Is Language the Problem for Most Latino Students?

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 26, 2009 2 min read
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Learning English may be a challenge for some Latinos, but it’s not the main educational problem for most of them, argue Patricia Gandara and Frances Contreras in a new book, The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies. They point out that millions of Latino students speak only English but have really low academic achievement.

Gandara is a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. Contreras is an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington. Gandara is being hosted tomorrow by the American Youth Policy Forum on Capitol Hill for a presentation on her book and discussion about how to address underachievement among Latino students.

Gandara and Contreras argue that a lack of quality of education overall is the main cause for underachievement among Latinos. But at the same time, the authors spend a great deal of time in a chapter, “Is Language the Problem?,” discussing how many schools have failed to effectively help English-language learners acquire English. (Keep in mind that 45 percent of Latino students are ELLs, though Gandara and Contreras don’t mention this statistic in that chapter.) They imply that many schools have not been as effective as possible by teaching them only in English, and not using native-language instruction.

In addition, they argue that it may not be helpful for educators to consider a student to be either an English-learner or a fluent English speaker. “In reality...” they write, “most Latino students’ English skills fall somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes: from speaking English as their first or primary language and being exposed to Spanish in the home or community, to speaking no English and living in a linguistically segregated, Spanish-only setting.” They say that most Latino children probably need some kind of extra intervention to achieve the same language proficiency as their native-English peers.

It reminds me how, when I tell Americans that I speak Spanish, they often ask me, “Are you fluent?” I answer, “It depends on what topic I’m talking about. And I speak social Spanish more than academic Spanish.”

Gandara and Contreras contend that more mainstream teachers need to be trained in how to address students’ language needs. For both English-learners and Latinos who aren’t officially in that category, a lack of high-quality instruction is a big factor in their lack of academic achievement, the authors argue.

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