The Misteaching of Academic Discourses: The Politics of Language in the Classroom

By Lilia I. Bartolome | Go to book overview

Foreword James Paul Gee

For quite some time now, we have asked: Why do so many minority and poor children fail in school? And, indeed, mounds of research devoted to this question have piled up, even as these children continue to fail. Lilia Bartolomé crucially changes the question. For her, the question is: How and why do we manage to fail to teach so many minority and poor children in school? The answers to this question are liable to make us all uncomfortable in ways that answers to the traditional question did not.

The answers to the traditional question--Why do so many minority and poor children fail at school?--often ran something like this: These children, like all of us, learn early in life how to use and understand language in the context of daily, face-to-face interaction with people with whom they share lots of experiences and information. Such "contextualized language" gets most of its meaning from the contexts in which it is used and the shared understandings on which it is based, not from the words uttered. However, many minority and poor children come to school unprepared for "school language." Such language, the language of lectures and books, is, it is held, "decontextualized." That is, such language is rendered meaningful not by the contexts in which it is used or on the basis of shared experiences but solely on the basis of what the words and sentences uttered or written literally mean. Such language is "explicit"; everyday, "contextualized language" is "inexplicit."

Bartolomé realizes that this account and, indeed, the whole notion of "decontextualized language" is misleading and harmful. All language is meaningful only in and through the contexts in which it is used. All language is meaningful only on the basis of shared experiences and shared information. All language is "inexplicit" until listeners and readers fill it out, based on the experiences they have had and the information they have gained in prior socioculturally significant interactions with others.

-ix-

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