Vol. 3. No. 1 R-13 November 1997
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Language and literacy diversity in the United States

Terrence Wiley (1996)
Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, and McHenry, IL: Delta Systems
Pp. ii + 241
ISBN 0-937354-86-4 (paper)
US $19.95

"Language, sooner or later, proves to be a thorn in the flesh of all who govern, whether at the national or local level" (Crystal, 1987, p. 164). Reading this comment recently, I was struck that even in the years since it was written, language issues have grown to command more serious attention from not only those who seek to govern the United States, but all those who seek to work, live and study here. It is prescient of the degree to which language and literacy acquisition have become hot topics of controversy on the American landscape. Thus, Terrence Wiley's book arrives on the scene at an opportune moment. As a detailed, accessible compendium of relevant research and interpretations of pertinent data, it is ideal for bringing newcomers up-to-date on issues that are in the public eye virtually daily.

Terrence Wiley has not attempted to add new theories or models to an already crowded field, but rather to amass a thoughtfully written literature review of the existing research addressing many aspects of biliteracy. Although the title doesn't explicitly state that it is an argument for biliteracy, it is nevertheless a compilation of data in favor of policies supporting biliteracy in the United States, a position that is rarely taken outside of academia. He takes every opportunity to repeatedly make a case for viewing language diversity as an asset rather than a liability. In this he has done an admirable job. Language and Literacy Diversity in the United States is a useful compilation of the current literature in this critical area, and should be required reading for all those interested in examining reasons beyond the usual platitudes for explaining issues such as low literacy achievement among minority students and high rates of illiteracy in the United States.

Each chapter addresses a different issue related to the overall purpose: common beliefs about literacy and language learning in the U.S. (chapter 2); the theory of the great cognitive divide (chapter 3); historical perspectives on literacy and intelligence testing (chapter 4); the effects of socioeconomic status on literacy (chapter 5); sociolinguistic attitudes towards illiteracy (chapter 6); ethnographic studies of literate practices (chapter 7); and arguments for and against bilingual education (chapter 8). Each chapter could stand alone as a concise introduction to a single issue. This strength, however, translates into a marked difficulty [-1-] in tying the strands together to build an argument for biliteracy. This could have been done more forcefully in the last chapter, which attempts to summarize and make recommendations. The result is nevertheless clear and effective.

In chapter 2, Wiley lays out the arena for subsequent discussion by interpreting recent data on language proficiency in the U.S. He shows that despite popular belief that the U.S. is mostly monolingual, it is a remarkably bilingual country, with 13.8% of persons over the age of five reporting that they speak a language other than English at home, according to the 1990 United States Census. He takes the next necessary step, showing that despite these numbers, English is far from being in danger of losing its supremacy. This foundation is critical for further arguments.

Once myths have been confronted and put to rest, Wiley moves on in chapter 3 to discuss scholarly approaches to studying literacy and a pervasive attitude among literates, namely that literacy confers certain cognitive benefits on the literate individual, and that non-literate individuals, and societies where applicable, are somehow backward. Wiley calls this a myth and moves on in chapter 4 to address some of the historical antecedents to the current situation with literacy, definitions of literacy, and parallels to intelligence testing. Both, he argues, are rendered subjective by racist and elitist standards. In light of these insights, he critiques recent national literacy assessments, such as the National Adult Literacy Survey and the National Chicano Survey.

In chapter 5, Wiley attacks perceptions that low literacy achievement is often due to low socioeconomic status. Students disadvantaged by racial, ethnic or language minority status and/or poverty are somehow blamed for low achievement, instead of being seen in the larger context of economic and social inequality. Closely related to this issue is the lower status conferred on languages other than English, which is discussed in chapter 6. This also affects students of lower socioeconomic status, especially when their families have recently immigrated to the United States. Literacy in languages other than English is not counted towards overall literacy rates. Proficiency in languages other than those commonly studied is not seen as an asset to be preserved. Bilingualism is admired when it is in languages learned in school (however poorly), but ignored when possessed by persons with lower status in the society, especially new or recent immigrants. In an increasingly connected global economy, this attitude is potentially economically damaging. Cultivating immigrant languages is of great value for trade and diplomacy as well as for the personal spheres of the speakers.

In chapter 7, Wiley addresses the promise of ethnographic analysis for examining the contexts of literate practices. Much attention has been given to the failure of many students to master [-2-] reading and writing, but little work has been done to discover how these students actually use literacy in their daily lives, or how they see their parents engaging in literacy events. School literacy, after all, reflects the literacy practices of the middle class. The effects on children not of middle class families is poorly understood. Wiley recommends that pre-service teachers receive training in conducting ethnographic inquiry.

In chapter 8, Wiley pulls together some of the strands from previous chapters to build an argument that current theories of bilingual education are built implicitly on the cognitive great divide theory and a labeling system that focuses on discrepancy. He cites the model of contextual transfer as a useful format for transitioning bilingual children from their native language to English by building on the foundation of language knowledge they already possess, thereby building on strengths rather than perceived weaknesses.

Throughout Language and Literacy Diversity in the United States, Wiley repeatedly returns to the idea of critical inquiry, always arguing that the context and materials of literacy study be examined with a critical eye towards their connections to the greater social context and to the meanings and structures they convey to the students. This is perhaps the most useful contribution of this extensive review of the current research literature in the field of language and literacy.


Crystal, D. (1987). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Beth T. Lewis
University of Southern California

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