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A Glossary of Bilingual-Education Terms

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An excess of oversimplified and often misleading program labels complicates the debate over the effectiveness of bilingual education.

For example, transitional bilingual education, English as a second language, and immersion are typically described as discrete "methods'' of teaching limited-English-proficient children. In practice, however, there is much overlap among the three educational treatments--indeed, some of the most successful bilingual models draw techniques from all three. At the same time, there is enormous variation among programs classed under each of these labels.

To follow the pedagogical debate, a clear understanding of terms is essential. The following glossary is drawn principally from Bilingual and ESL Classrooms, a leading text used in bilingual-teacher training, by Carlos J. Ovando and Virginia P. Collier.

In transitional bilingual education, LEP children study English in classes specially designed for second-language learners and receive a portion of their instruction in their native language to help them keep up in school subjects. The goal is to prepare students to enter mainstream English classrooms as soon as possible, and this transition is usually completed within two years.

By law, the bulk of federal Title VII grants must support the transitional approach. But the legal definition of transitional bilingual education is broad, requiring only that some native language and culture be used, along with ESL instruction.

Contrary to the public perception of transitional bilingual education as a foreign-language program, studies have shown that English is the medium of instruction from 72 percent to 92 percent of the time. In a recent California study, teachers used no native language at all in 47 percent of the so-called "bilingual classrooms'' observed.

Unlike transitional programs, maintenance or developmental bilingual education attempts to preserve and develop the students' first language while they are adding a second. In other words, maintenance programs are based on an educational enrichment model; transitional programs, on a compensatory model. "In the maintenance model, there is less emphasis on exiting students from the program as soon as possible,'' according to Mr. Ovando and Ms. Collier. Typically, native-language classes continue through the 6th grade, although most subjects may be taught in English. Developmental bilingual classrooms at the high-school level are relatively rare in the United States.

The goal of language maintenance is additive bilingualism, which provides cognitive, as well as social and economic advantages, according to some researchers. By contrast, subtractive bilingualism--the attempt to replace a child's native language with English--is associated by many researchers with low levels of development in both languages, and with underachievement in school.

Maintenance programs may also function as two-way bilingual education, which Mr. Ovando and Ms. Collier define as "an integrated model in which speakers of [two] languages are placed together in a bilingual classroom to learn each other's language and work academically in both languages.'' Most common in the United States are programs that simultaneously teach Spanish to English-background children and English to Hispanics, while developing native-language skills for both groups.

In immersion programs, children are taught a second language through content-area instruction in that language, with an emphasis on contextual clues and with grammar and vocabulary adjusted to students' level of proficiency. The key is providing comprehensible input, or understandable messages through which children acquire the second language as they learn other academic subjects.

Immersion must be distinguished from submersion, also known as "sink or swim,'' in which LEP children receive no special language assistance. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974, in the Lau v. Nichols case, that submersion violates federal civil-rights law.

Enrichment-immersion programs have been widely successful among language-majority children, such as French immersion in Canada, or Spanish immersion in the United States, in which English-speakers are taught initially in the second language.

The U.S. Education Department has promoted an approach known as structured immersion, a monolingual English strategy for teaching language-minority children. This method differs from submersion, because a simplified form of English is used as the medium of instruction, and in some immersion models, teachers are capable of answering--in English--questions posed by children in their native tongue.

Lacking substantial evidence from the United States, proponents have cited the success of French immersion programs in Canada in arguing that structured immersion is a promising alternative to bilingual education. But the researchers who designed French immersion have warned that this approach is inappropriate and potentially harmful for minority students, whose native tongue is in danger of being replaced because of its low social status.

Alternate immersion, also termed sheltered English, is a component of many bilingual programs. Children receive sheltered instruction--geared to their level of English proficiency--sometimes at first in subjects that are less language-intensive, such as mathematics, and later in subjects that are more so, such as social studies.

In other program models, lessons are taught in the native language in the morning and through English immersion in the afternoon, or the lessons may be repeated on alternate days. The preview-review method, frequently used in a team-teaching situation, features lessons taught first in one, then the other, language, followed by a review session in both languages to reinforce what has been learned.

Concurrent translation, in which a teacher shifts between two languages to communicate each idea, is still the predominant method of bilingual instruction in the United States. Many researchers, however, arguing that children simply ignore the language they do not understand, have criticized this approach. Also, they warn, teachers tend to favor one language or the other, often unconsciously.

Worst of all, the concurrent-translation method can encourage a regressive form of code-switching--or a mixing of the two languages--which can retard children's development in both.

Other concurrent approaches attempt to avoid these problems by training teachers, among other things, to monitor their language use and to avoid code-switching within sentences. With such adjustments, the approach could work, says Stephen D. Krashen, a leading theorist of second-language acquisition. "But the concurrent approach is tough on the teacher; it's unnecessary, and [sheltered English] is a safer way of doing it,'' he says.

English as a second language is a component of virtually all bilingual-education programs in the United States. And because of a shortage of bilingual teachers, for many LEP children it is the only special assistance available. Especially in districts where many language groups are represented, students may receive ESL instruction only through "pullout classes'' a few times each week. The rest of the time, it is sink or swim.

With ESL, as with bilingual instruction, methods vary tremendously. The most common approaches remain grammar-based, such as the audio-lingual method, which emphasizes memorization of vocabulary and drills in "the structure of the week.'' The grammar-translation approach, an older, less-used method, concentrates on learning a language by perfecting reading and writing skills, with less attention to listening and speaking.

While grammar-based ESL has produced students who can formulate grammatically perfect sentences--given enough time--it has often failed to make them proficient communicators, according to many researchers. And the tedious content of instruction, for students and teachers alike, appears to impede learning.

Increasingly, communication-based ESL is superseding the old methods. The new approaches are grounded in the theory that language proficiency is acquired through exposure to comprehensible messages, rather than learned consciously through the study of syntax and vocabulary.

Representative of such innovative methods, the natural approach and total physical response stress simplified speech and visual or physical clues to help students comprehend second-language input. Also, they aim to create low-anxiety environments that "lower the affective filter'' that prevents comprehensible input from getting through. For example, teachers focus on meaningful and interesting communication, resist the impulse to correct students' errors overtly, and avoid pressuring children to "produce'' speech in the second language before they are ready.

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