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Review of Language Minority Students in American Schools
Date: Mon, 12 Sep 2005 16:12:43 From: Louisa Willoughby Subject: Language Minority Students in American Schools
AUTHOR: Adamson, H. Douglas TITLE: Language Minority Students in American Schools SUBTITLE: An Education in English SERIES: A Volume in the ESL & Applied Linguistics Professional Series PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates YEAR: 2005
Louisa Willoughby, Language and Society Centre, Monash University
This innovative introductory text provides trainee ESL teachers and teachers of other disciplines with a highly readable and topical introduction to the major issues in language minority student education. While firmly grounded in second language acquisition (SLA) theory, Adamson's book goes beyond ESL teaching per se to consider strategies for teaching language minority students across the school curriculum, including bilingual education programs, sheltered classes and the development of study skills in the first language. As such it presents teachers of all disciplines with strategies for integrating language minority students into their classrooms, while at the same time giving them a clear understanding of the linguistic theories guiding these suggestions. Through reviewing dozens of relevant linguistic studies and pointing out strengths and weaknesses in their methodology and conclusions, Adamson also helps those new to the field understand why (for example) we have so many contradictory findings in bilingual education studies and suggests common elements that successful language minority student programs contain regardless of whether they involve bilingual education, ESL, sheltered classes or a mixture of the above.
Chapter one, aptly entitled "A Personal Introduction" uses several short anecdotes from the author's extensive teaching experience to introduce the reader to a number of important issues in minority/ESL education – such as the relevance and comprehensibility of mainstream curricula for language minority students and the role of the first language in supporting acquisition of the second. The chapter closes by stressing the need for schools to value and support the languages and background knowledge minority students bring to the classroom, and gives brief suggestions as to how this might come about with are expanded throughout the rest of the book.
Chapter two "First and Second Language Acquisition" provides an overview of major approaches to studying language acquisition, focusing particularly on theories arising from generative grammar, and those concerned with the sociocultural side of language learning. The first half of the chapter provides a clear introduction to the basic tenants of generative grammar and goes on to introduces the readers to the notion of Universal Grammar, the critical period hypothesis and research in creole studies supporting the existence of Universal Grammar. The second half of the chapter introduces the idea of communicative competence, and considers the ways discourse norms vary across speech communities through close examination of Heath's (1983) data on storytelling conventions in two (linguistically) very different towns in North Carolina. Having raised reader awareness of differing norms of language use, the section explores the ideas of illocutionary competence and sociolinguistic norms and miscommunication that can arise when learners fails to master these aspects of the language fully. The section ends with a brief discussion of Schumann's acculturation model (1978). The chapter concludes with a comparison of the research questions asked by generativists and sociolinguists working in SLA and suggests Vygotskian psychology as a model for overcoming some of the differences between the two fields.
Chapter three "Language Teaching" again has to distinct halves – the first focusing on approaches to second language teaching and the second reviewing influential theories guiding the teaching of reading and mathematics. What binds the two halves however is a shared concern for unpacking the strengths and weaknesses of different ways of teaching and ultimately for developing the best possible methods with which to teach a diverse group of learners. Adamson's summary of the major directions in second language teaching will be familiar to those with a background in SLA (covering as it does well-known approaches such as Grammar- Translation, the Audio-Lingual Method, and Content Based Instruction) but provides an important overview of the history of the field for those who do not share this background, including a comprehensive introduction to Krashen's monitor model and debate on the usefulness of error correction. The chapter then turns to reviewing the current fiery debate in the US (and indeed other parts of the world such as Australia) on the merits of whole language vs. phonics methods for teaching literacy and current trends in the teaching of mathematics. Throughout the chapter the reader's attention is called to the differences between instructional teaching methods which treat learners as 'blank slates' ready to absorb 'facts' from the teacher, and progressive approaches which focus on developing the knowledge students bring to the classroom through engagement with real world tasks. While Adamson stresses the strengths and weaknesses of both models, overall the chapter gives strong endorsement to progressive methods.
Chapter four "Standard and Vernacular English" begins by introducing the concept of variation in English dialects through the study of one Speech Community: the town of Anniston, Alabama. Drawing on data collected by Feagin (1979) he explains how Anniston English (Adamson's term) differs from Standard English (principally in its use of double modals, 'done' for 'already' and negative concord) and how the use of these features is socially stratified within Anniston. After a very brief excursus on the origins of Standard English in England and the US, the chapter explores the structure of Black English (again Adamson's term) and recent controversy surrounding Ebonics education in US schools. Adamson's summary of the Oakland School Board Resolution and its aftermath provide an accessible overview for those not already familiar with the decision, while the section on classroom aspects of the Ebonics controversy provide teachers with balanced insight into the positives and potential drawbacks of introducing Ebonics programs into 'real life' classrooms.
