Research Spotlight: Zhihui Fang

Q & A with Zhihui Fang, Ph.D., Professor in the School of Teaching and Learning

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

My research addresses three interrelated questions that I believe are of both theoretical and practical significance: (a) how are knowledge and value constructed through language across different academic disciplines? (b) what challenges do these ways of using language present to students in subject-area reading and writing? and (c) how can these challenges be addressed through a language-based pedagogy?

What makes your work interesting?

What makes my work interesting is its focus on the role language plays in teaching and learning. Although language is arguably the most powerful and creative resource for making meaning, it is, ironically, also the most taken-for-granted aspect of schooling. I have had a fascination with language since my middle school years, when I started to learn English as a foreign language. This interest grew during my undergraduate and graduate years when I began my formal studies in linguistics and language in education. As a student, I used to wonder why school curriculum content had to be presented to us in textbooks that we found daunting and alienating. I learned later that each text students read or write has a purpose, and this purpose is realized through language (and other semiotic) choices that configure in particular ways in order to have particular effects. So, I have been motivated early on to find out how content experts use language to present knowledge, infuse points of view, and structure texts, as well as how students can be supported in disciplinary learning through a functional focus on language. My work in this area recognizes language as the hidden curriculum of schooling and responds to the challenges of developing advanced literacy, critical literacy, and disciplinary literacies among students who struggle with reading and writing, who are learning English as an additional language, or who have histories of school failure.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on three projects. In one project, I try to reconceptualize, from a functional linguistics perspective, three key constructs in the Common Core State Standards — text complexity, close reading, and disciplinary literacy — in an effort to make their classroom implementation more effective and empowering for teachers. In another project, my research team is examining adolescents’ use of academic language in informational writing, hoping to gain a better understanding of how access to and control over academic language impacts students’ reading/writing achievement and disciplinary learning. In the third project, my research team is studying disciplinary experts’ social practice (i.e., the daily workplace routines experts engage in), semiotic practice (i.e., how experts use language and other semiotic resources in disciplinary meaning-making), and cognitive practice (i.e., the mental routines and strategies employed by experts in disciplinary reading and writing), hoping to use the findings from the study to inform subsequent design and delivery of disciplinary literacy instruction in the K-12 setting.