Discussing the article ‘Priorities in English Language Education Policy and Classroom Implementation’

Discussing the article 'Priorities in English Language Education Policy and Classroom Implementation'

In the article “Priorities in English Language Education Policy and Classroom Implementation”, Silver and Skuja-Steele examine the field of Language-in-Education Planning, focusing on the relationship between government language policies and classroom pedagogy in five different countries. The main goal of their study was twofold. Firstly, they wanted to test the validity of the hypothesis that this relationship is a “multidirectional” one. They state:

The overarching research question for this study was: In what way(s) do pedagogical practices reflect and /or influence English language education policy? (p. 108).

This question reflects the writers’ desire to look in two directions. It includes the concept of exploring how pedagogical practices reflect language education policy, the “top down” effect; and how the former influences the latter, the “bottom up” effect.

Secondly, in the testing of this hypothesis, the writers decided to focus on the “bottom up” view. The reason for this focus is explained in the introduction where the writers claim that there is a lacuna in the research literature in this field, and that previous studies (eg. Barnes 1983; Haugen 1983; Lewis 1983; Barkhuizen & Gough 1996; Freeman 1996) have tended to focus on a “top down” perspective. The implication here is that they see this as problematic and intend to do their part to address this situation. They cite two studies (Breen 2002; Freeman 1996) in their “Introduction” as evidence that a “bottom up” perspective is viable.

It is at this point that a problem emerges. In the summaries of the two studies, there is information given about teachers’ perspectives; however, there is no mention about how teachers influence or affect language policies that are set in place by governments. Therefore, the summaries have what can be classed as a “bottom”, rather than a “bottom up” view. Therefore, their statement after the summaries:

These two studies confirm that interactions between language and educational policies and classroom pedagogy cannot be understood only by investigations of policy goals and policy implementation from the top (p. 108).

is not supported. Two questions are immediately raised by this incongruity. Is this lack of evidentiary support for a major claim indicative of the whole study, or is it just an anomaly? Is a “multidirectional” approach actually possible?

Doubts about the validity of this study are initially placed in the background by the next section of the paper, the “Methodology”, due to the fact that the writers show that they understood and addressed several important factors and implications that affected their study in a clear and thoughtful manner. They recognized the importance of having the parameters being general enough to allow for differences between countries, but specific enough to use the same framework for all the countries. They explained that the selection of countries had an effect on the study and the choice of students was constrained. They defined “English language education”, a necessary step given that this phrase is open to interpretation. The two writers also addressed many relevant background details that a reader would need to know to get a clear picture of what the study was about: level of the students, which areas of the countries the data came from, the time-line of the study, the decisions of the teachers which affected the study, and which aspects of teaching, or “mechanisms”, were important in the study.

The following two sections in the article, “structural priorities” and “classroom priorities”, focus on an overview of these “mechanisms”. The former includes time allocation, syllabus, assessment, and textbooks and materials, the “mechanisms” that tended to be part of general education systems, and the latter included lesson focus and teaching approach, the “mechanisms” that tended to apply to individual classrooms. In these sections the writers give a comprehensive overall picture of English language learning in China, Japan, Switzerland, Singapore and the United States.

In discussing the six “mechanisms”, five of them included statements about how they are influenced in a “top down” manner. For example, when explaining about class time, the writers said:

In all five countries, allocation of classroom time for instruction is set by government policy” (p. 111).

However, there was no mention made in either of the two sections about “bottom up” influences on language policy. There was some mention made of policy reforms, but there were no details given about who or what was driving these reforms.

The next section entitled “Understanding Teacher Priorities” gives readers interested in Language-in-Education Planning some useful data. Ten general teaching goals, taken from teacher’s logs (diaries written by teachers for each lesson taught) are listed and explained. Also, Hornberger’s (1994) framework for language and literacy is discussed in relation to the data presented. But again, there is no evidence of “multidirectionalism.” In fact, some statements in this section seem to support the opposite:

Notably, none of the rationales (rationale statements were taken from the teachers’ logs) related directly or indirectly to stated language and education policies (p. 120).

and

Teacher goals at the micro-level of the individual classroom are strongly differentiated from policy goals at the macro-level (p. 120).

In the article’s conclusion, Silver and Skuja-Steele state that their findings have successfully validated their “multidirectional” hypothesis and their focus on the “bottom up” perspective:

Thus, these findings also support … (the) interpretation of language planning and policy as multi-directional – derived not only out of top down structural priorities nor of more closely held classroom priorities but also from the bottom up, out of the social and personal dimensions of classroom teaching and out of teachers’ goals and beliefs (p. 124).

After reading this statement, one of the questions raised when the writers cited the two studies at the beginning of the paper is answered. The lack of evidentiary support at that time was not an anomaly. Nowhere in this article have the writers shown that a “bottom up” influence even occurs. As for the other question, it remains unanswered. It is not clear if a “multidirectional” approach is possible or not. Certainly it has not been proven here.

So, unfortunately this study must ultimately be viewed as disappointing. Firstly, because although the information presented was clearly explained and is useful for teachers and policy planners to know, the unsubstantiated major “multidirectional” claim made by Silver and Skuja-Steele must be viewed as a serious, or even fatal flaw. But perhaps mostly because if a few sentences about “multidirectionalism” were taken out and the writers focused on “top down” and “bottom only” perspectives, the paper could have been viewed as a success.

References

Barkhuizen, G. & Gough, D. (1996). Language curriculum development in South Africa: What place for English? TESOL Quarterly, 30 (3), 453-471.

Barnes, D. (1983). The implementation of language planning in China. In Cobarrubias, Juan and Fishman (Eds.), Progress in language planning: International perspectives (pp.291-308). Berlin: Mouton.

Breen, M. (2002). From a language policy to classroom practice: The intervention of identity and relationships. Language and Education: an International Journal, 16 (4), 260-283.

Freeman, R. (1996). Dual-language planning at Oyster bilingual school: “It’s much more than a language.” TESOL Quarterly, 30 (3), 557-622.

Haugen, E. (1983). The implementation of corpus planning: Theory and practice. In Cobarrubias, Juan and Fishman (Eds.), Progress in language planning: International perspectives (pp.269-289). Berlin: Mouton.

Hornberger, N. (1994). Literacy and language planning. Language and Education, 8 (1&2), 75-86.

Lewis, G. (1983). Implantation of language planning in the Soviet Union. In Cobarrubias, Juan and Fishman (Eds.), Progress in language planning: International perspectives (pp.309-326). Berlin: Mouton.

Silver, R. E. & Skuja-Steele, R. (2004). Priorities in English language education policy and classroom implementation. Language Policy, 4 (1), 107-128.