English Learners

N.J. Bucks Tide on Reading for English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 09, 2007 7 min read
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Taking a position that is unusual these days, New Jersey officials are promoting research that says bilingual education methods have an edge over English-only methods in teaching English-language learners to read.

Recent U.S. Department of Education publications with “research-based recommendations” for teaching English-learners have avoided addressing the same research that Garden State officials are endorsing. And many school districts in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts have abandoned bilingual education after voters approved state ballot measures to curtail the educational approach.

Since 1976, New Jersey has required bilingual education—in which students are taught some subjects in their native language while learning English—for school districts with at least 20 students in the same language group. Over the past three years, the state has added requirements for districts to provide Spanish instruction for several early-reading initiatives, including state implementation of the federal Reading First program.

Now, New Jersey appears to be the only state that has written into its Reading First grant application to the federal government that native-language instruction is required, with some exceptions, for children who arrive at school with no proficiency in English.

Districts in Illinois and Texas, which also have state laws requiring bilingual education, are also using Reading First money for Spanish materials. But those states haven’t required bilingual education in their Reading First applications.

Russell W. Rumberger, the director of the Linguistic Minority Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, applauded New Jersey officials for taking what he views as an evidence-based approach.

“The research is increasingly supporting the idea that bilingual education is not only not bad, but is beneficial,” he said.

A Blended Approach

At Lincoln Avenue School here in Orange, a gritty suburb of Newark, the state’s push for bilingual reading instruction means that on a recent day, Latino 1st graders who didn’t know much English first read a story about a rat in English, and then followed it up with a different story about a rat in Spanish.

During the 120-minute literacy block, Enid Shapiro Unger, an English-as-a-second-language teacher, and Maria Albuquerque-Malaman, a 1st grade classroom teacher, used the same theme—animals and their homes—to teach in both English and Spanish. Under Reading First, the state requires that at least 30 minutes of that block be in English.

With bilingual education, said Ms. Albuquerque-Malaman, “the transition from the mother language to the second language goes more smoothly” than with English-only instruction.

First-grade teacher Maria Albuquerque-Malaman delivers a counting lesson in Spanish to a small group of students, including Joshua Cespedes, in front of her, and Mauricio Aguilar, to her right, at Lincoln Avenue School in Orange, N.J.

Not all New Jersey teachers agree. “I feel that bilingual methods hold the students back,” Charmaine Della Bella, the ESL teacher for Norwood Public School, a K-8 school with 650 students that makes up the Norwood school district, wrote in an e-mail message. She said ESL techniques have worked for the 17 English-learners in her school, all of whom are Korean. The district can get a waiver from using bilingual education because of the difficulty of finding teachers who speak Korean.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which governs the Reading First program, doesn’t say anything about what language must be used for reading instruction, Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, noted in an e-mail message.

But regional and national meetings for Reading First paid for by the federal department tend to feature English-only programs as models, said Jeffrey Cohen, the lead consultant for Reading First for the California Department of Education.

California initially wrote in its plan that Reading First money could be used only for English instruction, but the state had to change that stance after losing a lawsuit in 2003 brought by districts that demanded to use the money for Spanish instruction and materials as well. About 10 percent of the state’s Reading First classrooms provide instruction in Spanish, Mr. Cohen said.

Research Cited

In New Jersey, Fred Carrigg, the special assistant for literacy to the state education commissioner, is the engine behind the policy that essentially calls for Spanish instruction for early reading.

In 2003, the state started requiring certain school districts—those with a concentration of Latino English-learners that receive Reading First grants or that get court-ordered extra aid to offset their disadvantages—to provide two years of Spanish instruction in kindergarten through grade 3.

New Jersey’s Reading First application for federal funding provides two exceptions to the general requirement for bilingual education: if districts don’t have enough children to warrant such a program, or if they don’t have adequate teachers or materials to carry one out. Mr. Carrigg said the second exception isn’t valid for Spanish-speaking students.

“Our attitude is that if we are going to accept scientifically based reading research for the general population, we must accept that same research base for children who speak a language other than English,” Mr. Carrigg said.

He cites findings from two reviews of research to back the state’s requirements. The first is Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, written by a panel headed by Harvard University reading expert Catherine Snow and published by the National Research Council in 1998. The other is Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, edited by second-language-acquisition expert Diane August and reading expert Timothy Shanahan, and published last year by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Jessenia Rodriguez practices her English pronunciation in the class.

The National Research Council report says that if appropriate learning materials and bilingual teachers are available, it’s best for children who don’t know English to be taught to read in their native language while acquiring oral proficiency in English. Then they can transfer their reading skills from the native language to English.

The National Literacy Panel report contains a chapter with a review of studies that concludes there is a “small to moderate” advantage for bilingual education over English-only methods.

The federal Department of Education paid $1.8 million for the National Literacy Panel to write that study, but then declined to publish it; department officials said it didn’t stand up to the peer-review process. (“Not for Publication,” Aug. 31, 2005.)

When asked why he puts stock in that publication, Mr. Carrigg said that the federal government’s criticism of the study concerned procedures and process, not “recommendations or results.” He added: “We note that fine line.”

Implementation Varies

But elsewhere, some officials have disregarded the literacy panel’s finding that favors bilingual education. Margaret Garcia Dugan, for example, who oversees programs for English-language learners for the Arizona Department of Education and opposes bilingual education, said the federal department’s decision not to publish the study raised “a red flag” for her, pointing to potential questions about its validity.

How New Jersey educators meet the state’s requirements for bilingual education varies.

In the 5,400-student Orange district, Latino kindergartners through 6th graders who are learning English are concentrated in a bilingual track in a single elementary school, in which classes are made up only of Latino children.

In the 1st grade bilingual class in Orange, children sound out words in English and Spanish during each morning’s literacy block.

By contrast, in the 9,900-student Perth Amboy district, teachers generally focus on teaching reading only in Spanish, complemented with instruction only in oral English, for the first couple of years that a child with limited proficiency in English is learning to read.

Meanwhile, the 2,700-student Englewood district has 57 percent of its 290 English-learners in a dual-language program in which children who are dominant in either English or Spanish learn both languages in the same classroom.

As evidence that the state’s policies are working, Mr. Carrigg says 50 percent of English-learners in 3rd grade are scoring at the proficient level or above on the state’s language arts test, which they must take in English. He added that 75 percent of former 3rd grade English-learners are scoring at those levels. Among all 3rd graders, 82 percent scored at least proficient on the test.

Statewide, only 22 percent of 11th grade English-learners are testing as proficient or above on New Jersey’s language arts exam.

The scores aren’t surprising, Mr. Carrigg said, because so many of those students are new to the country. The state’s focus on having students learn to read in Spanish is concentrated at the K-2 level, he added, and thus test scores for 3rd or 4th graders give a good indication of how those efforts are working.

The state’s next steps, Mr. Carrigg says, “are focused on expanding successful practices from the elementary experience” into the middle grades.

At the same time, he said, “New Jersey has not made any efforts to publicize our primary language policies. We are very cognizant of each state having different policies and attitudes about the use of languages other than English.”

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Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as N.J. Bucks Tide on Reading for English-Learners


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