Vol. 7. No. 3 R-3 December 2003
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What Teachers Need to Know About Language

Carolyn Temple Adger, Catherine E. Snow, & Donna Christian (Eds.) (2002)
Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics; McHenry, IL: Delta Systems
Pp. vi + 138
ISBN 1-887744-75-4 (paper)

There is no shortage of proposed remedies for the ills of U. S. public education. They include more phonics teaching, or more testing, or more qualified teachers. The calls for more qualified teachers include more subject area knowledge, or more classroom management skills, and now, in this book, more knowledge about language. The book grew from a conversation between Catherine Snow (Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education, Harvard University) and Lily Wong Fillmore (Professor of Language, Literature, and Cultural Studies, University of California, Berkeley) "about the escalating demands that the educational system in the United States places on teachers without giving them the support they need to meet those demands" (p. 1). The conversation resulted in a paper; the paper spawned a workshop; and the workshop became a videotape with viewers' guide and a Web page (http://www.cal.org/wrih/). This book contains an expanded version of the paper, followed by responses from prominent figures in various educational domains, including implications for the areas in which they work.

Fillmore and Snow's Proposal

Why is it important for teachers to know more about language? Fillmore and Snow answer this question in the first chapter, "What Teachers Need to Know About Language." They discuss the challenges teachers face because of increasing numbers of English language learners (ELLs), vernacular dialect speakers, and students from different cultural backgrounds. At the same time, "society has raised by quite a few notches the educational bar that all children in the United States, including newcomers, must clear in order to complete school successfully" (p. 8). Fillmore and Snow claim that teachers could meet these challenges much more effectively if they knew more about language.

To show how important knowledge about language is in teaching, Fillmore and Snow outline the understandings about language that are required by some of the many roles teachers play:

Fillmore and Snow provide a list of 11 questions that all teachers (as well as administrators and educational researchers) should be able to answer. There are six questions about oral language:

Five other questions relate to written English:

Each question is followed by a short description of the knowledge about language that is required in order to be able to answer it.

Finally, Fillmore and Snow offer a list of seven possible courses or course components that would cover all the knowledge about language that they believe is required. They acknowledge that their proposal is idealistic, and that they did not consider the practical constraints of teacher education programs as they developed it.

Responses to the Proposal

Those constraints are presented very clearly in the remaining chapters of the book, which provide five responses to the Fillmore and Snow paper, each from a different perspective, plus an epilogue by Catherine Snow.

In chapter 2, "Language and Early Childhood Programs," Sue Bredekamp (Director of Research, Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition) argues that because of factors such as minimal state standards for early childhood education teachers, low pay, low prestige, and high turnover rates, the vision presented in the first chapter is unattainable in that field. She also points out that early childhood teachers need additional information relating to children from birth to age 5, particularly about pre-school second language acquisition and the role that adults play in early language acquisition. Her suggestions for improving the situation include integrating knowledge about language into existing discipline areas in early childhood teacher preparation, and improving pay, respect, and qualifications for early childhood teachers [-2-]

Leonard Baca (Professor of Bilingual Special Education, University of Colorado, Boulder) and Kathy Escamilla (Associate Professor of Social, Bilingual, and Educational Foundations, University of Colorado, Boulder) begin chapter 3, "Educating Teachers About Language," by talking about the clash between Fillmore and Snow's proposal and the reality of state policies that limit the amount of coursework that can be required for initial teacher certification. Although their discussion is specific to Colorado, other states have similar policies. Their comments include a call for better teaching about language at all levels, not just in teacher education; the possibility of using standards in the original sense of the word, "as the flag that leads the way, giving direction at the head of a procession" (p. 74); and the need to address misconceptions about second language acquisition. Possible solutions to the issue of not having enough time to include extra coursework in preservice teacher education, and distributing knowledge about language across existing teacher education courses.

