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"Language Minority Students in American Schools" (review)

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  • Donald Z. Osborn
    FYI (fwd from the Linguist list)... DZO Date: 15-Sep-2005 From: Louisa Willoughby Subject: Language Minority Students
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 17, 2005
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      FYI (fwd from the Linguist list)... DZO


      Date: 15-Sep-2005
      From: Louisa Willoughby <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
      Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-2270.html

      Louisa Willoughby, Language and Society Centre, Monash University

      INTRODUCTION

      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.

      SUMMARY

      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.

      CRITICAL EVALUATION

      "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

      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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