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Published in Print: November 8, 2006, as Guides Avoid Bilingual vs. English-Only Issue

Guides Avoid Bilingual vs. English-Only Issue

Panel members say they deliberately sidestepped politically charged topic.

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Educators and policymakers looking for advice on the most highly charged issue affecting the education of English-language learners won’t be getting it from the Department of Education.

Three guidebooks with “research-based recommendations” for teaching such students released by the department last week don’t address the issue of whether it’s more beneficial to use bilingual education or English-only methods, even though it is prominent in research literature. Neither does the draft of a “practice guide,” still to be peer-reviewed, that offers counsel for teaching the same group of students.

“We intentionally avoided that,” said Russell Gersten, the executive director of the Instructional Research Group, of Long Beach, Calif., referring to why the panel he led for the practice guide hadn’t made a recommendation on whether schools should provide instruction to English-learners in their native languages.

The practice guide was previewed here last week at an Oct. 30-Nov. 1 meeting on English-language learners sponsored by the Education Department.

“Internally, we decided it was best to come out with practical guidelines about ways to teach, ways to assess, and ways to improve curriculum and instructional materials,” Mr. Gersten said. The panel also avoided the issue of bilingual education in part, he acknowledged, because it is political and has polarized the field.

David J. Francis, a professor of quantitative methods in the psychology department at the University of Houston who led the writing of the three guidebooks with “research-based recommendations” for teaching English-language learners, said his team of researchers from Harvard University and his own university had deliberately excluded a discussion on the language of instruction.

“The point of these books was not to get into this discussion, not because it’s not an important topic ..., but because it tends to dominate all discussions at the cost of discussions about good instruction, which transcend the choice of language model,” he wrote in an e-mail.

By contrast, a study on how best to teach English-language learners in high schools—paid for by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and released Nov. 2 by the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education—took up the matter of the language of instruction.

“If adolescent ELLs are literate in their native language and on grade level, a bilingual program might be the best option,” says the report, “Double the Work.” It describes a bilingual program in Union City, N.J., public schools as “based on research.”

The Education Department guides on English-language learners “are omitting something that is important,” said Stephen D. Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and an advocate of bilingual education. Research shows “a consistent small to moderate advantage to bilingual education,” he said. “It’s one of the most reliable findings we have in all of education.”

Differing Views

Both Mr. Gersten and Mr. Francis say they didn’t have a directive from the Education Department telling them not to address research comparing bilingual education and English-only methods. Both projects were financed by the department’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The two scholars have different views about research on the effectiveness of bilingual education. Mr. Gersten said the research is “utterly ambiguous” and “not convincing.” Mr. Francis said that in a meta-analysis he helped conduct of research comparing bilingual education and English-only methods, “we find a small to moderate positive effect size for primary-language instruction” in developing literacy.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the IES, said it was his understanding that the practice guide doesn’t address such research because the authors “wanted to focus on research-based recommendations that could be carried out anyplace in the country.” Some states, he noted, have laws that restrict the use of bilingual education.

See Also
See the accompanying story, “ELL Test Reviews Postponed”

But James Crawford, the president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based Institute for Language and Education Policy, contended in an e-mail that politics is driving the Education Department to say as little as possible about bilingual education.

“Apparently, the Bush administration worries if it says anything nice about bilingual education, it will offend the Republican base,” he said. “On the other hand, if it jumps on the English-only bandwagon, it might alienate Latino voters.”

‘Off the Radar Screen’

The practice guide for teaching English-language learners is the first of several such guides the IES plans to publish. “It’s to fill a space that currently isn’t filled in education—research-informed documents that provide coherent advice about a problem that is multifaceted,” said Mr. Whitehurst.

Three of the six panel members relayed its seven recommendations to the 1,500 educators at the meeting last week.

Timothy Shanahan, the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained that the practice guide recommends that teachers explicitly teach vocabulary to English-language learners throughout the school day. That recommendation, he said, is backed by only two studies focusing on vocabulary and English-language learners. Yet another of the recommendations—teachers who teach reading in students’ native languages should also introduce English reading early on—is backed with a “moderate” level of research, Mr. Shanahan said.

After the presentation, Claude Goldenberg, the executive director of the Center for Language-Minority Education and Research at California State University-Long Beach, confronted Mr. Shanahan about why the practice guide doesn’t address research on the effectiveness of bilingual education. “How could you drop it off the radar screen?” Mr. Goldenberg asked.

“It’s a legitimate question,” replied Mr. Shanahan, who agreed that there is more evidence to support the position that bilingual education is effective than there is to back some of the recommendations.

Sylvia Linan-Thompson, an associate professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin and a panelist, said in a phone interview, “The decision was made early on that because a majority of English-language learners in the country received instruction in English, that’s what we would focus on.”

At the same time, she said, “I don’t think that this practice guide suggests that if you are able to provide bilingual education, you shouldn’t do so.”

Vol. 26, Issue 11, Pages 20,22

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Correction: 
This article misstated the arm of the U.S. Department of Education that paid for three guidebooks on how to teach English-language learners. The Comprehensive Centers Program of the office of elementary and secondary education underwrote the project.

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