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
Pages 138
ISBN 1-887744-75-4
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 superficial manner.

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 solutions.

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

Works Cited

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.

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Kevin L. Landry is completing an MA in Linguistics (TESOL) through the University of Surrey and has a Certificate in TES/FL. He is currently a visiting professor at the Catholic University of Korea http://songsim.cuk.ac.kr/~ifle/ . He is the KOTESOL http://www.kotesol.org National Secretary and Facilitator of the Teacher Education & Development Special Interest Group.