English-Language Learners

Bilingual vs. English-Only? Let’s Talk About Implementation

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 17, 2009 2 min read
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Focusing on the education of English-language learners through a lens of whether bilingual education or English-only instruction is better for such students “sounds like a fairly old way of characterizing the problem,” says Kenji Hakuta, an expert on English-language learners at Stanford University, in the lead article of the Dec. 11 issue of CQ Researcher.

In his comments, Hakuta makes several important points: that the education of ELLs is seriously lacking in this country despite decades of debate about how best to educate them, that programs for ELLs may be inadequate regardless of whether they provide bilingual education or English immersion, and that both bilingual and English-immersion programs can work for ELLs, if they are properly implemented.

What’s key in implementation, says Hakuta, is whether ELLs have access to academic content that “sparks their curiosity.”

Hear, Hear! I feel that Hakuta has summed up what I see as one of my roles here at Education Week—to provide the latest information about how the education of ELLs can be implemented well. When considering to feature a school district’s approach to ELLs in EdWeek, I concentrate not on whether it provides bilingual education or English immersion. Rather, one of the things I look at is whether the district is bent on ensuring that ELLs have access to the core curriculum, something that federal law requires.

The CQ Researcher issue, which is packed with articles and opinions giving an overview of the bilingual education vs. English-only debate, uses my EdWeek story about the academic success of a group of charter schools in Chicago to show that English immersion is working and favored by some parents in Illinois. But CQ Researcher could have just as well also referred to my EdWeek story about how the public school district in Brownsville, Texas, which educates ELLs with transitional bilingual education, has been recognized nationally for its academic success with such students. Both of those articles were about implementation and providing ELLs with access.

The CQ Researcher issue is well-researched, as the title of the publication indicates. It offers a much more balanced view of the bilingual education vs. English-only debate than was provided by an essay published by the Manhattan Institute, which I featured on this blog last week.

Unlike the Manhattan Institute piece, it characterizes experts and educators on both sides of the debate as reasonable. I, for one, like to think that we live in a world with reasonable people.

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