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Review of  Learning English at School

Reviewer: Matthew H. Ciscel
Book Title: Learning English at School
Book Author: Kelleen Toohey
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 12.214

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Toohey, Kelleen (2000) Learning English at School: Identity, Social
Relations and Classroom Practice. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
viii, 152 pp.

Reviewed by: Matthew H. Ciscel, University of South Carolina, Columbia

The book under review presents findings from a three-year longitudinal
study of minority-language children in English-medium classrooms in
North America. The focus is on how social practices related to child
second language acquisition affect the development of the children's
school identities. Given the policy trend away from bilingual
education for immigrant and minority language children in English-
dominant countries, this topic is relevant to a wide range of readers,
from linguists and educators to concerned parents. Much of the study
is also accessible to the same range of readers. However, the
ethnographic methodology constrains the degree to which the study's
findings are generalizable and informative to practical solutions.
Nevertheless, the study is significant in that it explores the socio-
cultural factors that have until recently been regularly ignored both
in second language research and in the debate over bilingual education.

A very brief introduction, in which the author provides a short
background and overview of the book, is followed by a presentation of
the theoretical and methodological foundations of the study in Chapter
1, 'Framing story: Theory, setting and methodology.' Arguing that
little second language research has involved consideration of cultural
and socio-political practices, particularly in child second language
acquisition, the author emphasizes the particulars of socio-cultural
theories rather than second language learning. The theories of two
Russian intellectuals, Vygotsky and Bakhtin, contribute significantly
to the theoretical foundation. Clear and concise synopses of their
ideas are accompanied by useful references to other researchers
influenced by their work. This discussion is followed by clear, but
perhaps overly brief, explanations of the research questions, the
research site, and the methodology. Essentially, the author followed
six minority-language children from kindergarten through grade two,
observing classroom behavior and conducting interviews to trace the
emergence of both their skills in English and their school identities.

Chapters 2 and 3 introduce the six children and provide some analysis
of the social practices related to language use and identity in the
context of their kindergarten year. Interviews with the teacher and
parents about each child supplement descriptions of the events related
to each child over the course of the year. The practices represented
by these events are shown to fix each child in a relatively constrained
school identity that has consequences for success in the development of
various competencies (linguistic, social, etc.). Furthermore, the
narrative form of each child's 'story' in kindergarten makes the
content of the author's arguments clear, even to a non-specialist.

In Chapter 4, '"Break them up, take them away": Practices in the Grade
1 classroom', the author describes the individualizing effects of
spatial and material relations that the six children confronted in
Grade 1. Although this chapter contains an interesting post-structural
analysis of seating arrangements and supply organization within the
children's desks, the discussion is rather brief and narrow considering
that a whole year's worth of data might have gone into it. Once again,
the children's minority-language status appears to be an impediment to
the emergence of a sufficiently independent school identity. The
author suggests that alternative classroom practices might remove these

The children are then followed to Grade 2 in Chapter 5. The focus here
is on authoritative versus liberal discourse types in the classroom and
how these affect the subjects' access to different social voices.
Example dialogues from three discourse types are discussed and analyzed
with respect to theoretical constructs. The author concludes that
discourse types that allow the children the freedom to play with new
roles and voices best facilitated their growth beyond fixed school

Finally, in Chapter 6, the author concludes by summarizing the results
and discussing their significance. The results are grouped into three
types: identity, resource distribution, and access to discourse.
Having been presented in turn parallel to the three progressive grade
levels, they are tied together here as a set of co-variables in the
children's English and social development. The disadvantages that
language-minority children experience in all three areas justify a
discussion of balancing access and improving future research and
pedagogy related to this issue.

The greatest values of the book relate to its socio-cultural approach
and reader accessibility. As the author notes, second language and
pedagogical research often focus on cognitive factors to the exclusion
of contextual influences. Ethnographic research such as this provides
valuable insight concerning contextual variables that often remain
uncontrolled and unaccounted for, particularly in studies on child
second language acquisition. This fact alone suggests a reading of
this book for researchers in that field.

The brief, accessible format of the book also makes it useful for
readers outside the immediate field. However, its brevity reduces, at
times, the width and breadth of the content. For example, more
extensive coverage of the methodology and the data from Grade 1 might
have provided a more complete or holistic picture of project and the
children's development.

A final criticism involves the author's call for a change in school
practices to allow all children greater access to positions of power
and prestige within the classroom. As it appears, this call strikes me
as idealistic, at best, and contradictory, at worst. What is power if
all have equal access to it? Although such egalitarianism is enticing,
a more practical solution would involve strategies to facilitate enough
general access to power such that the classroom (and the children's
socialized identities and practices) do not become dysfunctional.
However, this point reflects little more than a philosophical quibble.
Overall, the book is engaging and replete with ideas and directions for
continuing research.

Matthew H. Ciscel, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South
Carolina, has research interests in second language acquisition theory,
language variation, and the politics of language. His dissertation
research involves investigating the role of national identity in
patterns of multilingualism in the former Soviet Union.