Teaching Language

Speaking Silently
Watching the beginning of Mike Lupo’s American Sign Language class is a cool experience; I’ve never seen so much discussion with so little noise. I guess that’s the nature of sign language.

What was really cool was seeing students communicate in sign language for thirty minutes. Mr. Lupo signed questions about students’ Thanksgiving activities, and students responded in sign language, demonstrating knowledge of vocabulary, sentence structure, and other concepts an outsider like me wouldn’t readily perceive. The goal was basically to get the students to communicate in the specialized language of the course.

Isn’t that what so much of our content instruction is about? If our students can talk about poetry in the specialized language of the poet—or something close to it—then haven’t they developed some level of competence in that field? And if a student can talk about physics in terms of mass and force and newtons, then haven’t they become, in some slight way, junior physicists? And if they can’t communicate in this language, have they really learned what they need to know?

Mr. Lupo’s class was a clear reminder to me of just how much we broaden our students’ understanding of the world by broadening their vocabulary, whether in American Sign Language or in the specialized vocabulary of another content area. On the more practical side, students cannot succeed on end-of-course tests without competence with the language of the subject. Check out some of the phrases they might encounter on EOCs:

  • “y varies directly as x”
  • “initial upward velocity”
  • “amino acids are synthesized into proteins”
  • “evolved from a common ancestor”
  • “equal access to public recreational activities”
  • “special interest groups”
  • “factor of production”

So what?
That’s a tough question. I think the answer is that we must think like language teachers (sounds like SIOP training, doesn’t it?). If we want to assess our students’ comprehension of our particular areas of study, then we have to assess their communication skills in that field. More specifically, we have to incorporate into our instruction writing tasks that require students to communicate in the content and the language of our fields. Answering “C” on the multiple choice test is not enough.
Next time you find yourself talking in the language of art, music, economics, grammar, ecology, or geometry, and your students are responding in the same language—or something like it—know that they are learning. That’s what foreign language teachers like Mike Lupo do every day.
If you want any ideas for teaching content vocabulary, just ask.


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