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Keep it R.E.A.L.! Relevant, Engaging, and Affirming Literacy for Adolescent English Learners

reviewed by Tammy Ellis-Robinson & Jessica Coles - April 04, 2018

coverTitle: Keep it R.E.A.L.! Relevant, Engaging, and Affirming Literacy for Adolescent English Learners
Author(s): Mary Amanda Stewart
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758701, Pages: 168, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Keep it R.E.A.L.! Relevant, Engaging and Affirming Literacy for Adolescent English Learners, Mary Amanda Stewart shares the theoretical basis for a practical and proactive leveraging of academic success using holistic literacy and language development for adolescent English language learners. Integrating details of her experiences with a comprehensive theoretical basis, Stewart recommends practices and provides resources for teachers of multilingual students. Stewart addresses a vital question within the contemporary education system: How can educators support and facilitate the literacy of bilingual learners? Stewarts pedagogy is asset-based and built on equity and cultural sustainability (Paris, 2012).

Stewart delineates the features and benefits of effective instruction under the R.E.A.L. (Relevant, Engaging, Affirming Literacy) approach by sharing anecdotal accounts of her experiences. She describes how including relevant topics, engaging materials, and methods that affirm students experiences and strengths can all be embedded in literacy instruction in order to develop language skills and a love of literacy. Stewart shares a combination of theoretical support and case study analysis of her own holistic work with multilingual learners to present a well-defined blueprint for literacy practice with these students.

Stewart engages readers by integrating details of her classroom experiences with three theories: Reader Response Theory, Second Language Acquisition Theory, and Bilingual Literacy Theory. Anchoring the practices in established theory helps validate the combination of practices. Though the theories may be understood separately, Stewarts work as a teacher and researcher illustrates how they can work together. She explains how the theories can be applied in the planning and execution of literacy instruction with multilingual learners and their logical connection to three important goals: literacy, second language development, and bilingual development. The integration of these goals is a particularly important consideration in the development of culturally sustaining pedagogy for students. Emphasizing the benefits provided by bilingualism affirms the value of students knowledge of their first language (L1) in combination with learning English. By addressing this potential, Stewart provides a clear and practical approach that rejects any deficit ideology or assumptions of cultural inferiority (Gorski, 2010) and establishes a focus on the value of being a multilingual student.

Stewart focuses on several tools for developing literacies, including book choices, L1 book clubs, group translations, and the availability of a varied and authentic collection of reading materials that will be significant to students and thereby engage them in the learning process. Many of these are recognizable as literacy practices for English speakers that have been adapted with language supports and culturally responsive planning. Encouraged in the R.E.A.L. approach is the inclusion of students cultures as a central focus of the curriculum to build literacy skills. Stewart addresses the importance of validating students experiences and building community with groups of learners to promote growth and understanding while building literacy. The examples of a number of students Stewart has worked with in literacy workshops, as well as experiences shared by teachers she has met and observed, provide insights and examples of how the instructional methods have been positively received by language learners. The methods for promoting language and literacy allow students to be a resource in their own learning. Each anecdote focuses on the value of interpersonal relationships to assist the learning process and the inherent benefits of the diverse cultures and languages that students bring to the table.

A useful feature of the text is the summary of resources presented at the end of each chapter. Included are details and citations of specific materials and activities that can be used in the classroom. The wealth of resources and book lists in the text will provide teachers of multilingual students with a number of invaluable tools to support a variety of languages. Using asset-based language, Stewart affirms students cultural and language identities throughout the book as well as in the comprehensive glossary. Emergent bilingual, second language (L2), first language (L1), Bi-literacy development, English-medium classrooms, students with interrupted formal education, surface culture, deep culture, academic language, long-term English learner, and subtractive schooling are just a few of the terms Stewart defines for the reader. Defining key terms provides the common language needed to describe the difficult work of disrupting deficit-based teaching ideologies, and expands the current educational vocabulary used in and about schools.

Stewart presents a clear philosophy that empowers, celebrates, and models an approach for building English and biliteracy skills which is embedded in equitable and respectful practice. Though the ideas are accessible and adaptable, many of Stewarts examples and suggestions are based on her experience running a summer support program with English language learners where she had the freedom to completely develop her own curriculum. This leaves one to imagine how these methods might best be incorporated in existing classrooms where standard curriculum might be required. Nevertheless, the breadth of her examples suggests that with thoughtful planning and the use of the many resources she provides, a similar approach of using L1 to promote L2 development will be possible in most settings. The overarching R.E.A.L. approach can be seen as a flexible framework to guide literacy instruction for multilingual students across settings.

Keep it R.E.A.L. is a highly accessible and practical text that will be a valuable resource for teachers of multilingual students. Clear guidance for the development of literacy as an empowering tool to help students learn, grow, develop relationships, and achieve success is provided throughout the text. Compared to other texts in the field that address the importance of affirming pedagogical practices and instructional responses to linguistic diversity in classrooms, Keep it R.E.A.L. is an especially useful tool for the education professionals tool box. The practical and concise recommendations informed by asset-based ideology make it a helpful reference for novice and experienced educators alike.


Gorski, P. (2011). Unlearning deficit ideology and the scornful gaze: Thoughts on authenticating the class discourse in education. In R. Ahlquist, P. Gorski, & T. Montaño (Eds.), Assault on kids: How hyper-accountability, corporatization, deficit ideology, and Ruby Payne are destroying our schools (pp. 152176). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 9397.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 04, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22324, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 10:58:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Tammy Ellis-Robinson
    University at Albany
    E-mail Author
    TAMMY ELLIS-ROBINSON is coordinator of the adolescent generalist certificate and the instructional support specialist in the special education division at the University at Albany. Her research interests include writing for students with disabilities, reflective skill and collaboration, and cross-category cultural competence. Her current projects include the use of bio-poems to support theory of mind development, assessment and development of reflective skills for collaboration, and effective teaching and cultural competence in pre-service teachers.
  • Jessica Coles
    University at Albany
    E-mail Author
    JESSICA COLES is a doctoral special education leadership research fellow at the University at Albany. She is a certified literacy teacher and special educator. She has spent the majority of her teaching career in self-contained special education classrooms. Her research is focused on improving the education experiences of marginalized youth within the American educational system by revolutionizing teacher preparation programs and ensuring they are rooted in culturally sustainable pedagogy. She is currently working on a study that explores perceptions of culturally responsive practices in high schools.
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