Schools MAY Want to Try Bilingual Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 08, 2008 1 min read
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Schools “may” want to invest in bilingual or dual-language programs—"even if they appear costly,” writes an adjunct law professor from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in School Business Affairs. The professor is Scott Ellis Ferrin, who also chairs the department of educational leadership and foundations at that university. The article appears in the October issue of the magazine, which hasn’t yet been posted online (some articles will be free and others not).

Here’s an excerpt of Mr. Ferrin’s article, which offers a lukewarm endorsement of bilingual education.

Educators are often told by policy makers and opinion polls that, for example, it makes no sense to attend to any student's first language to enhance acquisition of the target language of English. Although this seems intuitive and is politically expedient, it is probably not necessarily an accurate or promising intervention for all ELLs at all levels of language attainment in all settings.

Why the need to use qualifying words like “probably not necessarily,” I asked Mr. Ferrin in an e-mail message and phone conversation yesterday. Why did he include “may” when writing that “The safest course for some schools or systems may be to invest in bilingual or dual-language programs ...”

He has a sense, he told me, that policymakers and the public generally think English immersion is the best method for teaching English-language learners even though such a view is put forth by “some people who have no educational or linguistic background.” He said he’s trying to speak to such an audience and gently urge them to look at the matter in a fresh way. “I’m trying to give hints that there is a lot more that can be done and should be done,” he said.

In Mr. Ferrin’s article, he questions the conclusion of a meta-analysis that “purported to find that bilingual education had no positive effect on student learning.” I asked him what meta-analysis he was referring to because I’m aware of several meta-analyses that have made the conclusion that bilingual education methods have an edge over English-only ones.

Mr. Ferrin said he was referring to the work of Keith Baker and Christine Rossell, which he hears cited frequently. Those researchers found in a review of studies in 1996 that bilingual education wasn’t beneficial. Interestingly, when Jay Greene, then at the University of Texas at Austin, tried to verify their work, he came up with the conclusion that some native-language instruction has “moderate beneficial effects” for ELLs.

As you can tell, this debate has been going on for a long time. (See an earlier post about what the research on ELLs does and doesn’t say.) But for a new voice on the issue, turn to Mr. Ferrin’s piece.

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