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Promoting Sociolinguistic Competence in English Learners

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

As we teach English learners, we can't help wondering how they would do if they needed to communicate in a real social situation. This lesson explores the strategies you can use as a teacher to develop your students' communicative competence.

What is Sociolinguistic Competence?

Santiago is an English learner. He knows the basic grammar for his level and performs well in class exercises. Outside the class, however, Santiago often finds himself stuck as he does not know what to say or how to respond in specific situations. For instance, when the PE teacher asks Santiago why he is not wearing the appropriate clothes for the class, he feels lost and can't explain that bleach got on his gym clothes so his parents will have to buy him a new set. This means Santiago needs to develop sociolinguistic competence.

Sociolinguistic competence is the ability to communicate appropriately by using the right words, expressions, and attitude towards a specific topic, setting, and relationship. Many English learners can do well in class but not necessarily have sociolinguistic competence. Luckily, there are many ways in which we can promote the development of sociolinguistic competence in our students. Let's explore those strategies.

Strategies to Promote Sociolinguistic Competence

The strategies we, teachers, can use to promote sociolinguistic competence are mainly oriented to simulating real social contexts in which students are expected to communicate with others. The strategies include the following:

Making Pragmatic Features Explicit

Pragmatic features are the different meanings that a word or message implies. However, English learners are not necessarily able to get the nuances of what is said or to interpret it correctly. For this reason, we should always be explicit with English learners. For instance, Santiago is with his math teacher, who asks him to take the math devices out. Santiago is confused because he doesn't understand 'devices' in this context. When the teacher notes this, he asks Santiago to take out his calculator and the times-table chart. Now, Santiago knows what to do.

With English learners, teachers of any subject can help students to develop their sociolinguistic competence by being explicit in regards to what is expected. This not only implies using specific instructions but also checking that the student comprehends the meaning of written language around the classroom and school. For instance, Santiago's ELL teacher asks 'What does the 'EXIT' sign mean?' This way, students learn to pay attention to the meaning of messages and think through the most appropriate response they should give.

Promoting Oral and Written Discourse

Our English learners need a lot of oral and writing practice. Creating activities that relate to specific contexts students can encounter in real life situations can be advantageous in giving them this practice. For example, as part of learning restaurant vocabulary and expressions, Santiago's ELL teacher assigns students the task to role play the job of a waiter and a customer. This way, Santiago and his peers get to enact how a real situation would develop in a real restaurant.

Other examples of oral and writing activities that promote sociolinguistic competence are getting students to discuss personal experiences, reading and discussing the messages in dialogues, and analyzing idiomatic expressions in their meaning.

Raising Social and Cultural Awareness

English learners will also need to be able to interpret common cultural gestures and social features of the environment that surrounds them. For instance, Santiago's ELL teacher gives the class an article about personal space in American culture. This way, Santiago and his peers learn that it is not okay to touch strangers or to get too close when speaking to people. Once English learners have awareness of social and cultural features, they are capable of understanding why certain social situations occur in a given way and responding to situations in the appropriate manner.

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