Equity & Diversity

Home Language an Asset for ELLs, Duncan Says

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 04, 2013 1 min read
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His comments aren’t likely to ignite a new battle in the bilingual education wars, but U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over breakfast last week gave perhaps his clearest statements to date on the concept of dual-language development and instruction, especially for students who are English-language learners.

English-learners, he said at a meeting with reporters, come to school with a major asset—their home languages—that educators should capitalize on, especially in the early grades.

“It is clearly an asset that these kids are coming to school with,” and one that should be “maintained” so that English-learners can become truly bilingual, Mr. Duncan said.

“The fact that our kids don’t grow up [bilingual] puts them at a competitive disadvantage,” he said, noting students in many other countries commonly learn at least one other language.

His position is backed by research, most recently by a federally funded analysis that concludes that young English-learners still developing oral and literacy skills in their home languages benefit most from early-childhood programs that expose them to both languages.

In fact, the secretary put more emphasis on the benefits of providing bilingual education to English-learners in early-childhood programs, which does not spark the heated controversies and debate that it has in the K-12 space.

Over the course of 45 minutes and a bowl of cinnamon-speckled oatmeal topped with chopped green apples, Mr. Duncan spoke about a range of issues related to Hispanic students, including the potential he thinks the Obama administration’s universal preschool initiative holds for the Latino community.

“Less than half of Hispanic children attend any sort of early-childhood education,” Mr. Duncan said. “It’s sort of staggering, and then we wonder why we have achievement gaps in kindergarten.”

During his time as schools chief in Chicago, the district began offering evening prekindergarten—from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.—in some Hispanic communities where there were long waiting lists for morning and afternoon programs.

“People thought we were crazy,” he said. “But we had a huge take-up on that. You have to be creative about how you provide the opportunities.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2013 edition of Education Week as Duncan Talks ELLs, Home Languages


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