Vol. 5. No. 4 R-8 March 2002
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Teaching ESL K-12: Views From the Classroom

Helene Becker with commentary from Else Hamayan (2001)
Boston: Heinle & Heinle
pp. ix + 229
ISBN 0-8384-7901-4 (paper)
U.S. $25.95

This is an important book in the field of ESL education. This is a very reader-friendly book that illuminates the realities faced by ESL teachers in their classrooms and their school every day. Experienced ESL practitioners as well as those newly entering the field will find this book useful and enlightening.

The author, Helene Becker, uses a unique and refreshing approach in the presentation of this book. First of all it is written from the perspective of a practicing teacher, with additional comments and scenarios by other ESL teachers in the field. For those of us in elementary or secondary education this gives true validity to this book.

Throughout the chapters there are side notes labeled "Frameworks" "Investigations" and "Teachers' Voices." These guides give the reader a clear understanding of the context.

In "Frameworks" Becker entails the meat of her discourse. The "Investigations" are literally that: suggestions for delving further into the topic just discussed. Becker also uses side notes as reference points to the topic at hand. I found this also very convenient.

As a teacher, I found the "Teachers' Voices" sections quite valuable. The teachers' comments themselves were on a wide array of situations. The fact that each teacher was identified by name and current place of employment also helped give a sense of reality and context to their comments.

The other interesting aspect of the framework of this book was the ongoing perspectives and comments made by Else Hamayan, an acknowledged teacher educator in her own right. Her role is to provide the theoretical basis for the pedagogical decisions and teaching strategies described by Becker and to provide a larger socio-political context for ESL in general. I felt that occasionally Else's comments were a little too much and that they were just there for the sake of saying something.

In chapter 2, all the complex aspects of designing an ESL curriculum were discussed as they pertain to the elementary and secondary levels, with the focus being on giving the ESL students as much content and academic skills as possible as they progress through their English language development.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the varying ESL program models used in elementary and secondary schools respectively. Her logical conclusion was that, because of the diversity in language proficiency and age grouping, one particular model was not best for all students. The realities of choices of models being made without the input of the ESL teachers and the budgetary constraints being put on many districts show the sad state of ESL programs in many areas. [-1-]

I was impressed to see that the special needs of the beginning level students were not glossed over, but openly discussed, including the possibility of stigmatization. The nightmare of class scheduling and the importance of the sheltered English content class were also highlighted. The topic of underprepared students and the underlying causes were also conveyed clearly. Throughout these chapters the vital importance of curriculum coordination was made very evident.

As an experienced ESL teacher at the elementary and middle school level, I very much appreciated the concrete examples given and the discussion of alternate views. It was refreshing to hear an author give the reality of the challenges faced by the ESL teachers and the students themselves, and not just echo the latest popular rhetoric.

A prime example of this was the discussion of where grammar fits in. It was satisfying to hear someone clearly state that "Because elementary and secondary schools are academic environments, ESL teachers need to be concerned with accuracy in students' speech and writing, As students continue on through the elementary and secondary grades and beyond, they are expected to produce oral and written work that is as grammatically correct as possible." (p. 33) Another example of this reality is in Chapter 3 during the discussion of elementary programs and the strengths and weaknesses of each. The pullout model, the inclusion model, and the team-teaching model were all candidly discussed.

Chapter 5, on assessment, explores the issues of program, or district level, assessments, as well as the variety of traditional classroom assessments used. The need for ESL programs to establish consistent procedures for the benefit of the students and the teachers was clearly expounded. Becker presents a very clear discussion of listening/speaking and reading/writing assessments and the importance and usage of each, and in a very positive light. The section on determining if an assessment is accurate enough to warrant mainstream classes for a student was also very helpful.

I was impressed to see that Becker dealt with the more traditional types of classroom testing (multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blanks) head on. It was refreshing to hear someone give the positive aspects of these basic forms of classroom assessment, that is that these methods do actually give the students an opportunity to show some measurable means of the progress they have made. Also the fact that using these methods is one means of exposing the ESL students to these types of tests and provide them an avenue for practicing before they encounter them in the mainstream classroom.

I was equally impressed that Becker makes a point by stating that ESL students should also be assessed in Math, because it is not merely computation, but the language structures involved. The emphasis on placement, monitoring, and exiting is clear and logical. The section on test-taking strategies was very informative as well. The candid discussion on how to grade ESL students and the criteria that needs to be considered, whether in the content classes or not, is something that needs to said. She presented clearly both sides of the discussion, along with her own feeling. I found the section on Grading Policy Guidelines (p. 146) very helpful.

Her insistence that there should be a total picture of each ESL student exhibited quite a lot of common sense, another aspect favorable to this book as a whole. By coupling this section with the section on alternative assessment, Becker has covered the entire field. Collaboration with grade level/content area teachers she stressed as being of utmost importance.

The ESL student and Special Education is dealt with in Chapter 6. This topic is one that cannot be pushed to the back any longer and Becker does an excellent job presenting it clearly and objectively. There is a chart that displays items dealing with the characteristics that could be mistaken for learning disorders and behavioral disorders in ESL students, that gives a very concise representation of the factors affecting these decisions.

The problems of over-referring and under-referring, as well as the factors dealing with IQ tests are clearly expounded as well. This is one section where Else's perspective does add a lot to the discussion. Decisions to refer an ESL student should be made collaboratively, with all of the teachers having input and only after a comprehensive study of the student involved has been completed. [-2-]

Becker outlines something she calls the "Preferral Process." This process goes step-by-step through a consideration of all of the factors, both internal and external, which may be affecting a particular ESL student's learning and behavior. I feel I actually learned the most from this chapter because, as many other ESL educators, I am not well versed in the area of Special Education, yet I increasingly see ESL students coming in who are prime candidates for evaluation in this area.

Chapter 7 deals with the issue of parental involvement. Becker gives a clear rationale for the importance of the parent in the child's education. She also touches on some of the linguistic and cultural factors that affect this involvement. She outlines briefly a myriad of suggestions for ways to aid the parents in getting more involved in their schooling, touching on everything from transportation to at-home activities. Else's perspective here validates Becker's call for a "genuine valuing of and respect for the parents of ESL students." (p. 178) and reiterates the importance of creating a true multicultural environment in the school.

The very important role of the ESL teacher in Professional development is discussed in Chapter 8. Becker goes through the usual routes of workshops, presentations articles, and handouts. As one who has desperately tried to educate my staff, the section on study groups seemed most appealing.

"Lessons From My Students" is the title of Chapter 9, and, as usual, this is the most heart-warming section of any teacher book. Becker states that it is truly from our students that we learn the most. It was refreshing to hear Else, as a teacher educator, confirm these words.

Becker's writing style is concise and to the point. This book is not burdened with cumbersome expositions. This book contains helpful appendices and an extensive bibliography. I found the side-notes most helpful as I read, especially for referencing additional information on a topic. A listing of suggested readings follows each chapter.

This is an important book for educators for the simple reason that it is a real account of practicing ESL teachers in the elementary and secondary settings. It is equally important for teacher educators in order to gain a feel for the issues and challenges faced by these practitioners each and every day. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in the realities of ESL education.

William Menz
University of Cincinnati, Ohio

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page