Critiques of Arizona’s Take on Research

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 13, 2007 2 min read
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The Institute for Language and Education Policy—which says its mission is to educate the public on research-based strategies for English-language learners—has posted a 10-page critique of a 13-page document that an Arizona task force is using to justify changes in programs for ELLs.

Also, the Washington-based Center on Education Policy released a report, “Caught in the Middle: Arizona’s English Language Learners and the High School Exit Exam,” today that includes the following recommendation: “The state’s structured English-immersion models should be rethought to require school districts to implement instructional models that are truly research-based.” That report quotes a task force member anonymously as admitting that Arizona’s new requirements for ELLs aren’t informed by research.

School districts in Arizona are being required to teach specific English skills to ELLs for four hours a day. Students at beginning levels of English proficiency, for example, must receive 45 minutes of instruction in oral English, an hour in grammar, an hour in reading, and 15 minutes in pre-writing, according to a state document on models for instruction. (See “Arizona Spells Out ‘Research-Based’ Models for English Immersion.”)

In their critique, posted by the Institute for Language and Education Policy, Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, Jeff MacSwan of Arizona State University, and Kellie Rolstad of Arizona State University conclude that Arizona’s review of the research “neglects to reference significant research bearing on the questions raised, and frequently draws inappropriate conclusions from the research presented.”

One of their complaints is that the Arizona document fails to cite research studies that have concluded that structured English immersion is an inferior approach for ELLs in comparison with programs that teach such students in both English and in their native language. Mr. Krashen and Mr. MacSwan have been vocal supporters of bilingual education.

The three researchers say they concur with Arizona’s task force that research supports the idea that ELLs benefit from discrete blocks of instructional time devoted to English language and literacy instruction. However, they say that it can’t be further concluded that fixed amounts of times should be given to the instruction of discreet skills. Mr. MacSwan clarified to me in an e-mail message that this refers to the fact, for example, that Arizona is requiring one hour of grammar each day for beginning ELLs. He and the other two researchers are interpreting Arizona’s requirements to mean that grammar would be taught outside of its “ordinary context,” he said.

They caution against the adoption of a curriculum that separates academic subject matter from language teaching, arguing that students need a meaningful context to learn language in school.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.