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Multicultural and Multilingual Literacy and Language: Contexts and Practices

reviewed by Joan Parker-Webster - 2005

coverTitle: Multicultural and Multilingual Literacy and Language: Contexts and Practices
Author(s): Fenice B. Boyd, Cynthia H. Brock, with Mary S. Rozendal, Editors
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 157230961X, Pages: 338, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

As a reflective educator or researcher you have probably held or even stated one or more of the following beliefs or principles:

One size fits all literacy instruction and assessment does not fit all.

Effective teachers build on children’s prior experience and the personal, cultural and community knowledge they bring with them to school.

We cannot successfully foster learning within a deficit model of education, which views children’s backgrounds as lacking and responsible for the “achievement gap” defined by standardized test scores.

These ideas are not new. Yet, for the many culturally, linguistically and ethnically diverse students who continue to rapidly fill classrooms all over the United States this litany of what many teachers recite as solid principles for literacy instruction is played out in a different reality. This reality contains standardized reading programs and curriculum materials that reflect the dominant cultural world view, delivered through a pedagogical model that views students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds as interfering with rather than contributing to and enriching all students’ learning. These important issues are addressed in the chapters in Multicultural and Multilingual Literacy and Language: Contexts and Practices. The editors, Fenice Boyd and Cynthia Brock, with Mary Rozendal, bring together the voices of a variety of authors who present different ways to promote learning for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

In the introduction, the editors provide a compelling, even if familiar rationale for their book, namely the pedagogical gap or “mismatch” that occurs between students from diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and their “90% European American teachers, primarily women from working- and middle-class backgrounds, who speak only English” (pp. 2). This issue of “mismatch” provides the backdrop for the questions that the editors begin to answer in their introduction: Does the mismatch between the children and teachers in

U.S. schools matter? What might the changing student demographics mean for multicultural and multilingual literacy and language practices? What might all of these changes mean for children in U.S. schools, for children from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds who are learning to speak English? What knowledge about ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity do educators and scholars need to serve students more effectively? The chapters in the volume then provide more detailed ways in which teachers and their students are addressing these complex questions.

To begin to answer the questions, the editors first anchor the book within a sociocultural framework that is centered in the Vygotskian notion that human thought originates in and is constituted by language-based social interactions with others. The chapters are organized around what are identified as four foundational themes in literacy instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse students. Part I, containing the first three chapters, comprises the first theme, Language, Texts, and Contexts. Specifically, these three chapters address issues related to language variations that children speak and write and the influence this has on their English literacy learning, text features that support literacy development for ELLs, and classroom participation structures that provide opportunities for ELL literacy learning. Part II, Chapters 4 through 7, constitute the second theme, Teacher Ideologies and Motivation for Change. In these four chapters teachers and teacher educators describe how they changed their beliefs and practices to improve their ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse students’ literacy learning. Part III, Students’ Voices on Issues of Literacy Learning and Diversity, brings student voices into the conversation about language and literacy as they describe their own literacy learning across a variety of classroom contexts. Finally, the chapters in Part IV, Out-of-Classroom Influences on Literacy Learning, explore ways in which literacy practices are shaped by outside influences ranging from state and district mandates, such as high-stakes testing and professional development programs, to cultural and community contexts, such home and church.

The primary strength of this text is the wide range of learning contexts, approaches to literacy instruction, and diversity of perspectives represented, which, for the most part, work together as a whole to reflect the editors’ conceptual framework and organization into themes. The contexts across chapters range from pre-Kindergarten to university level classrooms and the instructional approaches include a variety of language modes and multiple literacies. The chapters reflect the perspectives of teachers, teacher-educators, community members, and students. For example, in several chapters, teachers tell stories about how they implement literacy instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse students. These chapters provide practical guidelines for teaching students how to interact with and respond to texts, using discussion groups, instructional conversations, read-alouds, drama, and literature that contains text features specifically geared toward ELL needs. Teachers and teacher educators also reflect on their journeys of examining their beliefs and the resulting changes to instructional approaches they employ for diverse students. These chapters tell stories of change through different perspectives that include European American teachers and teacher educators making changes to meet the needs of children of color, and a teacher of color, who had experienced racism herself, making the decision to teach from a multicultural perspective to raise awareness in her European American students. Teacher educators also address policy and programmatic level issues as they present the underlying issues of anti-bilingual mandates, poverty, and lack of institutional resources and their effects on culturally and linguistically diverse students’ learning. Another chapter tells the stories of teachers who experience the effects of high-stakes testing on curriculum and the influence this policy has on their diverse student population. Still another is told from the perspective of district educators who promote change through professional development designed to help teachers deliver a district-wide comprehensive literacy program. There are also chapters that include students’ perspectives on their literacy learning through reflective conversation and writing as well as perspectives from literacy “teachers” outside of the school context.

