School & District Management

Study Gives Advantage To Bilingual Education Over Focus on English

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 04, 2004 3 min read
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Bilingual approaches are more effective than English-only methods in teaching children who speak other languages to read in English, concludes a review of 30 years of studies on programs for English-language learners.

“Effective Reading Programs for English Language Learners; A Best-Evidence Synthesis” is available from The Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and the chairman of the Success for All Foundation, said he intends to change how he advises schools to teach reading to English-language learners as a result of the review.

Bilingual education has a particularly positive effect, say Mr. Slavin and Alan Cheung, a research scientist at the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation, when students are taught to read both in their native languages and in English at the same period in their lives, though at different times in a single day. Their study calls that approach a “paired-bilingual program.” It differs from many bilingual education programs that postpone teaching children to read in English until they’ve learned to read in their native languages.

In the past, the Success for All Foundation, which provides reading programs in both English and Spanish, has remained neutral on whether schools should teach students to read in English or Spanish, Mr. Slavin said. But now, he said, he will give educators using the Success for All program a copy of the new study and recommend they include some native-language instruction with English-language learners if they have the option.

Mr. Slavin and Mr. Cheung are among a number of researchers who have compared the effectiveness of bilingual education and English-only instruction.

Differing View

Most researchers shared the conclusion of Mr. Slavin and Mr. Cheung: The use of native-language instruction in reading has an edge over using only English.

In a 1996 review of studies comparing both approaches, however, Christine H. Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University, and Keith Baker, an education consultant who is now retired, concluded that English-only methods are better.

Mr. Slavin last week faulted the methodology of the Rossell- Baker study, as well as some other researchers’ work, citing the use of low standards in selecting studies and the application of inconsistent standards.

Ms. Rossell stands by her findings. She contends that Mr. Slavin erroneously excluded some worthy studies. Still, she acknowledged last week that if she were to redo that review, she would omit two or three of the studies that she had selected. For example, she would eliminate studies of programs that lasted for less than a year.

At the same time, Ms. Rossell noted that Mr. Slavin’s work didn’t duplicate the review that she conducted with Mr. Baker because Mr. Slavin had selected only 17 studies as meeting his criteria, while they had chosen 72.

Mr. Slavin said that the studies the Slavin-Cheung analysis examined were much more conclusive collectively than he had expected them to be, however, given the continual debate over the subject. “The high-quality evidence was pretty consistent either in saying that bilingual education methods were more effective or there was no difference,” he said.

Literacy Panel

Mr. Slavin’s research was part of a more comprehensive review of studies commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and two other federal agencies at a cost of $1 million. Mr. Slavin was a member of the group formed nearly two years ago for, the National Literacy Panel on the Development of Literacy Among Language Minority Children and Youth.

He resigned as a panelist last summer because the Education Department wouldn’t permit him to publish his research before the panel’s conclusions would be released, he said. “From the perspective of academic freedom, I didn’t like the idea of something I did being held up for no particular reason,” he said last week.

An Aug. 1, 2003, letter from the department to SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based contractor working on the project, said that data from the research were not to be made public until they were reviewed by the department “to ensure we are issuing a top-quality product based on principles of rigorous scientific research.”

Diane August, the executive director of the panel and a senior research scientist at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, said the panel was redoing the part of the review that had been assigned to Mr. Slavin.

Ms. August expects the department to release the panel’s report by the end of the summer.

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