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Review of  Situational Context of Education

Reviewer: Andrew Wilcox
Book Title: Situational Context of Education
Book Author: Maria Estela Brisk Angela Burgos Sara Ruth Hamerla
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.601

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Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2005 21:36:36 +0200
From: Andrew Wilcox
Subject: Situational Context of Education

AUTHORS: Brisk, Maria Estela; Burgos, Angela; Hamerla, Sara Ruth
TITLE: Situational Context of Education
SUBTITLE: A Window into the World of Bilingual Learners
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Andrew Wilcox, Pinewood International School, Thessaloniki


Educational outcomes are affected by situational factors outside the
control of the student, family, teacher or school. Advantages are enjoyed
by students who, for instance, speak the school's language outside school,
are of higher socio-economic status, belong to the dominant ethnic group,
live in safe neighbourhoods, and attend well-funded schools. The converse
applies. The central idea of Situation Context of Education (SCE) is that,
while teachers and students may be powerless to change the situation
within which they teach and learn, both groups can benefit from increasing
their conscious awareness of that situation.

The book is intended as course material for the post-graduate, pre-service
training of teachers, particularly those who will have responsibility for
the English language development of children who start English-medium
education speaking other languages. It is also intended for serving
teachers who seek development. There are reports of the observation of
lessons in an upper elementary school, conducted with students of non-
English backgrounds, as well as background information, and analysis. An
aim is very clearly to provide a resource for teachers: things they can do
in the classroom. Such pedagogic procedures, though, will be informed by
research into and observation of the context of education. For linguists,
the possible area of interest could be described as applied
sociolinguistics, since, given its audience and theme, SCE concerns such
matters as language policy, language alternation, and language use in the
community. Most of the aspects of the "situational context" have to do
directly or indirectly with language.

The core of the book, chapters 2 through to 6, deals with five kinds of
situational variation in the context in which education occurs:
linguistic, economic, social, cultural and political. Each of these
chapters follows the same four-part structure:
a) Overview and introduction to the variables or themes.
b) Part I: A report of a three-lesson sequence as taught.
c) Part II. Background and literature review.
d) Part III. Further analysis and lesson plans/ideas on the themes from
the chapter.

(The academic who would be happier reading the review before the empirical
work should simply read Part II after the overview.) The lessons reported
are part of a larger project on experimenting with "situational context",
awareness-raising lessons. The learners are Spanish speakers, and the
teacher, one of the authors, is English-Spanish bilingual.

Chapter 2, entitles "Linguistic Context", looks mostly at language use,
choice, alternation and societal function. The lessons reported in Part I
seek to develop students' understanding of when, where and how much they
use different languages, and the possibility that language proficiency is
a function of amount of use and of feelings towards the language. The
brief review of "Linguistic Variables" in Part II covers only what is
needed to understand the rationale of the teaching procedures presented,
and is directed at teachers in training who have studied no

The subject of chapter 3 is how economic factors, such as a school's
financial resources, affect opportunities and outcomes in education. There
is also the matter of the possible career benefits of being bilingual in
the modern world; this is the subject of the lesson sequence reported.
Students are led to value their own language, alongside English, as a
possible future advantage in the job market.

The social context of education is the subject of chapter 4. This includes
such variables as the social status of languages, social history (e.g.
immigration movements), and the demographic profile of a local society by
language and ethnicity. The last of these is examined in the lessons
reported. As in other lessons, the teacher begins with simple, answerable
questions with important answers: "What is the largest language, after
English, spoken in Massachusetts?", "Which country is very near (to the
USA)?". Over the three-lesson sequence, students develop the ability to
ask interesting questions of an informant, resident locally and a long-
standing immigrant: "What kind of races were there?", "Did the laws
change?", "Would you like to live somewhere else?", "Was the neighbourhood
dangerous or not dangerous?".

Chapter 5 looks at culture, in the sense of beliefs, expectations and
practices shared within an identifiable group. In our current context,
this means, for instance, teaching styles, learner expectations of school,
and differences in school systems.

Chapter 6 tackles politics, including international relations. Decisions
made in state or national capitals affect teaching and learning. The
worlds of government and administration, though, are remote from those of
elementary schoolchildren. The lessons reported attempt to connect these
worlds. For instance, learners look at the effects of international
political relations on ethnic group status, such as that of Japanese
people in the 1941-45 and the 1990s.

Apart from the standard academic bibliography, there is, as an appendix,
an annotated bibliography of about 90 books, mostly fiction, that explore
themes of migration and cultural contact and conflict. These are arranged
into two broad reading and maturity levels: Elementary to Middle, and
Middle to Secondary. The intention is to provide suggestions for intensive
class study or for more extensive reading by students around the general


Ethically speaking, this book has its heart right in the right place. It
is taken for granted that bilingualism must mean additive bilingualism.
The presence in schools of people who speak a language other than the
dominant one is a challenge and an opportunity, not a problem. The
opportunity for schools is to produce citizens who are at home in two
languages in wide, if not necessarily identical, ranges of fields, with
benefits both for society and for the bilingual individual. I think all
linguistically and socially aware teachers make this same assumption: thus
the tendency to replace the possibly stigmatising phrases "Limited English
Proficiency" and "English as a Second Language" with "English Language
Learners" and "English as an Additional Language" (EAL). However, as SCE
points out in Chapter 6 and elsewhere, the additive assumption is far from
general outside the linguistic and educationalist communities. Political
decisions that determine funding for programmes may be influenced by a
popular feeling that there is something "wrong" with speaking a language
other than the official or unofficial national language. Bilingualism may
be seen as divisive to the nation, or cognitively disadvantageous to the
child. (See Oller 1997 for one review and refutation of this latter idea.)
Perhaps more reasonably in some circumstances, good provision for English
language learners may be seen as a burden on already over-stretched school
budgets (SCE chapter 5: 56-57). SCE's main point here seems to be that if
the advantages of additive bilingualism are realised, then these will at
least be taken into account when funding decisions are made. We might not
then see attempts to make drastic reductions in funding for bilingual
education, such as California's Proposition 227 (SCE: p.163).

There are a few minor difficulties with production standards. Proofreading
could have been more thorough, from a major academic publisher. In a
randomly chosen text sequence (pp. 57-59), I counted two singular/plural
errors and three missing commas (before a non-finite participle clause and
enclosing a parenthetical relative clause). On page 203, "31/2" probably
means "three and a half years". The index could have been fuller. While
checking the page number at the end of the previous paragraph of this
review, I could find no relevant entry for "California", "language
policy", "immersion", "Proposition 227", nor "English-only".

The book summaries in Appendix A sometimes seem to assume that a happy
ending to a story is achieved when a young person becomes an American
and/or is recognised as an American by peers, and others. Not everyone
would agree with this rather nationalistic assimilationism. Nevertheless,
the book-list should be of use. While such a list can never be complete,
as many teachers would have something to add to it, as it stands it looks
useful for EAL or language arts teachers, and for librarians, in bi- or
multi-cultural schools.

Enough of quibbles: this interesting and competent work meets the vital
criteria of relevance and utility to its target audiences. Pedagogically,
it follows accepted good practice, in the USA and the UK at least: the
students' need to know is provoked, and then they find the answers.
Teachers and books are organisers, informants and resources, not single
authorities. The lesson reports seem honest, and the suggested procedures
are always sound, sometimes innovative. "Research" is can be found these
days as a strand or activity type in school curricula. Some of the lessons
in SCE will help teachers to appreciate how learners, even young learners,
can be researchers. Anyone who wonders what it might mean to "teach
linguistics at school" will find some enlightenment here, though the
lesson on "the Nature of Languages" (pp.36-39) is in fact sociolinguistic
in content (and valuable). It might have been interesting to see lessons
that explored more "purely" linguistic matters, perhaps some basic
typology such as "SVO or other" (mentioned on page 25), or the matters of
pro-drop or object pronoun placement. Some language learners benefit from
overt contrastive analysis of syntax. Still, it could be argued that even
simple typology would be better left for the middle school level.

The lessons presented or suggested will need adaptation to the particular
teaching situation of the reader. The observed lessons were conducted with
a 5th-Grade group of 13-18 students who shared a language with their
bilingual teacher. Older, larger, smaller or linguistically diverse groups
would require different implementations. This is not a criticism of the
book. A teacher should be capable of such flexibility, and SCE provides
information and inspiration for teachers wishing to improve their
students', and their own, awareness of the contexts within which schooling


Oller, J. .W, Jr. 1997. 'Monoglottitis: What's wrong with the idea of the
IQ meritocracy and its racy cousins?' Applied Linguistics 18/4: 467-507


Andrew Wilcox teaches English as an Additional Language and English
(language arts) at Pinewood International School, Thessaloniki, Greece.
His doctoral studies in second language vocabulary acquisition are in
indefinite suspension for lack of time and funds. One of his interests is
the finding of ways to give recognition to the languages and cultures of a
very diverse student body despite the limited resources of a small
independent school.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0805839461
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 264
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