Teaching Educators about Language:
Principles, Structures, and Challenges
ERIC Identifier: ED447723
Publication Date: 2000-11-00
Author: Clair, Nancy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
The promise of education reform is that all children will receive a quality education. But
there are enormous challenges to reform, including resource inequities, an aging
teaching force, and public doubts about school effectiveness. Moreover, school reform
policies place enormous strain on teachers and students: Teachers need to implement
new curricula and ensure that they are providing appropriate instruction.
Students--including English language learners--must learn challenging content and pass
statewide assessments in order to graduate in many states.
These new demands coincide with the well-documented changing face of the U.S.
student population. More teachers are responsible for the education of children from
diverse backgrounds--children who speak little or no English upon arrival at school,
children who may have had interrupted schooling in their home country, and children
whose families may have had little exposure to the norms of U.S. schools. In general,
the U.S. teaching force is not well prepared to help culturally diverse children succeed
academically and socially, because pre-service teacher preparation programs have not
offered sufficient opportunities for learning to teach culturally diverse students. As a
result, many teachers have been learning on the job (Clair, 1995).
Fillmore and Snow (2000) assert that teachers need an understanding of educational
linguistics--how language impacts teaching and learning--to do their work well. They
argue that knowledge about language will enhance teachers' practice in general, and in
particular, it will aid them in teaching literacy (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) and in
working with English language learners (August & Hakuta, 1998).
This Digest focuses on principles and structures for professional development of practicing teachers that can
help them gain the knowledge they need about language and on some challenges to
overcome for providing good professional development opportunities.
LANGUAGE: A CENTRAL COMPONENT OF TEACHERS' WORK
Fillmore and Snow (2000) distinguish five teacher functions in which language is
Fillmore and Snow (2000) suggest that teachers should have knowledge of a number of
topics regarding oral and written language, including
- Teachers are communicators.
They need to be able to communicate effectively
and have strategies for understanding what students are saying.
- Teachers are educators.
They are responsible for subject area instruction. They must also select
educational materials and provide learning opportunities that promote second language
acquisition for students who are learning English and that promote language
development for native English speakers. They need to be able to distinguish language
behavior that is developmentally predictable from that which is not and provide
appropriate instructional intervention.
- Teachers are evaluators and their decisions have important consequences for students.
There are far too many instances of students
being placed in inappropriate educational programs because judgments of ability are
influenced by misunderstandings of language behavior.
- Teachers are educated people.
Information about language is essential to being a literate member of society.
- Teachers are agents of socialization.
They play a central role in socializing children to the norms,
beliefs, and communication patterns of school--and for immigrant children and
native-born children from non-majority backgrounds, to the patterns of mainstream U.S.
culture. Basic knowledge about language and culture and how these systems can vary
is fundamental to helping diverse students succeed in school.
They suggest courses or course components that would allow teachers to learn essential information
- the basic units of language,
- regular and irregular forms in English,
- vocabulary development,
- dialect regularity,
- academic English,
- language acquisition,
- the complexity of English spelling,
- patterns of rhetorical structure,
- quality and correctness in writing, and
- text comprehensibility.
- language and linguistics,
- language and cultural diversity,
- sociolinguistics for educators in a linguistically diverse society,
- language development,
- second language teaching and learning, the language of academic discourse, and
- text analysis in educational settings.
What kinds of professional development experiences can help practicing teachers learn
more about language and apply that knowledge to improving classroom practice?
Clearly, short-term professional development experiences are inadequate: Teaching
and learning are complex, and teachers need time to learn and experiment with new
concepts in the classroom, just as their students do. Principles of effective teaching and
learning for students extend to effective professional development for teachers (Rueda,
1998). To be successful, professional development must be long term, and it must
incorporate opportunities for learning that center on teachers and students.
Hawley and Valli (1999) suggest eight principles of effective professional development: It should
Because in-service teacher education on language in teaching and
learning must address teachers' attitudes toward language and toward students who
speak languages other than English and dialects other than Standard English, it calls for
extensive commitments of time. Teachers need time to reflect on the meaning of
education in a pluralistic society, on the relationships between teachers and learners,
and on social attitudes about language and culture that affect students (Clair, 1998;
Gonzalez & Darling-Hammond, 1997).
- be driven by an analysis of teachers' goals and student performance;
- involve teachers in the identification of what they need to learn;
- be school based;
- be organized around collaborative problem solving;
- be continuous and adequately supported;
- be information rich;
- include opportunities for the development of theoretical understanding; and
- be part of a comprehensive change process.
There are a number of professional development structures that can incorporate these
principles, including teacher networks and collaboratives (Renyi, 1996),
university-school partnerships (Darling-Hammond, 1994), action research groups
(Check, 1997), and teacher study groups (Clair, 1998). What these structures have in
common are opportunities for teachers to learn together in coherent and sustained
CHALLENGES FOR IMPROVING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Designing opportunities for teachers to learn about language must link three essential
elements: principles of effective professional development, appropriate content, and
skilled professional developers. Integrating these elements presents significant
These professionals need to have extensive knowledge about language and school reform and
experience providing long-term professional development in schools. One way to
overcome this challenge is teaming school personnel who provide professional
development with university faculty or others with expertise in applied linguistics.
Working together in schools, these teams can explore how language affects learning in
particular contexts and build knowledge about language and education.
- First, understandings of effective professional development have changed
much faster than practice. Many professional development experiences continue to be
short term and disconnected from the reality of teachers' work.
- Second, under pressure to raise test scores, administrators and other educators may have trouble understanding
how knowledge about language will help students succeed in school.
- Finally, identifying qualified professional developers with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to
provide effective professional development on educational linguistics is daunting.
The demands of school reform and the changing face of the U.S. student population
require that all teachers learn more about the role of language in teaching and learning.
This knowledge can enhance their practice overall, improving their ability to teach
literacy, and it can increase their effectiveness with students who speak languages
other than English and dialects other than Standard English. Long-term professional
development that views teacher and student learning as paramount must play a central
role. The challenges are real but worth confronting, because high-quality education
demands a well-educated teaching force.
This digest was prepared with funding from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of
Educational Research and Improvement, National Library of Education, under contract
no. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or
policies of ED, OERI, or NLE. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.) (1998). "Educating language minority children." Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Check, J. (1997). Teacher research as powerful professional development. "Harvard
Education Letter, 13," 6-8.
Clair, N. (1995). Mainstream teachers and ESL students. "TESOL Quarterly 29,"
Clair, N. (1998). Teacher study groups: Persistent questions in a promising approach.
"TESOL Quarterly 32," 465-492.
Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). Developing professional development schools: Early
lessons, challenge, and promise. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), "Professional
development schools: Schools for developing a profession" (pp. 1-27). New York:
Teachers College Press.
Fillmore, L.W., & Snow, C. (2000). "What teachers need to know about language."
[On-line]. Available: http://www.cal.org/ericcll/teachers.pdf
Gonzalez, J.M., & Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). "New concepts for new challenges:
Professional development for immigrant youth." McHenry, IL, and Washington, DC:
Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.
Hawley, W.D., & Valli, L. (1999). The essentials of effective professional development.
In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), "Teaching as the learning profession:
Handbook of policy and practice" (pp. 127-150). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Renyi, J. (1996). "Teachers take charge of their learning: Transforming professional
development for student success." New York: National Foundation for the Improvement
Rueda, R. (1998). "Standards for professional development: A sociocultural
perspective" (Research Brief No. 2). Santa Cruz, CA: University of California, Center for
Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.
Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). "Preventing reading difficulties in
young children." Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Menu Page |
Parenting the Next Generation