepts

March 18, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

When we thought about the past year, both on this blog and in our daily lives, one thing stood out as being especially important - the connections we forge and keep. So this year, we have decided to delve deeper into the theme of CONNECTIONS, looking at it from twelve different perspectives. Each month, we will explore the connections in stories, learning, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, and we will show you how to develop them with your students. We will do this through language-based activities and stories so that you find plenty of opportunities to develop your students’ English language skills while guiding them in establishing connections and supporting their own learning. 

When we think of connections, E.M. Forster’s famous line ‘Only connect…’ comes to mind. What exactly does this line from the 1910 novel, Howards End, mean? The full quote goes like this: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’ Reading these words in the context of the novel, we realize that the real value, and often difficulty in life, is making healthy personal relationships. This basic human need to feel connected gains special significance today. The more time we spend in digital environments, the more we need to make connections, and the more we realize that they come in many shapes. 

In January, we focused on connections in stories and the literary concept of intertextuality. In February, we looked at connectedness in reading, thinking, and wellbeing. This month we focus on connections between different types of knowledge: abstract ideas/concepts and experiences.

Different kinds of knowledge

Most curricular subjects share one important aspect of knowledge building in school contexts. Good and successful representations of knowledge tend to weave different types of ideas together in written assignments, class dialogues, and individual presentations. These different types of knowledge are often described as ‘experiences’ and ‘concepts’. Experiences can be both personal or relative to other people, or examples from novels or other texts, whereas concepts include abstract ideas, technical terms, or specialized knowledge. In order to make new knowledge more meaningful and memorable for the students, we need to find ways of linking our experiences with more abstract concepts. For example, if you talk about the meaning of responsibility with your students, without giving concrete examples, the idea may remain too vague or abstract for them. By giving concrete examples regarding the various aspects of responsibility (e.g., social, environmental, emotional), you start to unpack the abstract concept. By further exemplifying them by sharing your own experiences or eliciting your students’ ones, you really make the concept accessible to them. Instead of giving examples from your own lives, you can also discuss literary texts and films for various situations in which responsibility was a key idea. On the other hand, if we talk about our experiences without providing a theoretical framework our students may not see their importance or be able to recognize and connect them to similar ones in the future.

A practical approach for understanding and visualizing knowledge

One way of approaching these different types of knowledge is through the multidimensional toolkit of Legitimation Code Theory (e.g., Maton, 2013), which offers pedagogical, assessment and analytical tools for both teachers and researchers to study educational practices. More specifically, the concept of semantic gravity (how deeply meaning is embedded in context), within the dimension of Semantics of LCT, deals with the relationship between meaning and context. (For more on this dimension of LCT, please consult the recommended articles at the end of this blog.)

To understand how context-dependence can be approached in the classroom, we examine its visualization through semantic waves. The figure below shows how different forms of knowledge can be woven together to build knowledge over time. The horizontal line represents time (which can refer to unfolding time in a shorter or longer text, a lesson, or a whole curriculum). The vertical line represents the context-dependence of meanings (with experience at the bottom and abstract ideas on top).

Three-semantic-profiles-1024x431.png
Three semantic profiles.
Maton, K. (2013) Making semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge-building, Linguistics and Education, 24: 18–22, page 13.

 

The high semantic flatline presented in Profile A shows relatively context-independent practices, for example, discussion of theories. Weaker semantic gravity (SG-) indicates more focus on theories, abstract concepts, and technical terms. The low semantic flatline presented in Profile B represents practices that remain constrained in their own context, for example, recounts of events. Stronger semantic gravity (SG+) indicates more focus on concrete experiences. The semantic wave demonstrated in Profile C represents semantic shifts, indicating movements within the context-dependency of the text. For example, starting a lesson with an anecdote to introduce the idea of social responsibility, followed by the introduction of the abstract concept, and then giving more examples through real-life or fictional experiences results in a semantic wave. Of course, according to our own objectives, we can build a semantic wave by starting with a theory or a concept, and we can have a shorter wave, resulting in links between theories and experiences. A full wave links more experiences or concepts, depending on where you start building it.

Why is it useful to practise weaving together different types of knowledge? 

Research findings prove that successful student writing and reasoning produce a semantic wave demonstrating shifts between experiences and specialized knowledge. Such an approach prepares students for providing evidence for their claims, illustrating concepts and technical terms with accessible examples, and they also learn to expand on concrete experiences, finding links with others through common abstract concepts. The organizing principle of semantic waves also gives teachers a framework to plan their lessons and build knowledge gradually. 

How can you use this idea in the language class?

The introduction of the semantic wave through relevant and content/age-appropriate examples gives students an easy-to-recall visual scaffold both in speaking and writing practice. For example, when you would like your students to write a reflective essay, you can ask them to expand on the idea of ‘friendship’ through various examples and find links with other concepts such as ‘honesty’ and ‘reliability’. You can give a model paragraph with the following structure:

  • The topic sentence introduces the concept: What is friendship?
  • Supporting idea 1: What are good friends like? Have you done anything special for your friends?
  • Supporting idea 2: Do you have any examples from famous stories? Who are good examples of good friends?
  • A new concept: Friendship and honesty
  • Supporting idea 3: Can you recall a situation in which honesty was important?
  • Concluding idea: What are good friends like?

Instead of simply presenting these focus points line by line, you can present them through a semantic wave so that the shifts between different strengths of context-dependence become visible. It is important to remind students that these strengths change gradually and they are not simply opposites. You can shift gradually from a concept through generalizations to concrete experiences. 

You can also introduce phrases that will help students with making links between concepts and experiences:

  • The question of inclusion relates to how Heathcliff is treated by the Earnshaws.
  • Heathcliff’s experiences highlight the concept of inclusion in society.
  • Heathcliff’s story provides insight into how people treated outsiders.

How does it help reading and reflecting on literature?

The use of semantic waves can help your students interpret and reflect on literary texts. When you find theoretical, philosophical, or psychological references in texts, they can be highlighted and visualized by explaining the concept and how it is connected to various scenes.

When you work on literary devices or figures of speech, they can also be introduced and then unpacked through examples from the novel. Narrative structures can also be analyzed and illustrated through the semantic wave.

More about Semantics and LCT

If you are interested in learning more about the dimension of Semantics and how semantic waves can help your teaching, we recommend these websites, articles, and resources: