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Review of  Language Minority Students in American Schools

Reviewer: Louisa Willoughby
Book Title: Language Minority Students in American Schools
Book Author: H. Douglas Adamson
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.2682

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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

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

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.


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.

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