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The Education of English Language Learners: Research to Practice

reviewed by Welton Kwong - November 16, 2010

coverTitle: The Education of English Language Learners: Research to Practice
Author(s): Marilyn Shatz and Louise C. Wilkinson (eds.)
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 1606236598, Pages: 306, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Having served as an educator in various roles, initially as a teacher and currently as an administrator who supports adult learning, I have witnessed firsthand how much research on English language learners has burgeoned in the last decade, a stark contrast to a time not too long ago when ELD and sheltered instruction were ill-defined and practices were guided by little more than teacher intuition and best intentions. The Education of English Language Learners: Research to Practice, edited by Marilyn Shatz and Louise C. Wilson, then, can be considered a chronicle of this progress in recent years. At the same time, the purpose of the volume as stated by the editors is forward-looking: “Our purpose is to provide educators up-to-date, evidence-based information about how to educate children who have varied language background and limited experience in English… (and) to help redress the achievement gap…” (p. 1). Judging by the content of the self-contained chapters, ranging from neuroscience to programmatic recommendations, the intended audience includes practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers alike.

The first three chapters are devoted to early language experiences and school readiness. The authors explain in Chapter 1 that constant exposure to language shapes the anatomy of the brain and “determine(s) which neural connections are strengthened, retained, or discarded and leads to further acquisition of that language” (pg. 41). In accordance with neuroplasticity and the malleability of intelligence, the function and structure of the bilingual brain would be different from the monolingual brain precisely because of its experience with two languages. The implication is for teachers to encourage students to continue using their L1 while developing their L2. Chapter 2 is about early sequential bilinguals, defined as “children who acquire a single minority L1 at home with immersion in the majority community language (L2) beginning in childhood…” (p. 49). When children are provided language-rich environments, they will acquire stronger skills in English. However, the authors caution that “stronger” does not necessarily mean “good enough” for academic achievement. Oral language development plays an integral role in academic language development, while the continual development of L1 will help students “strengthen self-identity, social relationships, and long-term outcomes in English (L2)” (pg. 62). Chapter 3 functions as a challenge to the notion that code switching is a sign of linguistic deficiency. Rather, according to the authors, it ought to be considered a communication tactic and a way to negotiate identity.

Chapters 4-7 focus on language and literacy at the school level. By reviewing what is known about how words are learned, the author in Chapter 4 writes “the more words children already know, the more words they are likely to learn” (p. 103). While L2 exposure in school is crucial, the development of L1 helps children to link conceptual knowledge by making connections between their L1 and L2. The development of vocabulary requires multiple approaches with frequent review, as illustrated by teaching scripts in Table 4.1 (p. 101). Chapter 5 is a fascinating discussion of how differences in orthography and sound mapping systems influence a child in approaching a reading task in English. An example the author cites is Chinese students who “will find phoneme-level awareness very challenging” (p. 120) because in Chinese, sounds map at the syllabic level with less granularity than in English. Also affecting the transfer of reading skills is consistency or the extent to which sound and symbol are perfectly mapped. A third factor is the availability of English phonemes in the L1. That is, “the phonological characteristics of one’s native language appear to affect the degree to which literacy-related skills transfer between the child’s L1 and L2” (p. 117). A focus point in Chapter 6 is the ways in which bilingual children experience both advantages and disadvantages in reading. Due to a smaller vocabulary size, bilinguals would have a harder time with reading comprehension. However, children who experience two languages tend to outperform monolingual counterparts on cognitive tasks including those that require the use of working memory to manipulate information. Classroom teachers will likely find Chapter 7 most immediately relevant, as it discusses issues of curriculum and instruction. The author reminds us that the academic language necessary for school success is different from social and conversational language. Thus, discourse/text structure, vocabulary, grammar, spelling/conventions, and pronunciation must be explicitly taught.

Chapters 8-11 are devoted to issues on assessment and interaction with families. Chapter 8 is an explanation of how language is only a part of one’s larger communicative repertoire. The practical implication is for teachers to recognize and develop language and other means of communication (e.g., gestures) for a variety of social contexts and functions rather than focusing exclusively on correctness. The author in Chapter 9 explores why students do not acquire English at a reasonable pace for academic success and distinguishes between difficulties, delays, and disorders in learning a second language. A major challenge in assessing students to determine language impairment resides in the notion that processing problems and mistakes seen for monolingual learners often mirror the problems for typical L2 learners. In Chapter 10, the author underscores the importance of formative assessments and also highlights the need for assessments that measure the English encountered in schools. Additionally, existing assessments cannot adequately tell us whether low scores indicate the lack of content abilities or language proficiency. Finally, the current Home Language Survey (HLS) is described as potentially “the weakest link in the ELL assessment system,” as it may lead to over and under-identification. Instead, the author argues for information-rich surveys that directly inform instruction. The role of the home and family is the focus of Chapter 11. With insufficient data, clear guidelines for schools to promote home literacy in L1 or English are unavailable. However, what is clear and perhaps contrary to mythos is the fact that parents are willing partners in their children’s education.  

In many ways, this book affirms what seems intuitive, and the cross-cutting themes that surface are not necessarily new. For example, “English Language Development needs to be explicit” seems self-evident and has been discussed in other sources. Where the value of the book lies is in its communication of how much we do in fact know. We are also reminded that educating ELLs is extraordinarily complex, for it requires effective instruction, knowledgeable and resolute leadership, and collaborations in which professionals hold each other accountable to get better in the business of educating children. Due to the purview, certain essential dimensions of ELL education are absent from the volume; this is understandable. Still, with one-third of the volume devoted to younger children and early language experiences, I wish the editors had included more about the urgent needs specific to ELLs at the secondary level, especially those who are long-term learners. To be sure, the final chapter attempts to “pull it together” in furnishing guiding principles to support all ELLs. Yet, I still wonder, for instance, how the guidelines translate into the daily work of a 1st grade newcomer class versus a 9th grade long-term EL class. In the end though, what is clear is that we already have a solid knowledge base to begin redressing another gap—the knowledge-implementation gap. Once this gap is narrowed, so will the achievement gap.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 16, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16235, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 5:45:09 AM

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About the Author
  • Welton Kwong

    E-mail Author
    WELTON KWONG began his career in education as a high school teacher and currently works in the Bay Area as an administrator who supports professional learning in his school district. While his work centers on the education of English Language Learners, he facilitates professional learning communities and coaches teachers to improve learning for all students. His scholarly interests include adult development, educational leadership, and the role of language in organizations. He graduated from Columbia University, Teachers College in 2008 and currently instructs for the Summer Principals Academy program. Future plans include pursuing a doctorate in adult learning and organizational leadership.
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