Among the twists and turns taken by this summer’s Capitol Hill debate over immigration was one theme familiar to educators: the importance of learning English.
Yet there’s little consensus on how best to teach America’s growing number of students—currently estimated at one in 10—who speak only limited English. These children fare worse than their peers by virtually every measure, including test scores and high school graduation rates.
The question is whether to provide ongoing instruction in students’ native language or to fast-track them into mainstream classrooms through immersion programs, which are taught almost entirely in English.
“I started out as a bilingual teacher. What I discovered is that the great emphasis on native-language teaching and giving so little time to English teaching meant that for a lot of kids, at the end of three years—or even at the end of five years—they had not mastered English.”
—Rosalie Pedalino Porter, author of Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education
“In an English-only environment, you’re retarding children’s cognitive development. Using the native language allows kids to learn concepts while they’re learning English. They’re learning the structure of language and developing content, which then becomes a transfer process as they become proficient in English.”
—Delia Pompa, vice president of education for the National Council of La Raza
Much like the immigration debate, this one can get a little, well, heated. “It’s the most politically charged educational endeavor,” says Rosalie Pedalino Porter, author of Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education, who supports English immersion.
After decades of predominance, bilingual education received its first major challenge in 1998, when California residents voted to require that all public school students be taught in English. Arizona and Massachusetts voters have followed suit, and the issue has surfaced in Colorado, Texas, and other states.
Now English immersion takes the lead in public opinion polls—even among the most directly affected groups. More than 60 percent of immigrants say that all public school classes should be taught in English, according to a 2003 survey conducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization, and paid for by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Despite the strong feelings, a five-year study mandated by the California legislature found that the switch to English immersion had little effect. The factors that turned out to matter most won’t surprise any educator: having enough well-trained teachers and a curriculum that focuses on developing English skills.