Header Image Header Image

Archived Content from Conference Held in May 1999 

Building on our Strengths:
Second International Conference on Language Teacher Education


Educational Linguistics at Penn

Nancy Hornberger, University of Pennsylvania

Consider the following vignettes of language teacher education in Philadelphia: A small core group of teachers and administrators at Potter Thomas Bilingual Elementary School in North Philadelphia's Puerto Rican community are simultaneously implementing a new math curriculum and piloting portfolio assessment as an alternative to standardized testing. As Penn Educational Linguistics doctoral student Melisa Cahnmann and I work with them during a three-day summer workshop on issues of mathematics, language, and portfolio assessment with bilingual and bidialectal urban youth, we attempt to address the question which resurfaces constantly for these teachers: when should I (the teacher) be evaluating my students for their language and when for their math knowledge, and how can I keep the two separate?

Throughout the city at sites such as the Nationalities Services Center, International House, the Jewish Educational and Vocational Service, the SHINE program, or K-12 public school classrooms, Penn's TESOL masters students carry out the required service component of their comprehensive examination, providing 30 hours of ESL instruction to recent immigrant adults, language minority children or international students. About half of these TESOL students are themselves international students who will return to their home countries to teach English in EFL settings, and for these students in particular, a recurring concern is: how can I (the teacher) apply what I am learning in this ESL teaching experience to the EFL context in which I will be teaching after I graduate? For that matter, how relevant is what I have learned in my courses about, for example, African-American Vernacular English or Mexican American or indigenous language education in the US to my future EFL teaching in Japan (or China or Korea)?

A number of Penn Intercultural Communications masters students and Educational Linguistics doctoral students have been employed as foreign language instructors at various Penn departments, such as Romance Languages, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and the Penn Language Center. Several have taught in the Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies, which offers a combined liberal arts and business degree with an international focus, at both the bachelor's and master's level. As our students teach Spanish, Japanese, or other languages to prospective business people, they often confront this challenge: how can I as teacher and representative of my native language and culture counter the lack of respect for or genuine interest in other world views which I sometimes find in my students? To what degree is an understanding of the new culture a necessary part of learning a new language, and to the degree that it is, which "culture" should be taught?

For bilingual teachers in the Puerto Rican community, as well as for TESOL teachers in EFL settings and foreign language teachers at Penn, another question which recurringly arises is: which variety of the language should I teach and use in my class? For the bilingual teachers mentioned above, this question revolves around the standard and nonstandard varieties of both Spanish and English in the Puerto Rican community's repertoire. For TESOL teachers in EFL settings, the question becomes one of which variety of English to promote - a 'world standard' such as American or British English, such as has been traditionally hegemonic in EFL teaching, or an indigenous standard such as Singaporean English, Malaysian English, Indian English, or the like?

These are just a few examples of the dilemmas faced by the language teachers we work with in Penn's Educational Linguistics programs. Educational Linguistics at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Penn, which comprises the Master's in TESOL, the Master's in Intercultural Communication, and the Ph.D. in Educational Linguistics, traces its beginnings to 1976, when GSE Dean Dell Hymes appointed Nessa Wolfson to the faculty. From the beginning, Educational Linguistics at Penn took seriously the vision enunciated by Spolsky and promoted by Hymes, of a "problem-oriented discipline, focusing on the needs of practice and drawing from available theories and principles of many relevant fields including many of the subfields of linguistics" (Spolsky 1975: 347). Educational Linguistics, as developed at Penn by Wolfson, Pica, Hornberger, Freeman, and others, has been guided by three basic principles, which can be summarized as:

  1. an inclusive and comprehensive approach to understanding (the role of) language (in) learning and teaching;
  2. a recognition of the reciprocal and dynamic relationship between linguistics and education; and
  3. an emphasis on the close relationships among theory, research, policy, and practice.

For contextual reasons unique to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and to Penn's Graduate School of Education, Educational Linguistics at Penn has always stressed integration across all language education fields-including bilingual, ESL, EFL, and foreign language teaching; as well as across language, literacy, and culture. On the one hand, the lack of certification in TESOL or bilingual education in Pennsylvania has meant that our programs have evolved without the specialized constraints which might have been imposed by separate sets of certification requirements in bilingual, ESL, and foreign language education. On the other, GSE's strong tradition in sociocultural approaches to education originating from Hymes' deanship has provided an environment with multiple strengths in language, literacy and culture located not only in Educational Linguistics, but across the school.

Thus, our approach to the dilemmas outlined above is one which stresses an inclusive and contextualized view of the communicative competence language teachers seek to instill in their students. One theoretical model for such a view, in today's postmodern and increasingly multicultural and globalized world, is the continua model of biliteracy which offers a framework in which to situate research, teaching, and language planning in linguistically diverse settings. The model uses the notion of intersecting and nested continua to demonstrate the multiple and complex interrelationships between bi(multi)lingualism and literacy and the importance of the contexts, media, and content through which bi(multi)literacies develop (Hornberger 1989; Hornberger & Skilton-Sylvester 1998).

Biliteracy, in this model, refers to "any and all instances in which communication occurs in two (or more) languages in or around writing." In order to understand any particular instance of biliteracy, be it a biliterate individual, situation, or society, we need to take account of all dimensions represented by the continua. At the same time, the advantage of the model is that it allows us to focus for analytical purposes on one or selected continua and their dimensions without ignoring the importance of the others. This paper uses the continua of biliterate development, contexts, content, and media as a framework for understanding the dilemmas confronting bilingual, ESL/EFL, and foreign language teachers, such as those sketched in the opening vignettes.


Back to Conference Information.

Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) • 140 University International Center • 331 - 17th Ave SE • Minneapolis, MN 55414