An Island of English: Teaching ESL in Chinatown

March 2004 — Volume 7, Number 4

An Island of English: Teaching ESL in Chinatown

Danling Fu (2003)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. xxiv + 168
ISBN 0-325-00481-1 (paper)
$21.00

An Island of English is an account of Danling Fu’s work as a literary consultant two days a month at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School in New York’s Chinatown. It is a highly practical book, the main body of which describes how the author worked together with the teachers and administrators of Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School to search for effective methods to help reach newly arrived Chinatown immigrant students. The main problems addressed in the book are, how to help students who (a) lack sufficient content knowledge needed for American education; (b) have limited English proficiency; (c) have no parental or adult support at home for their school work; and (d) need to make difficult social, emotional, cultural and academic adjustments to adapt successfully to their new lives in America.

The book is divided into 7 numbered chapters plus a short introductory and concluding chapter. Each chapter is divided into smaller subsections; however, the titles or content of these subsections are not listed in the contents page, something which could have been useful for locating specific information in the book.

The short introduction is personal and descriptive, providing the background as to how and why Ms. Fu was hired by the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School and what her work there involved.

The first chapter, “The New Chinese Immigrants and Their Lives in Chinatown,” describes the harsh realities that many new Chinese immigrants living in Chinatown face on arrival in America. It talks about the sacrifices they make in search of their “American Dream,” their enormous monetary debts to the smugglers who brought them into the country illegally, the years of separation from their spouses or children as they struggle to pay off their debt and bring the rest of their family to the US, and the harsh economic and social conditions, low wages, long working hours and cramped living conditions that many immigrants find themselves trapped in. It tells of the disillusionment and despair as many immigrants discover that the reality of their “American Dream” is far from what they imagined and for many, especially children, much worse than the reality they left behind. Touching excerpts from some of the students’ own written accounts strongly convey their feelings of sadness and despair at finding themselves plucked suddenly from the countryside in China with open spaces, clean air and loving families who brought them up, to cramped urban dwellings and estranged parents who work such long hours that they never see them. [-1-]

Chapter two, “Content Knowledge and Bilingual Education–Preparing Students for Learning and Living in America,” discusses the author’s recommendation to incorporate the teaching of Social Studies into the school’s CLA (Culture and Language Arts) classes, taught in the students’ first language (Chinese). Using Cummins (1986) theory of cognitive academic language proficiency and Krashen (1996) as her theoretical basis, the author argues that teaching students about American culture and history, as opposed to Chinese culture and history, is more relevant for their immediate learning needs given that the new knowledge gained in Chinese can then be transferred over into the students’ daily lives and other subject content areas.

Chapter three, “Developing Student’s Oral English Language Ability,” describes measures taken to improve the student’s oral performance, such as setting students listening and speaking homework where students take books with accompanying tapes home to listen to and record themselves speaking, and setting up listening corners in classrooms where books with accompanying tapes and tape recorders with headphones are made available for students to listen to. It also describes in detail the strategies and techniques that two teachers at the school, Shirley and John, used to guide and improve their students’ English-speaking development, and explains how the controversial decision was made to change the CLA/Social Studies program into a dual language instruction program which encouraged the CLA teachers to use English in the classroom alongside Chinese whenever they felt it was appropriate and helped to maximize the students’ English language learning opportunities.

Chapter four, “teaching Students with a Wide Range of English Language Abilities,” is basically a “how to” and “why to” chapter on teaching students in multiple groups. The author advocates the use of multiple group teaching as she believes that teaching in small groups enables a teacher to have closer contact with individual students and allows teachers to adjust their teaching according to individual student needs. The chapter also offers a model class plan of multiple group teaching and a discussion of some of the difficulties that can arise during multiple group teaching and how to overcome them.

Chapters five and six deal with ESL writing, with chapter 6 focusing on teaching beginning ESL writers and chapter six on intermediate to advanced learners. In chapter five the author advocates getting ESL learners to write from day one and allowing students to write in their L1 or in mixed languages until their English language proficiency develops enough for them to write in English. The author believes that the skills of thinking and organizing ideas are equally important, if not more so, than linguistic skills, and argues that students should be allowed to continue to practice these skills and not have to wait until their language proficiency develops enough for them to be able to write in English. The author also argues that allowing students to write in their L1 when they still have limited English proficiency gives students an extra channel of expression and communication with their teachers and fellow students. Chapter seven discusses how students were introduced to and taught the following different genres of writing: journals, non fiction, poetry, memoir writing and essay writing. The author argues that there is much similarity in teaching writing to native English speakers and ESL students but that ESL teachers have to, among other things, give students more specific directions and writing models and provide more support in helping students to revise and edit their work. [-2-]

Chapter seven, “Language Differences and Errors,” will definitively be useful for school teachers with no knowledge of Chinese and a classroom full of Chinese immigrant students. It provides a short comparative study of Chinese and English and discusses some of the learner errors that may arise out of these differences. It also has a section on useful suggestions on how to teach pronunciation and Grammar.

The “Conclusion, Issues and More Questions,” discusses the following issues: school as a learning community, where the author advocates the importance of collaboration between teachers of different subject areas to make student learning more connected; Bilingual Education, English Immersion and Literacy Education, in which the author expresses her concern that the debate on how to educate students with limited English language proficiency has become polarized between bilingual education on one side and immersion programs on the other. The author claims that both forms have been shown to be successful in the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School, arguing that students need their L1 to build up their subject content and to develop their thinking, organizational and literacy skills until their English language proficiency develops sufficiently, but that students also need as much exposure to English as they can get given that in their homes the only language they are exposed to is Chinese. Another issue discussed is Literacy Education for New Immigrant Students (or Minority Children), where the author explains the importance of teaching immigrant students with trade books and real writing to develop their literacy, content knowledge and language skills and argues against the advocacy of isolated skills-based instruction for ESL learners. In The image of “Model Minority“, the author shows how the average student at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School does not meet the stereotype of the high- performing model Chinese immigrant and highlights the need for stereotypes to be broken down. Parental Involvement discusses how different cultures view parental involvement in their children’s education and why teachers should be aware of this; and finally, Literacy Standard for New Immigrant Children, in which the author voices her concern about the continuing stress on high-stakes testing and the effect that this is having on students and their education.

Overall, An Island of English is a highly readable book full of interesting and at times moving personal anecdotes and testimonies from the students, teachers, parents and administrators at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School in New York. However, it is a practical book and not a theoretical one, and perhaps one criticism of the book would be that it often lacked a voiced theoretical basis behind the decisions made and that almost no empirical evidence was provided to support the claims that the changes implemented by the school were indeed effective.

The book is recommended for teachers, administrators and researchers working with groups of immigrant students, particularly Chinese immigrant students.

Fiona Lawtie
British Council, Caracas
<flawtie@cantv.net>

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