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What Teachers Need to Know about Language

reviewed by Sharon Ulanoff - 2004

coverTitle: What Teachers Need to Know about Language
Author(s): Carolyn T. Adger, Catherine E. Snow, and Donna Christian (editors)
Publisher: Delta Systems Co., Inc., McHenry
ISBN: 1887744754, Pages: 138, Year: 2002
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Given the changing demographics of today’s classrooms, teachers are increasingly being called upon to teach students from a variety of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds (Hobbs and Stoops, 2002). Teachers often find themselves teaching students to read and write in a language they do not yet understand or in a language variety that is different from the Standard English used in schools nationwide. Furthermore, students in today’s classrooms often come to school with differing amounts and kinds of experiences with language and literacy (Heath, 1983).

What Teachers Need to Know About Language is an important addition to the dialogue surrounding teacher knowledge and development, specifically in the context of language and literacy education.  It is an excellent resource for teacher educators, curriculum developers, and program developers. The idea for the book evolved during discussions between Catherine Snow and Lily Wong Fillmore at an international conference and grew into a dialogue among researchers concerning the appropriate knowledge base for teachers to become to effective language and literacy teachers.

This book contains a series of chapters, the first one by Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine Snow discussing critical points within the framework of preparing teachers to work in increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse classrooms. The following five chapters respond to Fillmore and Snow within the contexts of a variety of issues: early childhood education, second language learning, teacher knowledge, teacher performance standards, and teacher preparation. In the epilogue, Catherine Snow summarizes the discussion.

In the first chapter Fillmore and Snow argue that teachers are not well prepared to deal with linguistic diversity in their classrooms because they do not receive adequate training in what they term educational linguistics. The authors list five critical teacher roles: communicator, educator, evaluator, human being and agent of socialization (p. 10), and outline requisite content to teach about language, including the basic units of oral language, written language, and issues of Standard English vs. vernacular dialects. They conclude the chapter with an extensive list of courses on language and linguistics that prospective teachers need in order to be effective language and literacy teachers.

In Chapter Two, Sue Bredekamp explores the role of language in early childhood programs and not only echoes the concerns delineated in chapter one, but gives explicit examples that illustrate an even greater need for language study for teachers who work with very young children. She describes difficulties associated with specifying requirements for such teachers given varied programs and requirements and concludes by describing important themes of study for early childhood education teachers, including oral language development and encounters with written language.

Leonard Baca and Kathy Escamilla address the needs of second language learners in Chapter Three. Examining language knowledge issues from the perspective of bilingual/ESL educators who are often constrained by state policies, Baca and Escamilla argue that there is a need to look beyond the scope of traditional teacher education programs for support in teaching educational linguistics. This is especially true given restrictions imposed on such programs in relation to the new standards-based curriculum effort at both national and state levels. While they maintain support for the concepts described by Fillmore and Snow, they struggle to find ways to include such content in their own programs. They suggest that teacher education programs need further  to address issues of teacher beliefs regarding second language learners in order to dispel myths that many teachers have regarding language acquisition and development, and they call for increased support from professional organizations.


In Chapter Four, Virginia Richardson situates her response to Fillmore and Snow in the context of teacher knowledge. She discusses the relationships that exist between formal knowledge, discipline knowledge, foundational knowledge, and practical knowledge and how these relationships occur in practice. She argues that given the constraints placed on most programs’ course lineups and content, it would be impossible to add all the recommended courses. Richardson suggests a focus on specific themes and proposes that teacher education programs cover as much as possible and develop links to ongoing professional development for practicing teachers.


In Chapter Five, Donna Gollnick argues that it is unrealistic to think that the proposed additional coursework in educational linguistics can actually be added to teacher education programs given the various constraints placed on them by individual states. Situating her response in the context of national standards, she agrees with the other authors that teachers need professional skills as well as the content and knowledge of pedagogy (p. 105) necessary to facilitate learning for all students in their classrooms. While supporting the importance of educational linguistics, especially for elementary, bilingual, ESL, and reading teachers, she feels it is overly optimistic to expect all teachers to learn all the skills proposed in Chapter One.


Sandra Feldman, in Chapter Six, agrees that teachers need to understand language development but ponders how the proposed courses would be added to existing teacher education programs. She positions her response within a framework of reading education, listing as one possibility a core curriculum proposed by the American Federation of Teachers that focuses on initial literacy instruction and the structure of English, but pays limited attention to specific content related to language acquisition and development. She suggests that the reform of teacher education programs is necessary to explore ways to include courses related to educational linguistics.


In the epilogue Catherine Snow sums up the reasons for this book and presents the reader with an overview of the historical context of the national discussion related to knowledge and skills necessary for teachers. She discusses the ongoing debate regarding limited time spent teaching about language in teacher education programs and acknowledges that there are immense challenges inherent in proposing such changes to these programs. She suggests that, at the very minimum, teachers need to have a set of tools available to help them evaluate new situations they come across in their teaching and a framework on which to build their knowledge (p. 130), in order that they will be able to make effective decisions and recommendations regarding students who demonstrate varying proficiency levels in English.


Catherine Snow states at the end of the book that one goal for this volume was to provoke discussion to inform the debate on what teachers need to know about language (p. 130). This book does an excellent job of describing the issues and promoting debate on the realities of implementing programmatic change that would include educational linguistics so that teachers would enter the field with adequate knowledge to meet the needs of their students. The strength of this text lies in the way that it explores the issues from a variety of perspectives and effectively situates the debate within important contexts related to teaching and learning. This book is an excellent reader for a graduate class in teacher education, as it would serve to trigger powerful conversations related to teacher competence and educational reform. It will also serve as a wonderful resource for curriculum developers and those involved in the reform of teacher education programs.


Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbs, F. and Stoops, N. (2002). Demographic trends in the 21st century: Census 2000 special reports. Washington, DC. US Census Bureau. Retrieved July 9, 2003 from http://www.census.gov/population/www/cen2000/briefs.html#sr

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 251-254
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11173, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 10:10:03 PM

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About the Author
  • Sharon Ulanoff
    California State University, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    SHARON H. ULANOFF is an Associate Professor of Elementary Reading and Bilingual Education at California State University, Los Angeles, and coordinator the Graduate Programs in Reading. Her research interests include sociocultural contexts of language and literacy development, inquiry-based instruction, and the use of narrative reflection in diverse, urban settings. She is currently involved in a project examining effective practices for second language learners in a multiage, urban classroom. Her recent publications include "Learning words from books: The effects of read aloud on second language vocabulary acquisition" in Bilingual Research Journal (2001) and "Designing programs for the 21st century: Practice and research informing program development for English learners, pre-service teachers, and teacher educators" in P. Larke and N. Carter (Eds.). Examining Practices in Multicultural Education Courses.
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