Virginia Richardson (Chair of Educational Studies and Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education, University of Michigan) uses definitions of teacher knowledge to frame her discussion in chapter 4, "Teacher Knowledge About Language." She explains that teacher knowledge can be either experiential or philosophical; philosophical knowledge includes beliefs and knowledge; knowledge may be either practical or formal; and formal knowledge may be discipline knowledge or foundational knowledge. The kind of knowledge about language that Fillmore and Snow call for is foundational knowledge--knowledge that is not part of the formal preK-12 curriculum, but "surrounds and influences the teaching act" (p. 89). Her concerns about foundational knowledge include the depth of understanding required for it to be useful, the question of when and how it should be introduced, and the fact that it's not clear how it is related to teaching action. In addition, not all the knowledge described by Fillmore and Snow could be included in the preservice curriculum. Richardson suggests three approaches: covering as much of the information as possible in the undergraduate curriculum and hoping they remember it, organizing the undergraduate curriculum around practical themes that cut across foundational areas (including language), and providing professional development that uses foundational knowledge to question, explain, and justify practical knowledge.

In chapter 5, "Incorporating Linguistic Knowledge in Standards for Teacher Performance" Donna Gollnick (Senior Vice President, National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education [NCATE]) reminds readers of the importance of teaching Standard English as an additional language or dialect, not as a replacement for the native language and dialect. She notes that NCATE has required that teachers be prepared to teach diverse students for 25 years, so the issue now is adding additional preparation for language and literacy learning. She also asserts that there is no time in teacher education programs for more courses, and suggests revising the teacher education curriculum to focus on output (teacher performance) rather than input (courses), developing five-year programs, and working to plug the gaps in existing national standards for elementary, reading, and English teachers. [-3-]

In chapter 6, "Preparing Teachers to Guide Children's Language Development," Sandra Feldman (President, American Federation of Teachers [AFT]) relates the Fillmore and Snow proposal to the AFT's continuing initiative on reform of teacher education to ensure that teachers have the knowledge and skills necessary to teach all students to read successfully. Part of this initiative is the development of a core curriculum based on effective methods and research into how students learn. The problems she sees with the proposal include the fact that requirements can't be added to teacher preparation programs without eliminating or altering other content; knowledge about language is not required by state licensing exams or course requirements; and education faculty don't have the expertise to teach linguistics, while arts and sciences faculty don't want to teach education courses. Her recommendations are that teaching as a profession be strengthened, that the teaching profession adopt a core curriculum, and that the Fillmore and Snow proposal be included in the work AFT is doing on core education content with the National Academy of Education.

In an epilogue, Catherine Snow recounts current efforts at reform of teacher education. She then addresses the "expanded dimensions of these issues" (p. 125) that were suggested by the responses to the proposal. They include the lack of time in teacher preparation programs, the amount and kind of knowledge needed, the need to do some of this as professional development, and the need for policy levers to call attention to the issues. She suggests collaboration between education faculty and arts and sciences faculty to co-teach educational linguistics courses, and the establishment of first benchmarks covering minimum needs, while providing the rest of the needed knowledge about language through professional development.

A Synthesis

Because of the importance of the proposal, I will discuss the problems inherent in implementing it and the suggested solutions to those problems, rather than evaluating the book per se. However, there is one glaring omission in the book that must be mentioned: nowhere is there any reference to the No Child Left Behind Act, which increases exponentially the pressure put on teachers to ensure that all students succeed. It's true that this legislation was not signed until January, 2002, and the book has a 2002 copyright. However, the legislation was discussed for many months before it was signed into law, and its importance for the topic of this book that so great that it should have received at least a footnote.

None of the respondents to the Fillmore and Snow paper claim that it is not necessary for teachers to have the kind of knowledge about language that its authors propose, yet all of them cite lack of time in teacher education programs as an impediment to achieving it. Does this mean that because educational linguistics, having come late to request time in the teacher education curriculum, cannot now be included? Does it imply that other existing curriculum content is more necessary than knowledge about language? Or is it simply that once a teacher education curriculum is in place, there is too much inertia to change it? These may all be factors in the difficulty of implementing this proposal, but I believe there is a deeper impediment. People with no training in language often hold an implicit belief that everybody is an "expert" on language because everybody has learned at least one language. In this view, there is no need for teachers to have any kind of specialized knowledge about language. Fillmore and Snow cite the debate over issues such as bilingual education and Ebonics as examples of why teachers need more knowledge about language, but these issues are also examples of why most people, including those who make decisions about the curriculum of teacher education, don't believe this kind of knowledge is necessary. [-4-]

