Billingual Education

There was a thoughtful column about bilingual education in Sunday's Seattle Times by syndicated columnist, Esther Cepeda. From her column:

Education policy has rarely garnered our collective attention as it does now.

One aspect that needs more attention, though, is the question of how best to educate students whose native language is not English. It's a politically charged topic that rarely focuses on research and instead pits those who don't want to spend resources on instructing children in any language other than English against those who believe bilingual education is a civil right.

Okay so let's stop there because there are a couple of issues. One, should the American public education system be educating children in their native language and two, is it a civil rights issue?

Ms. Cepeda argues that it hurts the whole educational system's performance if non-native speakers struggle because of language barriers.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics says that between 1979 and 2008, the number of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 3.8 million to 10.9 million, or from 9 percent to 21 percent of the population in this age range.

Right now each state individually decides how to educate English-language learners based on the tenets of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which sought to ensure a quality education for students with limited English skills. Programs range from those in which students are fully immersed in English-language classrooms with various "English as a second language" programs, to classrooms where a student is taught completely in his or her native language with additional English-language instruction for an eventual transition to English-only classrooms.

Now, of course, in any urban area you can have many languages. SPS provides services in many languages. What becomes a more defining point is when you have a concentration of one language like Spanish in states like Texas, Arizona and California.

She points out that if there is a critical mass of students speaking one language, they tend to get placed in a native-speaker classroom while a single student with a non-English language might be immersed in an English-speaking classroom.

I recently attended a bilingual and dual-language education conference where Diane August of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics shocked participants by citing several recent studies to verify anecdotal evidence that goes back generations: Preschoolers who are immersed in English without extensive native-language support learn English as well as those in bilingual or other native-language-supported classroom.

She does point out that this is probably worthwhile for younger students but they have no verifiable data for middle and high school students. (I would also point out that there are students who not only are immigrants but may have not had much formal schooling. That is another whole challenge and one that our BOC - Bilingual Orientation Centers - were created for.)

One thing to tease out from this article is embracing the varied cultures that live within our borders while hoping that immigrants learn English and appreciate their new country. Foreigners came here and adopted U.S. culture and language in order to assimilate. For example, when my husband's uncles immigrated from Italy, they all took the American version of their names (Raffaele became Ralph). They wanted to fit in, not stand out. Now, of course, they lived in the Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn so it's not like they didn't stick with what they knew. But they did know if they wanted to be successful, it was English and assimilation.

My own experience growing up on the Arizona-Mexico border showed me that graduated immersion might be one way to go. Meaning, one school year in a non-native-speaking class but taking PE with native speakers. After that, it's immersion. I think that long-term bilingual ed may be a crutch and we want to get larger numbers of students up-to-speed, they need to be with native speakers. Of course, it also may mean we need more teachers who speak Spanish and Chinese (the top 2 non-native languages in the U.S.).

This, of course, is not just an education issue. Immigration reform seems to be quite important to many conservatives but just what that looks like and how it will play out in our schools is hard to predict.


Teacher 75 said…
As supported by just about any reputable research that has been done on English language acquisition, a student who is literate in their native language will learn English better, faster, and more thoroughly. If a student has not learned how to read or write in their native language and is then expected to learn to read in a new language, the process is often difficult. If bilingual programs have the specific aim of establishing literacy in the native language, and explicitly preparing students for the transferance of those skills, I absolutely support it and think that achievement levels of those students will ultimately be much higher. They still need exposure right away to lots of written and spoken English, and there are lots of ways that can happen. Mixed language classes in science, math, and subjects not literacy based should happen at the same time so their English speaking skills can develop right away.
dan dempsey said…
My mother in law, Mariette, came to the USA as a World War II war bride from Belgium. Registered nurse member of the Belgian resistance fluent in French and "NOT" English.

She read a lot of comic books upon arrival in the USA as one way to pick up English. Eventually she gained registered nursing credentials in WA State and worked as a school nurse for many years.

She has been a very harsh critic of extended bilingual programs. Check the Seattle OSPI test scores for Limited English speaking students.

There was a time when immigrants from Eastern Europe entered NYC schools at the grade in which they could speak English. Yes 13 year-olds and older in grade 1. Many progressed rapidly up the grades as they became proficient in English as well as other subjects.

It seems that with "the de facto doctrine of social promotion" these days that far too many students progress up the grades despite lacking knowledge and skills.

