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Review of  Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire

Reviewer: Glenn A. Martinez
Book Title: Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire
Book Author: Jim Cummins
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 12.489

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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


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

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.