My Linguistic Experience: The Teaching Tips Learned Along the Way

Carolyn Walker, Hampton Elementary, Chicago Public School District 299

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This article discusses how my misconceptions about applied linguistics changed and the valuable teaching tips and strategies acquired along the way.

At this point in my career, continuing my education was the farthest thing from my mind.  Completing two degrees in five years with no summer breaks took a financial and emotional toll on my husband and kids---this was a mid-life career change. My family was relieved when weeks after graduating I obtained gainful employment as a special education teacher. I teach in a predominantly African American and Hispanic elementary school in a working class inner city neighborhood. Students receive specialized services in the general education classroom setting. My new career and duties were on par with my passion for teaching students with special needs—all the necessary academic demands were completed (so I thought). My principal needed me to replace a teacher on leave who co-taught in a bilingual classroom. My experience co-teaching in the bilingual classroom gave me invaluable insight and greater understanding of the Hispanic culture. This inspired me to gain a greater knowledge in teaching ELLs.  Thus, my re-entry to the shackles of academia was imminent. However, this re-entry was optional and only for the betterment of my personal and professional growth, not to seek employment. 

I met my first course, Linguistics for Educators, with trepidation due to the broad definition of linguistics (study of language). The required textbook didn’t dispel my misconceptions; instead, it fueled my disengagement with the topic. During one of my required chapter readings, the relationship between the components of the language system and its application in the ESL classroom setting was evident—it made sense to me.  It stated that the role of teachers is to  apply this knowledge of English to foster ELL’s language acquisition in the classroom, ensuring academic success across all content area subjects.  
This course and supplemental material imparted that all languages and dialects have rules governing grammar and pronunciation capable of conveying complex and logical reasoning. I learned the sound system of words and how the diversity of dialects gives purpose and importance to a diverse modern society.

Educators should consider semantic and/or pragmatic distinction in verbal and written communication before making necessary grammatical and syntactical corrections. These corrections are ineffective in language and writing development if the meaning isn’t fully considered.  For example, some of my students attach ‘no’ to the end of a statement making it a question.  It is more important for me to determine what the students are asking and respond before attempting to correct them and ask them to rephrase the question appropriately. However, a mental note will be made to include different types of sentences in upcoming lesson instruction.  This instructional strategy guides future lesson plans and assessment of my students’ comprehension of content area subjects, such as math, science, social studies, and the arts.

A great teaching tip constructed using this strategy is during a readers theatre activity.  Some of the scripts will be written in English and their native language using cognates.  Teacher and students will gain a deeper understanding of linguistic similarities and differences present in various languages.  ELLs’ contribution will demonstrate the interdependence of languages while giving the teacher insight in addressing the language needs of students.  A veteran teacher advised me, “Before any teaching can begin, you must first determine what do you want the student to learn.”

The juxtaposition between prior knowledge and applied linguistics activated a heightened and relevant interest in my desire to learn more. The knowledge gained gave me insight in applying effective and beneficial teaching tips and strategies when instructing students in the ESL classroom. Linguistics teaches us that English is more than just grammatical and syntactical rules; there are separate rules governing the components of the language system. It is essential as educators of ELLs to have a clear understanding and awareness of these components and how users of language convey meaning through various constructs of the language system.

Sociolinguistics tells us that prejudices and biases toward dialects and languages hinder effective and viable communication in today’s societies. As educators, we are learners, as well.  

Carolyn Walker teaches Special Education to bilingual students at Hampton Elementary.

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ITBE Link - Fall 2014 - Volume 42 Number 3