April 2001 — Volume 5, Number 1
Working with Second Language Learners: Answers to Teachers’ Top Ten Questions
Stephen Cary (2000)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. xv + 142
There are literally thousands of teachers in schools across the U.S. who are instructing millions of SLL (second language learner) students. In response, many states or local school districts have implemented programs to better equip teachers in educating these students. In spite of these programs, however, a great many teachers have not had sufficient training in dealing with SLL students.
It is one thing for teachers to sit in on a training seminar; it is quite another to face a class of 24 students that includes three Spanish speakers, one Hmong speaker, one Russian speaker, and one Chinese speaker. Finding out that one-quarter (or more) of the students in a class are nonnative speakers is a prospect that many teachers, both novice and experienced, can find quite daunting. Where can these teachers find help? What can and should they do for their SLL students?
Working with Second Language Learners was written in response to these questions. Indeed, the subtitle of the book, Answers to Teachers’ Top Ten Questions, is perhaps a more apt description of this work. The ten questions that the book answers resulted from the author’s work with hundreds of teachers in public school settings, district and county offices of education, and university teacher preparation courses.
The author notes that narrowing down the list of potential questions from the “Unmanageable Fifty” to the “Still Cumbersome Twenty-five” to the “Top Ten” was a very difficult task. He used four criteria to settle on his final list of ten: veracity, frequency, relevancy, and difficulty. The final ten questions are real questions that real teachers asked frequently, questions that target one of the key instructional issues teachers must address in their classrooms. In addition, these are difficult questions that require some expertise that the average classroom teacher not truly familiar with SLL students would not have.[-1-]
Each of the ten units in the book skillfully addresses one of Cary’s “Top Ten” questions:
- How do I assess a student’s English?
- How do I find useful information on a student’s cultural background?
- How do I make my spoken English more understandable?
- How do I get my reluctant speakers to speak English?
- How do I make a difficult textbook more readable?
- How do I help students improve their English writing?
- How do I teach grade-level content to English beginners?
- How do I help students build learning strategies?
- How do I support a student’s first language when I don’t speak the language?
- How do I minimize communication conflicts in a multilingual classroom?
Most teachers who have dealt with nonnative students in the classroom have asked themselves these very same questions. Dr. Cary’s work is definitely a solid bank of information for the answers to these and many other related questions.
More important than the timeliness of Working with Second Language Learners is the excellent writing style and organization of the book. In fact, one of the real strengths of this book is its readability. Cary’s work is one of the most reader-friendly teacher preparation books that I have ever encountered. The language in the book is never the stoic, dry, academic writing sometimes found in teacher education books, and each unit includes numerous real examples from real classrooms of real nonnative students. Regardless of the readers’ levels of previous teaching experience (or inexperience), all teachers can either imagine or see themselves in the classroom scenarios described in the book. The author manages to get across important second language theory and pedagogy without the usual lectures found in many teacher preparation books.
Each of the units follows a similar format: key ideas and background (including content, grade level, teacher’s experience, SLL students’ first languages, and school type), the classroom story (of a real classroom), reflections, instructional grab bag, and postcript.
The key ideas are teaching objectives written in concrete, understandable language. For example, some of the key ideas in unit 3 (“How do I make my spoken language more understandable?”) include “Develop key vocabulary and power words” and “Include first language support whenever possible.” The content for this unit is literature read aloud, the grade level is 4, the teacher’s experience is 3 years, the first languages of the students are Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Spanish, and the school is K-5, urban.
The section called “Classroom Story” tells what happened in that class on a given day or week. It usually includes comments from the teacher as to what was planned, why it was planned this way, and then what actually took place in the class. This is followed by a section called “Reflections” in which the teacher talks about what happened, why it was good or not so good, and how things could be changed. Particularly useful to teachers is the brief section called “Postscript,” in which the author analyzes and comments upon what the teacher has learned from this particular experience in making the classroom a better place for second language learners.[-2-]
For those who are mystified by the number of acronyms in TESOL, the author has included an appendix from ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages to ZPD (zone of proximate development). Other useful appendices include lists of professional organizations (CABE (California Association for Bilingual Education), IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language), etc.), information/research centers (ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center), CAL (Center for Applied Linguistics), etc.), print and online journals, and pertinent teacher web sites (Dave’s ESL Café).
My only negative comments are not about content but rather about writing conventions. It is laudable that the author has tried to maintain a very relaxed, conversational style in this work. In doing this, however, there are instances of sentence fragments or incomplete sentences: “Looked like the modeling she did in the morning paid off” (p. 4). “She’s reading the headings, and reading them correctly” (p. 4). “But Napa could wait” (p. 7). “Or maybe just a little stupid . . .” (p. 8). “But formal testing instruments are . . .” (p. 8). “And Lenny needed time to learn more about the Hmong . . .” (p. 19). “Good thing he liked the work” (p. 26). While I understand the desire to set a conversational tone, this is a written piece of work, not a conversation. It bothers me when I see sentence fragments, misused punctuation, and sentences that begin with coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but). The editors should have been more careful with this, as it distracts from the excellent content of the book.
Stylistic complaints aside, the information in this book is outstanding and makes Working with Second Language Learners an invaluable contribution to teacher development in ESOL, especially for teachers in grades K-12. Cary’s work is by far one of the most readable and practical books of suggestions and concrete ideas for working with ESOL students.
Keith S. Folse
University of Central Florida
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