Tools of human ascent

Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 3 - Encyclopedia of Langauge and Education, Volume 7 - Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 5 - Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 6 - Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 8 - Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 4 - Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 1 - Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 2
May 1, 1998

When my daughter was in year one at primary school she showed little enthusiasm for learning to read and write. This was despite an enormous interest in books at home: from a very young age she had enjoyed cuddling up and having an older person read to her. In fact, we used to call her Reeda Book as a toddler because of the frequency with which she would make this request. We began to wonder if our five-year-old had specific difficulties with reading, or perhaps more general learning difficulties.

This raised a hornet's nest of tricky issues. First, did we have a problem at all? Perhaps we should just assume that a normal education, allied to a home life in which everyone else was reading and writing, would eventually make us kick ourselves for worrying at all (as eventually happened, much to our relief). Suppose, though, that by the age of eight our daughter had been like many children in her class at school: barely able to read, and with minimal writing skills. Would this have been a language deficit or a more general psychological one? Would we have done better to ask if the school was getting it right rather than assuming that our daughter had problems? Or should we have looked at the wider context in which our daughter was growing up, putting the spotlight on family problems or gender-related issues?

In this new encyclopedia, editor David Corson has assembled an ideal starting point for anyone who wants to think seriously about such questions. Each of the eight volumes contains 20 to 30 pieces of 3,000 words which summarise what is known with reasonable certainty, outline what remains poorly understood, and indicate what the experts are still arguing about. The scope is wide: not just literacy in primary schools but also areas such as second-language education, multilingual education, and broader policy issues concerning language and education in many parts of the world.

In each area it is the same set of issues that dominate: we need to distinguish language issues, general educational concerns, and socio-political questions. Teaching children to read is highly controversial, and the editor took the right decision to ask several different people to spell out the debate vigorously but fairly. Some experts concentrate on reading as word recognition, the central difficulty for children being the transition from spoken language to a partial written representation of speech. In contrast to this mainly linguistic model, another school of thought sees reading as an active process in which children construct meanings. This viewpoint leads in practice to whole language teaching with real books rather than graded reading schemes - the emphasis is placed on children's overall education rather than singling out language as a special area.

These two approaches to reading are embedded in different models of education: an emphasis on the acquisition of practical skills versus a view of learning as an attempt to make sense of the world through critical enquiry and reflection. Political issues are never far from this debate, and eight contributions headed by the social context of literacy unpack them carefully. Literacy has repeatedly been a means by which one section of the population imposes its values upon the rest: in the third world, reading and writing are often tools with which the urban elite enforce their priorities on the rural poor. The question of what people read is a political minefield, a point recognised and elaborated by teachers like Paulo Freire who saw literacy classes as a place where the oppressed could find their own voice. Several writers refer to Freire's critical pedagogy; indeed, the encyclopedia is noteworthy for the way that the social and political dimensions of language and education are constantly brought to the fore.

The same cluster of problems is central in learning and teaching second languages. In developed countries it is common for teenagers to spend several hours each week studying a foreign language - with varying degrees of success. A great deal of research into how to increase the likelihood of success is surveyed in the fourth volume, with useful discussions of teaching strategies, adult and child second-language learners, technological aids and methods of assessment. Volume five on bilingual education focuses on situations where most of a child's education is delivered in an official or standard language which is not the one spoken at home. Here too we see linguistic and educational issues closely tied up with political ones: the chapter on bilingual education in the Basque country, for instance, is explicitly presented as part of the political struggle to create and maintain autonomous Basque institutions.

In all the areas covered by the encyclopedia, whether students are learning a language or are learning through language, a crucial debate is about whether and to what extent explicit knowledge about language can help. The question arises at all levels, from the primary classroom to university courses in linguistics. For many years the banner of language awareness has rallied educators who ask what kind of knowledge about language students should have, both as practical tools to help them use and learn languages and as part of their general knowledge of the world. Several contributors to volume six refer to the Kingman report of 1988, which recommended that all UK children should study some basic socio-linguistics and learn about different varieties of English. The government, not surprisingly, disagreed and actively resisted attempts by teachers to introduce a critical analysis of correctness into classroom discussion. The contributors express the hope that this situation will improve, although I see few grounds for optimism.

Language permeates education in many ways. Each academic discipline has its own characteristic forms of discourse, which students struggle to learn at the same time as they master the subject matter. In a sobering chapter on academic writing, Bruce Maylath reviews many studies which have found higher marks awarded for university student essays which contained Greco-Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and nominal as against verbal constructions - in other words, those that used a pretentious, highly formal writing style. Similar disturbing findings emerge from analyses of the textual structure of undergraduate essays: one recent study found that history students were told to produce argumentation but what was actually rewarded was narrative. Many of the concerns of study skills courses (taking notes, giving effective presentations, writing exam answers, and so forth) are primarily linguistic, and the same is true in the choice of teaching methods: deciding whether to lecture or use student-led seminars is largely about how staff and students interact using spoken and written language. There is much here for every teacher to think about.

The final volume of this encyclopedia is devoted to research methods in language and education. A well-chosen set of chapters cover survey techniques, experimental methods, approaches based on ethnography and conversation analysis, and many other research strategies. Here and throughout the encyclopedia some difficult problems are addressed. Reliable research in education needs clear criteria for successful learning, careful control of relevant variables, and a sample which is large enough to eliminate the effect of individual quirks. These requirements make enormous demands on researchers, with the consequence that most studies yield findings which are specific to one group of students at one time: it is therefore dangerous to generalise from them no matter how conclusive they seem to be. A great deal of good research has none the less been carried out around the world, and it is vital that teachers and policy makers be made aware of it. This volume is a gold-mine: anyone involved in teacher training will want their students to consult it regularly.

The encyclopedia is refreshingly international, with surveys by Canadian authors including developments in New Zealand, and British writers who are well informed about research in the United States. The subject index - crucial in a work like this which is not organised alphabetically - is excellent. The only glaring deficiency is the name index: anyone with two initials is almost certain to appear twice (Breen, M. occurs next to Breen, M. P.), and there is a confusing policy of listing some names with and without initials (Horkheimer has a separate entry from Horkheimer, M.). Other errors abound: Jernudd, B. B. and Jernudd, B. H. are surely one and the same person; Roz Ivanic from Lancaster University appears also as Ivanovic, R., despite having a contribution under her correct name in volume six; and Geoffrey Sampson from Sussex would surely not wish to be identified with George Sampson, who wrote English for the English in 1925.

In every other respect this encyclopedia is excellent: comprehensive, international, clear, to the point and politically aware. Every student teacher should have access to it, and it will be an essential resource for policy makers who want to rely on solid research rather than - as so often in this area - emotion and prejudice.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 3: Oral Discourse and Education

Editor - David Corson/Bronwyn Davies
ISBN - 0 7923 4596 7 (set)
Publisher - Kluwer
Price - £539.00
Pages - 2,513

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