As stated previously, these chapters generally work together within the theoretical framework set out by the editors. However, individual chapter placement within the thematic organization of the chapters seems contrived in some instances. For example, the chapter, Listening to Inner-City Teachers of English Language Learners: Differentiating Literacy Instruction, is included in the theme dealing with teachers’ changing beliefs. While various examples illustrating differentiation of instruction by teachers and teachers’ inclusion of the parents’ and community cultural knowledge in their classrooms may have resulted from a change in their beliefs, this is not explicit nor does it seems a theme in the chapter. The focus seems to be more on how teachers differentiate their instruction and the outside factors that contribute to why this is a need for culturally and linguistically diverse students. This chapter could just as easily fit in either Part I, Language, Texts, and Contexts, or Part IV, Out-of-Classroom Influences on Literacy Learning.

Similarly, Chapter 11, Parallel Development of Writing in English and German, is contained in Part III, Students’ Voices on Issues of Literacy Learning and Diversity. While there are examples of one bilingual student’s emergent writing to illustrate her writing development, the “voice” is really that of the teacher and does not seem to fit with the other chapters that contain reflective comments by students about their literacy learning experiences.

There is also some unevenness exhibited in theoretical arguments and methodological designs within some of the chapters. For example, in the chapter, Reader Response, Culturally Familiar Literature, and Reading Comprehension, while the author makes good points concerning the importance of response based in personal experience for children’s construction of meaning from a text, there are some inconsistencies regarding Rosenblatt’s distinction between aesthetic and efferent. While these represent two stances that readers can take while reading literature, this is not always an either/or situation. Rather, the reader moves along a continuum that involves foregrounding and backgrounding each stance as she is reading a text. In other words, even as I am reading a text, I can be taking away information gleaned from the text, for example, about the character’s motives or time and place of the setting, as well as making a personal connection to the text (e.g. I may have experienced similar motives to those of the character in the story.). The author makes a good point that using culturally congruent literature can evoke more aesthetic responses and help students make connections for increased comprehension. However, the statement, “In their retellings, the students demonstrated that they were able to recall and support the main idea of the story with a significant amount of written details” (p. 204) seems to illustrate the point that readers read text from both stances, along a continuum. In other words, as the statement implies, students were able to take away with them (efferent stance) the main idea and details to support the retelling of the events of the story.

In another chapter, Teaching Language Arts from a Multicultural Perspective, the author describes her goals of “teaching from a multicultural perspective” (p. 134). To meet this goal, the author redesigned the reading lessons that accompany stories in a literature anthology. “My main goal in redesigning the reading lesson was to empower my students to read critically and recognize cultural biases that are often embedded in literature selections” (p. 134). The story, “Princess” from Nicholasa Mohr’s book, El Bronx Remembered, is used to implement and illustrate this goal. The story is about Mrs. Morales, a widowed mother of four, living on public assistance, who must buy groceries on credit in order to survive. When the store owner’s dog, Princess, dies after eating a spoiled can of beans that Mrs. Morales tried to return for another fresher can, an argument forces Mrs. Morales to find another grocery store, which sells on credit, but is farther away from her home. The points made by the author of the chapter are that readers can take away stereotypes from the text, such as Hispanics are poor or they eat beans and rice all the time, or Hispanic women have lots of kids. While these may be perceived as stereotypes, there are two questions that must be asked. First, does the perception that this text contains stereotyping such that it becomes the focus of instruction obscure the realities of the social issues—poverty, inadequate public funding systems for those in need, high interest rates for those who must buy on credit, and so forth—that are underlying such “stereotypical” statements? And, second, can an insider’s perspective, such as Mohr’s really be described in terms of stereotyping? I wonder if a story written from an outsider’s perspective about another culture would be more appropriate to critically analyze for stereotypical plots and characterizations?

These inconsistencies notwithstanding, this text on the whole provides a wide range of perspectives on literacy teaching and learning for ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse students. The chapters address important issues that are critical to today’s multicultural and multilingual classrooms and, as such, have the potential to extend the conversation among educators and researchers on these important issues for ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse students, their parents, and their communities. The text will be a useful addition to both undergraduate and graduate courses in language, literacy, and reading.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1474-1478
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11414, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:59:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Joan Parker-Webster
    University of Alaska Fairbanks
    E-mail Author
    DR. JOAN PARKER WEBSTER is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy and Reading at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is author of several articles on multicultural education, reading comprehension and culturally responsive curriculum as well as a book titled Teaching through culture: Reading and responding to young Adult literature. Her new book, Learning to question the word and the world: Critical literacies in the classroom, will be published Fall 2005.
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