Chapter five "Learning in a Second Language" covers ground of particular interest to those who are not trained teachers, exploring as it does the difference between objectivist and social constructionist world views, and their impact on how we understand learning. Adamson then introduces the work of Vygotsky and suggests that Vygotsky's theories of learning – particularly the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) - provide a useful model for understanding the learning patterns of language minority students and particularly how gaps in background knowledge can impede further learner. The relevance of background knowledge of appropriate conventions is examined in detail for an area of particular relevance to the academic success of language minority students: academic discourse. In particular, Adamson explores the syntactic and rhetorical conventions of academic English, and variations in conventions between disciplines, and the need for English learners to be explicitly taught such conventions. The chapter closes by stressing the need for programs for English learners to develop academic, cognitive and study skills through working through challenging material, rather than focusing solely on teaching the mechanics of the English language.
Chapter six "School and Family" presents ethnographic data from Adamson's study (in conjunction with Ellen Courtney) of English language learners at an Arizona Middle School with a large Hispanic population. Through interviews with the teachers involved and detailed observation of one of their lessons, Adamson and Courtney explore the strategies five different teachers employ in educating their language minority students and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. The chapter also considers the many real-world constraints operating on the way teachers teach (including but not limited to their teaching style, need to maintain discipline, ability to conduct lessons bilingually and general budgetary constraints), attempting to formulate suggestions for improvement that are practical for this particular context. Having explored the classroom environment at Cholla Middle School, the chapter then turns to ethnographic accounts of tutoring sessions the authors conducted with two Hispanic brothers, illustrating the issues they faced in learning their coursework. Working within the framework of Vygotsky's ZPD, Adamson and Courtney explore how one brother was able to grasp the contents of a chemistry lesson on the periodic table with assistance, and how the other's lack of background knowledge made a text on the settlement of the American west impenetrable even after extensive tutoring.
The final Chapter "Bilingual Education" provides an overview of the heated debate being conducted in the US on this topic at the moment, including an overview of relevant legislation and court cases mandating or banning bilingual education in some areas. The chapter first places the US situation in context by exploring the bilingual education offerings of The Netherlands, Sweden and Quebec and some of the criticism these programs have come under. Adamson then presents a summary of the types of bilingual education programs on offer in the US, and a short history of the legislative and legal history guiding their development. Finally the chapter considers arguments for and against bilingual education, drawing on numerous studies of student achievement to demonstrate the sorts of benefits bilingual programs can bring about, the timeframe necessary for these benefits to be realized, and the strength of these benefits relative to other forms of specialist language minority education (ESL, sheltered classes etc). While the book ends with a strong endorsement of bilingual/bicultural education, Adamson's ultimate message seems to be that all well thought out special programs which set out to address language minority students' needs across the curriculum are bound to meet with success.
"Language Minority Students in American Schools" is a particularly important text as it brings linguistic theory to those working on the ground in minority education. Since a common complaint among linguists (and indeed ESL teachers) working in the field is that mainstream teachers fail to appreciate the language issues faced by minority students and the step they could take to address them, Adamson deserves praise for producing an accessible text on these issues targeted squarely at mainstream teachers. Importantly too, "Language Minority Students in American Schools" provides teachers with many real-world examples of how the ideas Adamson introduces might be put into practice in their own classes, and some of the intended and unintended consequences these methods might have. Since Adamson does not preach one particular method, but attempts to provide an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, he encourages teachers to think about programs that would best suit the situation they find themselves in and what steps they as individuals might be able to take to improve the lot of language minority students.
Although primarily an introductory text, sections of "Language Minority Students in American Schools" are also of interest to researchers working on minority student education. In particular chapter six provides a detailed exploration and analysis of one school's attempts to cater for the needs of Hispanic students which could be used for comparison with programs at other schools, and also provides an example as to how Vygotskian theories can be productively used to interpret data on the educational experiences of language minority students. The book is also a handy ready-reference, not only for the many important studies it reviews, but also for its details of recent legal development on bilingual education. Finally, for those like myself working outside the US the text provides a valuable insight into the workings of minority education in that country and is a handy stepping stone for thinking about similarities and differences in the conditions faced and solutions proposed in different countries.
In Summary, "Language Minority Students in American Schools" provides an well-written, often humorous introduction to its field. Written primarily for a lay audience, those more familiar with the educational and linguistic theories it introduces may wish to skim over some sections, but will no doubt find something of interest in the later chapters. Novices looking for further guidance are also well-served by the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter. As one might expect of a text aiming to draw so many threads together, the structure of Adamson's book at times seems a little loose, with the more introductory chapters (particularly chapter four) jumping between themes with less than optimal linkage. That said however, the book more than makes up for this fault with its innovative take on minority education issues and excellent balance between theory and real-life examples.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Louisa Willoughby is a doctoral student with the Language and Society Centre at Monash University, Clayton. Her research considers the role of the school environment, and by extension the process of schooling, in shaping the language and cultural maintenance practices of senior secondary students of migrant background.