The Reading Matrix
Vol. 3, No. 3, November 2003
What Teachers Need to Know
About Language (2002)
Adger, C.T., Snow, C. E., & Christian, D. (Eds.)
IL: Delta Systems
Reviewed by Kevin L. Landry
Catholic University of Korea
What Teachers Need to Know About Language includes
a chapter of the same name. Perhaps better renamed as Reactions
to linguistics in Teacher Education Programs , this
book is reacted to by several other authors making up the
additional chapters. Chapter one may have been better placed
at the end of the book so that the extensions from it,
could prepare the reader for its message. The rationale
behind needing to know about language seems to be to inform
educators so they can better understand their students.
Fillmore presses for more attention to language and literacy
in teacher education pre-service programs. Snow and Fillmore's
earlier paper was presented at a workshop and a video has
been developed (see www.WhyReadingIsHard.com ).
Chapter One is a revised version of their paper “What Teachers
need to know about Language.” They argue all teachers need
expertise about language as educators and for socialization.
Their outline considers both oral and written language
necessary requirements. The volume is rather short and
somewhat disappointing as language is dealt with in a very
Teacher education curricula are for all intents and purposes
bursting with content and it would be next to impossible
to achieve the required consensus to re-prioritize other
items. State requirements and limitations on time as well
as lack of faculty with linguistic training increase the
difficulties inherent in their suggestions. Work done in
standards, advancement of applicants, along with the possibility
of in-service credits may offer some means for fulfillment
of their proposals.
Our attention is
drawn to Standard English being the goal of students,
however respect for other variations such as Ebonics,
Spanish accented, or regional dialects has to be respected.
Teachers must act as communicators, educators, evaluators,
educated human beings, and agents of socialization (Fillmore & Snow,
2002, p.10). Communicators striving for clarity should
regard a student's language as useful rather than as
an inferior genre of English. Conversational patterns
differing from that of the mainstream deserve respect
and yet, institutions are expected to impose a movement
away from them towards academic English.
The authors propose designing classroom language that
the whole class can understand. Grouping should be flexible,
objective and related to the instructional target avoiding
biased divisions by culture. Knowing more about language
may allow instructional processes in the classroom to address
children's needs further. The book deals only with education
in the United States but admits there is wide variety throughout
the nation. Research done for Contrastive Analysis and
correcting errors is envisioned as the source for educating
the educators. However, these linguistic concepts are quite
dated themselves and call upon beliefs of Krashen's models
of acquisition and work done by Lado in the 1950's. Forcing
teacher trainers to rely on prescribed theories may not
be in the best interests of Teacher Education Programs.
The authors (Fillmore & Snow) seem to accept theories
as fact and neglect to realize that the linguistic field
contains a plethora of research: not all in agreement!
Simplified versions of linguistics designed for classroom
understanding sound to me as too narrow to do much good.
Just touching on certain studies gives the impression that
the truth has been proven but much of the research done
in the field is inconclusive. They mention order of acquisition
and code switching in such a way that the concepts seem
uncontested by others (e.g., Gass & Selinker, 1994;
Taylor, 1991 ) . Any inclusion of linguistic research needs
additional detail and should include other schools of thought.
The chapter advocates knowing how a first language interferes
with second language development but other research points
to a natural progression of acquisition making the suggestions
seem contradictory themselves. In addition, the authors
call for respecting students' vernacular but trying to
understand their efforts as errors simply reinforces the
idea that the language learners' use is wrong.
Deviation from academic forms of discourse seen as something
to correct is difficult to value especially while changing
it. If diversity is truly valued our ideas of correctness
may have to be expanded to include more that one interpretation
of Standard English as proper. Modifying accents, dialects
and attitudes is explained as showing respect for the student's
background but actually contributes to its alienation.
The authors' lexicon is well explained in the glossary
and the first chapter is helpful introducing the other
chapters. The following chapters are much more sensible
and give an insider's view of implementing curriculum changes
in teacher education.
Chapter Two is much better, dealing with credentials and
qualifications of caregivers for early childhood. Giving
each child an opportunity as if they were all equal deserves
merit. However, it becomes obvious a dichotomy exists as
home language, wealth and motivation are factors in a learner's
progress. The early years are shown to be probably the
most important and yet the status of taking care of young
learners is the lowest. Salaries are not as competitive
as other positions and little or no experience become acceptable
as other options are unavailable.
Chapter Three comments on Chapter One as do all the proceeding
ones too. The authors of Chapter Two agree and seem to
prefer syllabuses from the past to those of today. Standard
is defined as the flag that leads the way and makes for
a much nice picture than a list of requirements. We are
left wondering who teaches the teacher and whether the
pupils of today are any better than those of the past.
How can we become better teachers than our predecessors?
American universities are in an elevated situation today
and should infuse the educational system with teacher trainers
who have gained experience from other nations and their
systems. Programs on the other side of the Atlantic include
different emphasizes and may add a new dimension to enrich
the American landscape.
Richardson writes Chapter Four , dealing with knowledge
and criticizes the use of it in regards to Chapter One.
She sees simply teaching knowledge from linguists as ineffective.
Richardson calls for including practical content during
pre-service teacher education, as well as professional
development as after-service courses. There is such a restriction
on time that knowledge may have to wait until another time
besides initial training. Teachers need time to work in
their context and discover what they need themselves.
Chapter Five by Gollnick details the standards already
developed for teachers and is very informative. Agencies
and associations are well aware for the need of standards
but being all things to all people is not as easy as one
might expect. The NCATE (www.ncate.org), NCTE, and IRA
all have standards similar to Snow and Fillmore's recommendations.
How can dialects other than Academic English be respected
as they are being replaced? Multilingual, multi-dialectical,
and multicultural proficiencies are real skills and deserve
recognition as valuable resources.
Chapter Six by Feldman, on preparing
teachers, sees Standard English at the target language
but teachers are left with students who are expected
to “lead the horse to water and
make it drink.” Perhaps politicians should be blaming students
for their performance rather that pointing fingers at teachers.
Each context is unique and various situations lumped together
as one problem may not be the most effective way of finding
Although the initial paper was somewhat unrealistic, consideration
by other professionals in the collection have revealed
much about the profession of preparing teachers. There
are inherent difficulties involved when suggesting innovations
in teacher education programs. Snow ends the volume with
an Epilogue wishing for consensus but reveals the separate
authors of each chapter had not read each other's submissions.
Many of the themes are repeated but worthwhile for teacher
trainers and new teachers to become familiar with. Material
online ( www.rand.org/multi/achievementforall )
includes additional reports and responses on teacher education.
Specification of foundation skills to enter teacher education
and greater involvement of arts and sciences are discussed.
Teacher Trainers benefit from releasing the minimum teachers
require: Curiosity about words, positive attitude toward
linguistic analysis and willingness to learn about new
languages (Snow, 2002, p.129). Teachers and administrators
in countries other than the United States may also be interested
in this book to compare what is happening in their own
context and adapt it.
Other Publications are available from: www.cal.org/store
Gass, S. & Selinker,
L. (1994). Second
language acquisition: an introductory course, Hillsdale
, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Taylor, H. (1991). Ambivalence toward Black
English: some tentative solutions. The Writing Instructor,
10 (3), 121-135.