Book Review: Breaking Down the Wall

By Rebecca Wilner

Taken with permission from: The Definite Article: WATESOL Newsletter Spring 2020

Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners’ Success addresses a variety of important issues for educators in the U.S. K-12 realm, including how to maintain rigor in lessons and curricula, purposeful scaffolding, and advocacy for students and their families. It is clearly written, well-organized, relatable, and helpful – making it well worth reading.

Each of the book’s nine chapters has the same structure, beginning with a statement of The Premise, followed by a Vignette or case study that highlights the issue ad- dressed in the chapter. Then there is a short explanation of why the issue is important and timely, fittingly called The Urgency, and after that, the essential lit re- view, here called The Evidence. The meat of the chapter follows, with plentiful examples, checklists, tables, worksheets, and a section called The Vision, which lays out how the shift
discussed in that chapter could affect – and in some cases has already affected – English learners in K-12 settings throughout the U.S. Each chapter ends with a Call for Action and Conclusion and a reference section.

The authors discuss the most pressing issues in English language education at most U.S. public schools and provide concrete and research-based suggestions of “shifts” educators must make in thinking and practice in order to improve the quality of education for English language learners (ELLs). They are:

  1. From a deficit-based to an asset-based view of students. When students are pushed through a system that was not designed for them, with little support and few resources, it can be easy to hyper-focus on their needs or what they lack, and forget to incorporate their strengths, experiences, and individualism
  2. From compliance with laws and regulations to excellence. That is, going beyond what is required by law, and doing what is best for all students because it is the right thing to do.
  3. From watering down to challenging learners by using purposeful, strategic scaffolding of rigorous content instead of easier texts.
  4. From isolation to collaboration, so that teachers can work together in meaningful, sustainable ways to meet the needs of all students.
  5. From silence to conversation – when educators understand the experience of English-learning students in class, they can design more appropriate collaborative learning activities and provide a richer learning environment.
  6. From focusing exclusively on language to including language, literacy, and content in teaching and learning practices.
  7. From assessment of learning to assessment for and as learning. That is, educators can do more than assess students’ language or proficiency gains and content knowledge; assessments can be learning experiences themselves. That may include changes in the way we assess, how often we assess, and how we give feed- back on assessments.
  8. From monolingualism to multilingualism: providing support and rewards for students’ home and other language abilities, including but not limited to seals of bilingualism and biliteracy.
  9. From nobody cares to everyone and every community cares. Educators can work together to build community, understanding, and respect for our students, and for teachers of English learners.

I found that this book, in its approximately 200 pages, spoke directly to my experience, concerns, and ideals. Not only did it validate my experience as a teacher of ELLs, but it also provided support from a vast field of research and other contexts. The book also offered concrete and helpful tools to begin conversations with colleagues and administrators and a pathway for me as I strive to fully realize the shifts I want to make in my own teaching practice.

The writing is clear, accessible, and concise. Each chapter includes comments in the margins, as if the authors had been working in a shared document and decided to leave in a few of the editorial comments as they pulled the final book together. At first these were somewhat distracting, but as I read on, I found them to be pointed, important additions. The case studies are very helpful to contextualize the issues, though many of them focus on ELLs of Hispanic back- grounds and thus may not necessarily represent the diversity of students one might find in the Washington, DC area. However, several chapters do refer specifically to Loudoun County, Virginia, and the work that has been done in that extremely diverse region.

Though the shifts covered in the book are certainly relevant to educators in all contexts, I expect this book to resonate most with a K-12 audience. It is not limited to teachers of ELLs, though. I plan to purchase a copy for the principals at both of the schools at which I teach and to keep the guides, checklists, and conversation-starting or reflection questions included in each chapter handy as I plan lessons and work with other teachers. Breaking Down the Wall has helped me prioritize my actions and advocacy, and has offered a path to follow as I go forward.

Calderón, M., Dove, M., Fenner, D., Gottlieb, M., Honigsfeld, A., Singer, T., … Zacarian, D. (2019). Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners’ Success. Thousand Oaks, California.: Corwin.