English-Only Laws Look Good to One Latina

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 13, 2009 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In her self-syndicated column, Esther J. Cepeda, a Latina, vents her frustration that more people in a graduate class she took on strategies for teaching English-language learners didn’t share her distaste for bilingual education. Ms. Cepeda was a bilingual teacher in two Illinois school districts for a short stint and fought for Spanish-speaking students to be integrated into classes with native-English speakers and taught in English, according to a previous column she wrote. Illinois requires school districts to provide bilingual education when they have a critical mass of English-language learners who speak a language other than English.

Cepeda’s take on bilingual education is that teachers end up teaching students only in Spanish. In yesterday’s column, “Why ‘English-Only’ Laws Look So Good,” she relays that she told her classmates in the graduate class that “segregating students into Spanish-speaking sheltered classes was a recipe for a permanent underclass.”

Cepeda cites a federal report about adult literacy (that I recently mentioned on this blog) as evidence that many speakers of languages other than English in this country lack literacy in English. The report, by the way, does not examine what kinds of programs the adults in the study were enrolled in while in school.

Cepeda indicates that English-only legislation being proposed in New York looks like a good idea. It’s a proposal that has drawn concern from advocates of bilingual education.

Cepeda’s views seem to come mostly out of personal experience of having witnessed bilingual education programs. I’ve come across other folks in my reporting who have been turned off by bilingual education after seeing how some of those programs work on the ground.

Personally, I’ve observed both bilingual programs that are effective, as I reported in an article about Brownsville Independent School District, and ones that seemed to be ineffective. In Brownsville, teachers receive clear guidance on how much English and how much Spanish to use during instruction at each grade level. Most students who start kindergarten as English-language learners are transitioned to full English instruction by 4th grade.

In ineffective programs, I have observed teachers who constantly moved back and forth between two languages in their instruction, sometimes mid-sentence, which seemed very confusing. And in some of those ineffective programs, I seriously questioned if students were developing their English skills.

Reviews of research on English-language learners give a modest advantage to bilingual education programs over English-only methods in effectiveness. But all the researchers I’ve ever interviewed who have faith in these reviews tell me that effective bilingual programs must include a strong component of developing students’ English skills while they are also receiving instruction in their native language.

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