Published Online: November 28, 2006
Published in Print: November 29, 2006, as Bilingual Guides


Bilingual Guides

Why Ignore the Effects of Primary-Language Instruction?

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To the Editor:

Two recent U.S. Department of Education-funded efforts to help practitioners derive practical conclusions from the research on English-language learners are silent on the language of instruction ("Guides Avoid Bilingual vs. English-Only Issue," Nov. 8, 2006).

The reasoning offered by participating researchers is bizarre. The director of one group is paraphrased in your article as saying he avoided the topic in part because “it is political and has polarized the field.” Another is quoted as saying that this avoidance is “not because it’s not an important topic, … but because it tends to dominate all discussions.” A panelist, also quoted, said it was because “a majority of English-language learners in the country received instruction in English.”

The most obvious question is whether the reports’ authors believe we should try to build practice on a research foundation, or simply pick and choose according to taste or preference.

Five separate meta-analyses have reached the same conclusion about reading instruction in the home language: Teaching a child to read in his or her first language (referred to as L1) has a positive effect on reading achievement in the second language (L2). Yes, that’s right: Learning to read in one language helps children learn to read in a second language.

The beneficial effects of L1 instruction on L2 achievement are some of the strongest, most data-based conclusions in the field of language-minority education. The effects are modest, to be sure, and there are many other important instructional issues that merit attention. The Education Department’s reports do a credible job of identifying many of these, which is very important since L1 instruction is simply not an option for many English-learners. We must push ahead on all possible fronts.

But on what grounds do the authors of these reports choose to ignore the L1 part of the research base?

This is a grave disservice to the field and once again highlights why we keep running into trouble on the so-called bilingual education question. Proponents of primary-language instruction tend to overstate its beneficial effects, while skeptics simply ignore the issue and apparently wish the relevant research would just go away. Neither perspective will help us see our way through this complex thicket.

If researchers can’t handle the issue forthrightly, then it is up to the Education Department—that is, if it is serious about “scientifically based practice”—to insist that the reports it commissions deal with the research on its merits. Researchers funded by the government to derive research-based implications for practitioners should not be allowed to duck the tough questions because they are political, unpopular, not widely used, or merely inconvenient. It is simply not right.

Claude Goldenberg
Executive Director
Center for Language Minority Education and Research
California State University-Long Beach
Long Beach, Calif.

Vol. 26, Issue 13, Page 35

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