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Review of Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire
Cummins, Jim. (2000) Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevendon: Multilingual Matters, Ltd. 309 pp. $24.95.
Glenn A. Mart�nez, The University of Texas at Brownsville
Cummins' book, Language, Power, and Pedagogy, struck me as an important book for anyone involved in bilingual education or in the training of bilingual educators in the United States Southwest. The recent political backlash against bilingual education programs in states such as California and Arizona and the increasing focus on assessment and accountability in Texas make the work even more timely. Cummins convincingly makes the case for the importance of placing these issues on the table for discussion. What's more, he argues for a multi-faceted approach that bridges the gap between theory and praxis and that, at the same time, inextricably ties scholarly work and classroom experience.
The author sets out to explore three sets of issues related to the present state of bilingual pedagogical theory. First, he looks at the power relations between dominant and subordinate groups in the society at large and attempts to determine how these relations are transferred to the classroom experience. Second, he explores the underlying assumptions of 'language proficiency' and argues for a new approach that is characterized by both scientific rigor and practical application. Third, he explores the systems of instruction that have emerged in the context of bilingual education, and he argues that only a 'transformative' based pedagogy will be appropriate to develop language skills and high levels of academic achievement in different sociolinguistic contexts.
In the first two chapters of the book, Cummins attempts to uncover the way in which power is negotiated between dominant and subordinate groups. He argues that too often the patterns of interaction present in the community at large are transferred to the classroom experience. The result of this transfer is that immigrant children come to feel more and more alienated from the dominant society as they progress in their schooling. The author proposes that teachers are in a privileged position to turn the power asymmetry of the society at large on its head and to make the classroom experience more open to immigrant students. Indeed, he contends that "students' identities are affirmed and academic achievement promoted when teachers express respect for the language and cultural knowledge that students bring to the classroom and when the instruction is focused on helping students generate new knowledge, create literature and art, and act on social realities that affect their lives" (34).
Chapters 3 - 6 deal with a series of questions related to the nature of language proficiency and its implications for bilingual education. Cummins notes that the major critiques of bilingual education programs center on the question of language proficiency. Critics of the programs contend that instruction in the native tongue hinders proficiency in the language of the mainstream. Children go through three or four years of ESL and native language instruction and still seem to be below the academic level of their peers. Cummins argues that the perceived failure of bilingual programs is nothing more than an illusion. Bilingual children are forced to complete a much more burdensome task than their monolingual counterparts. To compare the two groups after only three or four years of instruction is, in Cummins' estimation, grossly unfair. Bilingual children are chasing after a moving target, and because of this, the time factor is essential in any assessment effort. Cummins argues that bilingual children must go through at least five or more years before any equitable comparisons can even begin to be attempted. Why is it then, that critics are so quick to cast doubt on the effectiveness of bilingual programs? According to the author, the main reason lies in a misunderstanding of the educational objectives of language arts instruction and of the nature of language proficiency itself. Proficiency must be measured on two distinct dimensions. On the one hand, we may attend to a set of basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS). These are the skills that people must have to communicate on a daily basis. Linguistic competence is only a subset of BICS. People use more than language in completing the routine tasks of communicative behavior. Because of the multiplexity of codes, ranging from linguistic codes to kinesics to gestures, in everyday human communication, BICS is said to be highly context embedded. On the other hand, we may attend to cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), which, unlike BICS, is not context embedded, but rather depends heavily on language itself in order to communicate meaning. Language arts education is meant to develop and enhance this later dimension of language proficiency. When critics of bilingual education programs fail to make this distinction, they hastily jump to the conclusion that the curriculum is failing. The fact is that monolingual children come to the classroom setting with BICS well entrenched in their cognitive make up. Thus, from the very beginning they are already developing CALP. Bilingual children, on the other hand, must develop BICS in the dominant language during the first years of schooling. Thus, while monolingual children are advancing in CALP, bilingual children just beginning to develop BICS. By the time bilingual children master BICS and move on to CALP, monolingual children are already well advanced in this dimension of proficiency. Bilingual children can and do catch up to the CALP development of their monolingual counterparts; however, this is very rarely realized in the accelerated time frame that impatient critics insist on. In order to show that bilingual education does work, what is needed is a new assessment instrument that will accurately measure development in each of these dimensions of proficiency. Cummins suggests that CALP is most accurately assessed on the basis of lexical knowledge, and that because of this, "assessment by means of traditional standardized norm- or criterion-referenced tests provide largely meaningless and potentially harmful data" (142). A new type of assessment that is sensitive to the fact that language is infused across the curriculum would test students in a context embedded setting, thus allowing students access to the underlying strategies of BICS even while they are demonstrating their level of development in CALP. This could be done in the native language as well in order to compare the rates of development in each of the two codes. This type of testing would yield meaningful data that could be used by both administrators in assessing the general effectiveness of the programs and by individual teachers for the purposes of both monitoring student progress and customizing instruction to the needs of individual students.
"Transformative pedagogy" is the result of various factors and attitudes at work simultaneously. It includes the encouragement of an additive view of bilingualism, the fostering of collaborative relations between students and teachers, a student-centered model of assessment, and an instruction that promotes intrinsic motivations on the part of students to use language to generate their own knowledge. The net result of this type of pedagogy is the flowering of academically and personally empowered students. Within this orientation, then, the oppressive power relations of society at large come to be inverted and power is shared among each of the participants in the educational enterprise. In the final four chapters of the book, Cummins lays out a well-articulated plan of action for implementing transformative pedagogy in the bilingual classroom.
LPP is an important contribution to the literature on bilingual education. As in his earlier works, Cummins continues to advocate the empowerment of immigrant children and does so with admirable passion and scholarly insight. The book is well organized and is accessible to both scholars and practitioners alike. My only criticism of the work is the considerable amount of time and energy expended on defending the BICS/CALP distinction. While the theoretical model has been very controversial and the criticisms against it have been in some cases unfair and in other cases misguided, I think that the readability of the work would have been better served by simply giving a clear and concise exposition of the distinction. The point does come across well, but the reader is forced to work through a series of counterclaims and criticisms. Cummins' response to these criticisms is interesting and well thought out; however, I think that readers unfamiliar with the history of the debate will come away from the text with a less than clear notion of the truly important issues relating to the distinction. Without this clear notion, furthermore, the uninitiated reader will encounter some difficulty in sorting out the underlying motivations for Cummins' innovative views of assessment and transformative pedagogy.
Glenn Mart�nez is Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Texas at Brownsville. His research interests include Spanish in the Southwest, bilingualism, and educational linguistics. He is actively involved in the training of bilingual educators along the Texas-Mexico border.