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Methods Follow Varied Paths to Reach Fluency

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The instructional methods that may help children become proficient in English can be grouped in a variety of ways. One useful distinction is between approaches that are monolingual--using only English--and those that are bilingual.

The primary monolingual approaches are submersion and English-as-a-second-language instruction. Submersion is also described as by researchers a "nonmethod," since pupils receive no help. The Lau ruling has been universally interpreted as making submersion unconstitutional.

Like submersion, English-as-a-second-language also relies on English as the medium of instruction, but it differs significantly, according to experts. The esl programs use specially trained teachers and methods and materials developed for non-native speakers. They also take into account the linguistic background of the child.

Virtually all bilingual programs have an esl component.

Traditionally, esl "has had a mixed bag of students," notes Ramon Santiago, director of the Bilingual Education Service Center at Georgetown University. It is the method used most commonly in situations where there are fewer than 20 students in a school with one language-minority background. Without that concentration of students, schools are not required to provide native-language instruction, and because of the paucity of trained teachers, many are unable to do so.

True bilingual programs all use native-language instruction, but they vary in their goals and approaches. In transitional programs, "bilingual support is removed after students can do classroom work in English," Mr. Santiago says; there is no plan to help the child further develop proficiency in his native language.

In maintenance programs, the goal is to attain proficiency in both languages--students maintain and improve their capacity to speak their first language. When students whose native language is English participate in bilingual-maintenance programs, such programs are generally known as enrichment programs.

Immersion, too, is a bilingual approach, but it operates in the reverse direction of many other methods. "It differs from others because you start with the second language and do everything in that language for a period of time," Mr. Santiago explains. "The difference between immersion and submersion is that with immersion, beginning from day one, you are teaching content. The focus is on content. The teachers are bilingual. In the early stages, children may speak in their native language, and the teacher will respond in the second language." The goal of immersion is bilingualism, Mr. Santiago contends.

Immersion programs require bilingual teachers because the teachers must be able to understand the pupils when they speak their first language and to provide them with "comprehensible input"--the context needed to link words in an unfamiliar language with concepts familiar in the first language. ("Two and two equals quatro," says one bilingual educator. "That's comprehensible input.")

Such programs should also make use of "modified input," which modifies the language and "throws in a lot of repetition and redundancy to help the child get comprehensive input," says James Cummins, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. Such programs should include a "strong promotion of children's first language," he says.

Within the context of federal policy, however, federal officials point out that all the approaches converge at the same goal.

"I consider them all transitional. They all have the same point--to get the kid to English. They do it different ways, but it's the same point," says Gilbert N. Garcia, manager of research and evaluation for the Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs.--SW

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