Adult ESL: Politics, Pedagogy, and Participation in Classroom and Community Programs

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Adult ESL: Politics, Pedagogy, and Participation in Classroom and Community Programs

Trudy Smoke (Ed.) (1998)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Pp. xv + 337
ISBN 0-8058-2262-3 (paper)
US $34.50 (also available in cloth, US $79.95)

Adult ESL: Politics, Pedagogy, and Participation in Classroom and Community Programs provides a comprehensive description of the state of adult ESL programs with a collection of twenty papers addressing diverse issues concerning adult ESL and literacy training in North America. The papers range from first person accounts of struggles to obtain and maintain government funding for adult ESL to practical discussions of critical pedagogy in action.

The book is divided into three main sections: politics, pedagogy and participation. The politics section deals with the place of ESL programs and the experiences of ESL students within the greater political arena (including dealing with state and federal governments and the school system). Consistent with the emphasis on critical pedagogy, a number of the authors cite the influence of critical pedagogy and the work Paulo Freire on their pedagogical perspective and classroom focuses. Chapters include Pamela Ferguson’s first person account of getting funding reinstated for ESL programs in Washington state, as well as Pia Moriarty’s informative exploration of the influence of students’ immigrant status (i.e., legal or illegal) on their willingness to answer “typical” ESL activity questions such as name, address, and so forth. Moriarty’s article would be useful reading for many ESL teachers who may not realize the “real-life” implications of what they consider to be language-oriented class activities. Similarly, Judy Manton provides some useful “real-life” suggestions for developing ESL lessons to help parents of school-age children negotiate the public school system more effectively.

The next three chapters of the politics section focus on feminist issues in ESL and adult literacy. In one of the few papers to look outside the U.S., Bonny Norton describes her diary-based study of the language-learning experiences of five women immigrants in Canada. Trudy Smoke also provides a case study of student identity and change. Finally, Stephanie Vandrick provides a good, albeit brief, introduction to feminist theory and research as applicable to ESL teaching. Unfortunately, her description of a feminist pedagogy (versus a critical pedagogy) is somewhat less clear. Basically, “feminist pedagogy” has more to do with a perspective, rather than a methodology. As a result, perhaps, Vandrick appears occasionally to use theoretical terminology which could be discussed in a more simple manner.

The pedagogy section includes descriptions of seven different learning-centered approaches to teaching. These chapters include Sarah Benesch’s description of an English for Academic Purposes class focusing on what she describes as the female-oriented issue of anorexia, Kate Mangelsdorf’s discussion of the importance of traditional literature for helping students learn to deal with cultural conflicts, Rebecca Williams Mlynarcyk’s explanation of the benefits of the Fluency First method (e.g., the importance of the act of reading versus the specific literary benefit), and Loretta Frances Kasper’s questioning of the need for literature in adult ESL classes (thereby challenging Mangelsdorf’s position). [-1-]

The final two chapters of the section both deal with issues of “correctness” and the imposition of mainstream ideology through the language classroom. Angela Parrino discusses the issue of “correct” pronunciation in adults, and Carol Severino explores the extent to which teachers impose their ideology in deciding on what elements to focus on in student writing. These issues are of critical importance to both pre-service and in-service ESL teachers, given the power of the teacher to reinforce or challenge majority cultural values. While our colleagues in sociolinguistics have generally acknowledged bi-dialectalism (i.e., speakers having two or more dialects of a language) as a world norm, the ESL world has tended more toward prescriptivism in limiting the target language model to an assumed “norm” or “standard.”

The final section of Adult ESL (participation) describes programs and practices that connect ESL students to the wider community. These chapters include descriptions of a university-community collaboration in which immigrants and refugees become themselves adult ESL and native literacy instructors (Elsa Auerbach, Joanne Arnaud, Carol Chandler, and Ana Zambrano), a program enabling ESL students to become authorities in their classrooms by focusing on their unique areas of cultural and linguistic knowledge (Milton Clark and Carol Peterson Haviland), a program in which native speakers worked with ESL peers in traditional college classrooms (Richard Blakely), and Leslie Robbins’ description of the history of one of the most successful refugee language programs in New York City (now in funding crisis). Each of these chapters provides insights into program development and how specific techniques can empower ESL students to leave the ESL label behind to become contributing members of the greater society.

The third section also includes useful suggestions by Jessie Reppy and Elaine Coburn for creating a resource center for information on state and other language resources and programs, and discussions by Trudy Smoke and Keming Liu on aspects and implications of electronic communication in the world of ESL and ESL students. Discussion of the potential of the Internet to inform and empower students and teachers by providing access to a world of resources and to the online community, with a click of a mouse, is a fitting end to this book. If knowledge is the key to empowerment, then facilitating our students’ access to the world is a major step forward.

In conclusion, the strengths of the book include the diversity of topics and the comprehensive nature of the material, as well as the inclusion of both theoretical discussion and practical ideas. Although the quality of writing varies from paper to paper, and the majority of authors focus on the situation in the U.S. only (making the book perhaps of limited interest internationally), I would suggest that this book would make an excellent reference or teaching text for TESL or Applied Linguistics programs. Classroom teachers and program administrators may also find inspiration and concrete suggestions for empowering their students and fighting the political battles necessary to keep ESL on the minds of legislators.

Karen Woodman
The Second Language Learning Group, Victoria, BC, Canada
<tesl@home.com>

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