Friday, March 9, 2012

Gutiérrez & Orellana (2006) - The "Problem" of English Learners: Constructing Genres of Difference

Gutiérrez, K. & Orellana, M.F. (2006). The "Problem" of English Learners: Constructing Genres of Difference. Research in the Teaching of English, 40, 502-507.

Key terms:

selective exemplification: Taking a "slice of life" of English Learners in a way that does not show complexity and account for a fuller understanding of how that practice fits into a larger ecology of a student's life (or literacy repertoire) raises serious questions about the validity of claims concerning what counts as literacy for these students. We want to highlight a convention we find particularly troubling both methodologically and ethically, that is, the practice of "selective exemplification" in empirical work. Specifically, we refer to zooming in our analytical lens on topics that sensationalize, exoticize, and romanticize, or, conversely, zooming out to essentialize or homogenize English Learners in ways that blind us or our readers to the fuller, more complicated realities of these students' lives. (504)

"framing" English Learners: the way the "problem" of English Learners and other non-dominant students is typically framed. This framework begins with the statistical set-up to the problem that we described above; it is here that a group of non-dominant students are first isolated and identified as a distinct, unified group that is somehow different from an invisible and mostly unspecified norm. In much research, the grouping is based on racial or ethnic-group categorization, not language practices or other distinctions, even when the issue being explored is one of language. (505)

difference framework: white middle-class students are often considered the "norm" in terms home practices, values, beliefs, attitudes, identities, or skills. "The descriptors that researchers use can reveal an underlying set of assumptions about normativity and serve to construct the population as 'other' even when there is no direct comparison with another community or group." (505)

Key ideas:

In this work we have struggled against commonplace approaches to conceptualizing and reporting research that unwittingly create or reinforce deficit views of these students and their communities. (502)

Almost invariably, research reports contextualize the study with statistics about changing demographics in the U.S. as the rationale for the urgency of studying English Learners. Taken together, these data often function to paint pictures of poor, struggling students in schools and communities with limited resources. (502)

We, of course, are not discouraging the use of relevant descriptive statistics as they can serve to identify critical issues and inequities; instead, we call attention to the ways they can constitute deficit-oriented, uncomplicated, and uneven narratives about students for whom English is a second language. (503)

Some time ago, our colleague Elinor Ochs (1979) wrote that researchers engaged in transcribing their participants' talk and interaction are also engaged in the process of building theory about the participants and their practices. Similarly, we argue that the ways we marshal data to make generalizations about what is normative for English Learners, their language and literacy practices, and their home communities build theories about normativity, often without regard to students' existing repertoires of practice or the additional sets of challenges English Learners experience. (504)

There are a number of ways to denote normativity or regularity in English Learners, and one salient tendency in the genre of English Learner studies is to focus on a narrow range of what constitutes the students' literacy toolkit and repertoires. Selectively focusing on what we as researchers find as salient, fascinating, or unusual to us or the field - to the exclusion of the widely diverse range of practices, interests, and proclivities of English Learners- serves to reinforce a kind of analytical reductiveness too often associated with discussions of non-dominant students and communities. (504)

As we try to build a corpus of studies with English Learners, there is a critical need for more nuanced and complete analyses and depictions of students' literacy practices observed across a range of settings, tasks, and contexts over sustained periods of time. (505)

But when the issue is second- language learning, members of this student population should be identified by more than their membership in an ethnic category, and race/ethnicity should not be conflated with language abilities (just as it should not be conflated with social class).(505)

The difference framework has a long history, most perniciously in the overtly deficit-driven notion that some groups of children suffer from "cultural deprivation" or live in "cultures of poverty." The only slightly more benign version of a difference framework - that of "cultural mismatch theory," which spotlights presumed differences between school and home language practices - has had significant longevity in educational research, and, especially, in language and literacy studies. (506)