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Review of  Learning English at School

Reviewer: Jo Tyler
Book Title: Learning English at School
Book Author: Kelleen Toohey
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 12.2711

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Toohey, Kelleen (2000) Learning English at School: Identity,
Social Relations and Classroom Practice. Multilingual
Matters, paperback ISBN 1-85359-481-4, viii+152pp.

Jo Tyler, Center for Graduate and Professional Studies,
Mary Washington College

[For another review of this book, see --Eds.]

Learning English at School: Identity, Social Relations
and Classroom Practice is a volume in Multilingual
Matters' Bilingual Education and Bilingualism book
series. However, it represents a study of children in
an ESL setting. The study follows six children from
non-English language backgrounds during their first
three years of schooling in classrooms where English is
the language of instruction. Although the study was
conducted in a Canadian school, the classroom settings
and practices are common to those in the U.S., Britain,
Australia, and New Zealand, giving the book a wide
audience scope. This slim volume (136 pages, plus
references and index) is intended for researchers,
teacher educators, and classroom teachers who have some
background knowledge of second language acquisition
(SLA) research.

In the Introduction, author Kelleen Toohey states that
this research was motivated to provide understanding of
children's second language acquisition "in terms of
recently developed poststructural, sociocultural and
critical perspectives" with particular attention to
classroom practices and their relation to students'
opportunities for language use and development (p. 2).
The Introduction also gives a brief synopsis of each of
the six chapters in the book.

Chapter 1 establishes a theoretical context for the
study and describes the methodology in detail. Toohey
situates this study in contrast to traditional SLA
theory and research, which has focused on individual
learners' characteristics (e.g. age, motivation,
cognitive style) and on individualized concepts of
linguistic input and output. From the perspective that
Toohey adopts, on the other hand, language learners and
the learning process are viewed as socially,
historically, and politically constructed. She draws
heavily on the work of Vygotsky (1986) in learning
theory and Bakhtin (1981) in discourse theory to support
her approach. She concludes the chapter with a detailed
description of the observation, interviewing, and data
recording procedures, schedules, and settings upon which
the study is based.

Chapter 2, entitled Kindergarten Stories, introduces the
six focal subjects in this study through data from
classroom transcripts, home interviews, and teacher
evaluations conducted during their Kindergarten year.
The detailed data, presented individually for each
child, creates vivid portraits of their emergent
identities within the school setting, and sets the stage
for Chapter 3, where the data is interpreted in terms of
five aspects of school identity: academic competence,
physical presentation/competence, behavioral competence,
social competence, and language proficiency. Toohey
argues that school identity is constructed around these
competencies in the institutionalized system of ranking
that is inherent in modern schooling practices. She
concludes that students identified as competent in these
areas have greater and/or easier access to classroom
interactions and resources.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the classroom experiences of
the focal children in first and second grades,
respectively. Both chapters are organized similarly,
with data-based descriptions of classroom practices
followed by interpretative discussion. The issue of
access to classroom resources introduced in Chapter 3 is
developed fully in the discussion of first grade. Here
ranking practices are explicitly and specifically linked
to classroom resources: assigning individual desks to
students, holding them responsible for their individual
materials, and prohibiting copying of others' words and
ideas. The individualism of classroom practices and
resources in first grade is contrasted with the communal
play which characterized the Kindergarten classroom.

In the discussion of second grade, the focus is on
classroom discourse practices, both teacher-directed
recitation sequences and small group peer interactions.
Toohey interprets the transcript data in terms of the
purposes of each type of discourse, the possibilities
they afford students for positioning, and the
opportunities they offer for constructing voices and
creating meaning. Toohey points out that though the
purpose of small group activities is generally to give
students opportunities to interact with status equals,
the positioning of some students in the classroom as
more competent and/or powerful carries over into small
groups, often undermining the instructional purpose.
Toohey concludes that, especially for second language
learners, small group interactions that give students
opportunities to engage in imaginative and/or phatic
communication are also those that allow them to discover
their own voices and create meaning for themselves.

Chapter 6 summarizes the issues Toohey identified
through this research as key to shaping the identities
and contributing to the language acquisition of the
focal students: access to voice, access to resources,
and the politics of representation (i.e., the roles and
responsibilities of teachers, parents, and even
researchers in the system of institutionalized ranking
and normalization that is part of current schooling
practices). She also suggests several points of inquiry
for future research on second language acquisition, as
well as offering a few recommendations for classroom
teachers, teacher educators, and education researchers.

This well-written and tightly organized monograph
presents a thought-provoking study of the social and
linguistic development of young minority language
children in typical North American primary classrooms.
The most compelling aspect of this work is the wealth of
transcript data collected through meticulous
observation, recording, and interviewing techniques.
These transcripts reveal stunning glimpses into the
processes of identity development of very young children
through their own words, and this in itself is
sufficient to make this study a significant contribution
to the field of SLA research.

The author's stated intention to offer a new perspective
for understanding young children's second language
learning is largely fulfilled. Even readers steeped in
the traditional approach of SLA and in the structuralist
tradition of linguistics, like this reviewer, are apt to
discover new ways of viewing the multifaceted processes
involved in classroom language acquisition. From the
data one can discover, for example, (1) the ingenuity of
children in creating opportunities for communicative
interaction in classrooms designed to separate and
individualize them, (2) the persistence of children in
appropriating language and contributing meaning in
conversation despite limited access to linguistic
resources, and (3) the subtlety with which young
children conform to and adopt the ranking, normalizing,
and identifying practices of the institution.

The author's interpretation of the data, however, was
not so successful in developing the intended new
perspective, at least for this reader. I believe one
reason was the contradiction of presenting a
poststructuralist theory through a traditional medium
like observational analysis. I noted, for example, that
the description of the data was heavily--and
appropriately--hedged, with such nonfactive terms as
"apparently", "as if", "suggest", "might", while the
interpretation was often couched in terms such as
"clearly", "obviously", "unequivocally", and
"certainly". Nevertheless, recognizing this
contradiction was, for me, a new though less than
satisfying perspective on SLA research. From a
poststructuralist point of view, neither the observer-
researcher nor the classroom teacher can be entirely
objective, since as Toohey herself points out, our
perceptions evolve from "our different positions not
only within the classroom but also within the wider
social networks in which we live" (p. 130). There were
a few points of data interpretation on which I would
disagree with Toohey, yet in light of the previous
statement, my disagreement, no matter how well reasoned
or supported, would be like measuring height with a

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination:
Four Essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Vygotsky, Lev S. (1986). Thought and Language
(translated and edited by Alex Kozulin). Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.

Jo Tyler holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the
University of Florida and is Assistant Professor and
coordinator of the graduate TESL Program at Mary
Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia.


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