Theory Informs Teaching

Theory Informs Teaching

by Shaeley Santiago

“Why do you put so much emphasis on the students answering in complete sentences?” I was once asked by a practicum student observing my class. As I hesitated to form my answer, I realized the reason was based on what I believe about language learning and my responsibilities as a teacher. These beliefs have been shaped by my own experiences as a language learner as well as my study of theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and quality instructional practices.

SLA Theory
Beyond a basic awareness of the process of acquiring another language, teachers can benefit from reviewing SLA theories and considering how they might apply to their instructional practice. Sometimes, learning about other SLA theories may cause teachers to re-examine the manner in which they have been conducting class. For example, if learning a language is thought of as “knowledge acquisition,” then receptive modalities of listening and reading are considered more important than the active, productive modalities of speaking and writing which are emphasized in communicative approaches.

On the other hand, functional theories of language learning highlight appropriateness over accuracy (Heritage, Walqui, & Linquanti, 2015). Given that language learning is enhanced when content and analytical practices are addressed simultaneously, functional theories offer ideas worthy of consideration. In particular, Schleppegrell’s focus on differences in the use of grammatical structures across content disciplines implies the need for teaching students how to use language differently in specific content areas (as cited in Heritage, Walqui, & Linquanti, 2015, p. 75). Each of these theories has implications for what happens in a language learning classroom.

Theories of Learning, Learners and Teacher Understanding
In addition to theories of SLA, other theories affect teachers’ instruction. Theories of learning, learners, and teacher understanding should also be considered (Heritage, Walqui, & Linquanti, 2015, p. 60). For example, sociocultural learning theory (Vygotsky) views ELLs as “active learners” where the key is classroom interaction for the purpose of developing students’ language through the use of scaffolds to support and extend student learning. However, scaffolds are best constructed based on evidence of student performance at that moment with an eye toward what is needed to reach a higher performance level.

The role of the teacher then is to orchestrate conditions in which even ELLs at the earliest stages of English language proficiency are encouraged to be active participants in producing language related to content understandings and analytical skills. None of this is possible, though, if the teacher does not hold high expectations of students or engage in reflection on his or her own teaching practice. “It is through theoretical reasoning that teachers become more in control of their practice and can bring coherence to their teaching” (Heritage, Walqui, & Linquanti, 2015, p. 84).

The challenge is for language teachers to reflect on the theories that provide the foundation of their teaching practices and to be open to adjusting those practices as researchers learn more about language acquisition, how learning best occurs, and the impact teachers have on the process.

Reference: Heritage, M., Walqui, A., and Linquanti, R. (2015). English Language Learners and the new standards. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Editor’s Note: See a related article on the Heritage, Walqui, and Linquanti book in a previous weekly feature.

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