Language-learning experiences as a source of personal practical knowledge for general classroom teachers of English language learners

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Gerald M. Mager


General classroom teachers, English language learners, Content area teachers, Language learning, Personal practical knowledge, Oral history methods

Subject Categories



It is well documented that general classroom teachers have not been adequately prepared to address the unique needs of the English language learners (ELLs) that many are now teaching for the first time (Cartiera, 2006; Giambo & Szecsi, 2005; Short & Echevarria, 2004). With ELLs' presence growing in U. S. public schools (e.g., August, 2006; Kindler, 2002) and their achievement reported to be low (August, 2006; Cartiera, 2006; Crawford, 2004), this study set out to examine general classroom teachers' language-learning experiences as a potential source of pedagogical knowledge for ELLs, a direction suggested in survey research findings.

Multiple methods of data collection were employed in this qualitative study to understand how participants constructed personal practical knowledge (Connelly & Clandinin, 1985) from their language-learning experiences and to learn what it contributed to their teaching practice for ELLs. Connelly and Clandinin (1985) theorized personal practical knowledge to encompass attitudes, beliefs, and understandings that teachers develop from interpretations of experience and draw on to respond to the demands of practice. The theoretical orientation of this study was cognitive constructivism, which views individuals as constructors of knowledge that can be enhanced through social interaction.

Data collection took place during the 2008-2009 academic year. The nine participants were secondary general classroom teachers who taught in seven different content areas in two school districts. Data were collected from individual participants using oral history methods and classroom observations with semi-structured, pre- and post-observation interviews. Oral histories were gathered to understand participants' language-learning experiences (the 'personal') and the sense they made of them (the 'knowledge'). Classroom observations and semi-structured interviews took place to understand their teaching practices with ELLs (the 'practical'). Labov and Waletzsky's (1967/1997) structural approach to narrative analysis was used to analyze oral history narratives, while classroom interview data were analyzed thematically.

This study found that all participants developed some personal practical knowledge from language-learning experiences, although often in combination with other life and professional experiences. Its sophistication seemed to be influenced by the depth and timing of participants' reflections. The inclination to apply personal practical knowledge in teaching ELLs was found to depend on the nature of the teaching context as well as connections participants perceived between themselves as language learners and their ELLs. How participants interpreted and applied personal practical knowledge was discovered to have the potential to create both inclusive and exclusionary situations for ELLs. This study's most salient finding was that mediated reflection encouraged general classroom teachers to identify previously unmade connections between themselves as language learners and their ELLs, to develop new insights into the personal practical knowledge they derived from language-learning experiences, and to motivate them to act on newly-realized connections and insights. The subgroup of participants most seemingly affected by mediated reflection appeared to be the first-year teachers.

Limitations of this study were related to the small number of participants, their characteristics, limited contexts of participation, data collection procedures, and data analysis. Implications are offered for the foreign language teaching profession, teacher preparation programs, school practices, and future research.


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