Most of the respondents suggest getting around the problem of lack of time in the teacher education curriculum by distributing the content of the educational linguistics material across existing disciplines. However, one of the other impediments cited is lack of faculty to teacher educational linguistics courses; education faculty aren't qualified in linguistics, and linguistics faculty view education courses as "watered down." If there are no qualified faculty to teach separate educational linguistics courses, how can the course content be effectively included in courses taught by faculty in other educational disciplines? Even if qualified faculty were found, there is no reason to believe that it would be any easier to add more material to existing courses than it would be to add more courses to existing curricula.

Nor is there any reason to believe that adding information about language to teacher preparation programs would have an effect on practice. We need to keep in mind Richardson's concerns about the nature of foundational knowledge and the fact that we don't know what relationship it has to teaching practice. Because of this, any solution must start with the nature of the knowledge itself, and then consider external constraints. Perhaps a workable solution lies in combining Richardson's suggestions with some of the others. I will outline how this might be done, organizing my discussion around each of Richardson's three suggestions.

  1. "Cover as much content as possible during preservice teacher education so that some of these constructs may stick, to be called upon in times of need" (p. 96). Snow suggests the establishment of a first benchmark comprising the minimum that teachers need: "familiarity with the dimensions on which words and languages might vary and an unrelenting willingness to learn more" (p. 130). Support for including this portion of the needed knowledge about language in teacher preparation programs could come from professional organizations such as TESOL, NABE, NCTE, and IRA (Baca and Escamilla); from the work being done by the AFT on a core education curriculum (Feldman); and from strengthening the national standards for the preparation of teachers in various fields (Gollnick).
  2. "Within the teacher education program, develop a set of themes that are close to practice and that cut across many foundational areas" (p. 96). The suggestion to incorporate knowledge about language into the existing teacher education curriculum by distributing it across other disciplines (Bredekamp, Baca and Escamilla) could be implemented through this kind of theme teaching. Richardson suggests that a theme such as culture and cultural difference, addressed in all foundational classes, would "allow teachers to focus on problems of practice and understand how a response to these problems can be informed by foundational understandings" (p. 96). Collaboration between linguistics and education faculty (Bredekamp, Snow) would be needed to integrate the required educational linguistics content into the themes, and focusing on teacher performance instead of course content (Gollnick) would ensure that teachers would be able to put this foundational knowledge into practice.
  3. "Recognize that preservice teacher education students can't possibly retain this knowledge for long and consider developing programs of staff development in which foundational knowledge may be used to question, explain, justify, and develop practical knowledge" (p. 96). A willingness to learn more is part of Snow's proposed first benchmark, thus ensuring that teachers would be receptive to increasing their knowledge about language through professional development. What is required is high quality language and culture professional development curricula (Baca and Escamilla), created through collaboration between education faculty and arts and sciences faculty (Snow). Masters programs in educational linguistics could be developed to train the staff developers who would implement the curricula. [-5-]

Those who are concerned about these issues need to recognize the fact that little or none of this will happen unless the need for teachers to have additional knowledge about language is recognized. In the epilogue, Snow speaks of "the difficulty of finding policy levers that would produce increased attention to educational linguistics in teacher preparation and ongoing development" (p. 125). Although difficult, this is a necessary base on which to build the implementation of Snow and Fillmore's proposal.

Even if these levers can be found, and a consensus reached on what knowledge is necessary and how best to provide that knowledge, it will obviously not be a cure for all the ills of public education in the U. S. However, knowledge about language can do much more to improve education than prescriptions such as "teach more phonics," because it enables teachers to understand why, when, and how to teach more phonics, or whatever the current demand might be. This will help them provide more effective teaching, not just for ELLs, vernacular dialect speakers, and those from different cultural backgrounds, but for all students.

Suzanne Irujo
Boston University

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