I was really pleased, in this post, to see an appeal to using evidence of success to make decisions rather than "more of what some would like to have work"....... whether "it works or not". Seattle Math under MGJ is a suitable example of ideology trumping evidence in decision-making.

Let us make "Results" important and dump the going nowhere "Ed Elite Philosophical" approach.

It is not a Best Practice if it does not work, no matter which PhD in Education tells us so.
Jan said…
Teacher 75: I am curious. How does this research deal with dual language learning by pre-school or younger children, who seem to become pretty easily fluent in both languages? Is it limited to "older" individuals, whose language learning capacity has started to decline? I am not disputing what you say (what little I know is anecdotal and not terribly relevant). I just am not sure how to evaluate your position in light of dual language learning in bilingual infants, toddlers, preschoolers.

Also -- if you know anything about bi- or tri-lingual language learning in places like Switzerland (where children "go to school" in one of three languages, depending on where they live), I would love to hear that as well.
dan dempsey said…

In Singapore there is also a multilingual model.

Math instruction is always in English but other classes could be in Tamil, Mandarin Chinese or Malay. Slightly less than 50% of students come from primarily English speaking homes.

Like you I do not know much about this issue.

-- Dan
Jan, I'd have to go research that.

What the column references is purely anecdotal. I can say from my own experience of family and friends (and many bi-lingual professors at UW and their children) is that children can learn one (or more) languages when they are young. I know a family where the mom is Mexican, the father German and obviously, they live in the U.S. The kids speak all three languages. I read once that Arnold Schwarzenegger only spoke German to his kids when they were young so they would be bilingual. I think among bilingual families this is well-known but has there been research?
peonypower said…
I read this article with great interest because I have been teaching full-inclusion high school science last year and this year. What this means is that there are regular students, students with several years of English instruction, and students with beginning level English skills. Last year I worked with an ELL teacher to take the existing curriculum and adapt it to make it more accessible to beginning English speakers. It took a ton of work and time to do this (for which I received exactly 4 extra hours of pay.) In addition to the ELL teacher, there was also a part time Chinese speaking IA, and a full time spanish IA who worked with students. During the year students went from never having had a science class and beginning English skills to presenting their lab results in class to their peers. All but one of the ELL students passed the class for the year, and all saw dramatic increases in their language acquisition (confirmed by the ELL language arts teacher who tracked information on kids in inclusion classes and those not.) Students who were in full inclusion courses moved ahead in language by at least 2 levels by mid-year and continued to improve all year. My experience was that if supported even beginning level ELL students can succeed and benefit from full inclusion classes. They form social bonds with peers, they challenge themselves to compete with their english speaking peers academically, and they also learn how to navigate the U.S. school system (which at high school is no small feat.) However, given how positive this experience was last year, it required a significant investment of time and $$ in the form of support to make it work.

Two things that are lacking under the new CBA this year. This year IA's have a doubled case load so there are fewer IA's and they have more to do. Gone is the Chinese IA, no Somali IA, and my Spanish IA is in class about 2 days a week at most. The ELL teacher also works in 2 other classrooms in addition to mine. Not surprisingly more than half of my ELL students are failing the course. There is simply not enough time and human power to work with these students in the way they need to master two subjects (English and science.) At this point I am asking my former ELL students to tutor their friends that I have this year to make up the difference.

I think full inclusion can be a fantastic way to teach, but not without sufficient support. What is the saddest about this year is there could have been funds to support full-inclusion if downtown wanted to, but apparently excellence for all means something different to me than it does to Central admin.
peonypower said…
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Anonymous said…
Sounds like special education. By any chance, was there an ELL Chinese "coach" for your use once a year instead of an IA, with experience in kindergarten only? In special education, they call it ICS. It's supposed to work for everything.

--Special ed parent
Chris S. said…
Perhaps the difference between Teacher 75 and Jan's data is that Teacher 75 is referring to written language learning, while Jan's preschool observations are probably mostly oral language acquisition. Seems to me the two may be entirely different processes; certainly they are distinct developmentally.
Anonymous said…
I have heard that kids with IEPs who are ELL are not getting their IEPs translated, are not getting access to gifted testing, and are caught in a no-man's land. Can anybody supply facts? It sounds horribly plausible that these things are happening.

Signed, proud special education parent

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