English-Language Learners

Research Board Urges Broad Approach to Bilingual Ed.

By Lynn Schnaiberg — August 04, 1999 3 min read

The debate over teaching English-language learners must reach beyond questions of which language to use in instruction, said researchers and educators who gathered here for a recent federally sponsored conference.

The purpose of the meeting last month was to highlight successful, comprehensive, research-based practices for teaching the more than 2 million U.S. schoolchildren who speak little or no English.

But the conference--organized by the Department of Education’s National Educational Reseach Policy and Priorities Board and its office of bilingual educaton and minority-language affairs--also had another purpose.

For the research advisory board, it marked an attempt to counter an increasingly common criticism of education research: that it fails to offer clear answers for struggling practitioners.

Consensus From Studies

“If you pile some of these studies up together, you relaly do have an idea where the field is going,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor and the chairman of the research board, which was created by Congress five years ago.

Hundreds of individual studies comparing instructional programs for English-language learners have been conducted over the past 20 years.

Mr. Hakuta said that at least two meta-analyses summarizing those findings offer guidance for policymakers. Thos analyses suggest that programs using some native-language instruction have a slight edge over English-only programs, as measured by reading and math scores.

But that edge--ranging from a fifth to a third of a standard deviation--explains only a fraction of the gap between the achievement of English-language learners and national norms.

“That’s because limited-English-proficient kids go to high- poverty schools that have more than just a language difference going on,” said Mr. Hakuta, whose own research focuses on that ara. “Just looking at the language of instruction is going to remove us from considering other important factors, such as organizational climate, professional development, standards, and curricula.”

That’s why educators need to look beyond language for programs that address all of the needs of non-English-speaking students, researchers here said.

Some of the comprehensive approaches highlighted at the conference included:

  • A program used with both English- and non-English-speaking students in the Ysleta school district in El Paso, Texas. Students in the program, which was devised by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, have been shown to write more at a higher level than non-program students.
  • A two-way immersion program at a Cambridge, Mass., elementary school. Data collected over seven years showed that both native Spanish-speakers and native English-speakers in the program outscored other English-speaking students in the same school.

Conflicting Views

Participants also noted, however, that the research and state and local policy decisions often point in opposite directions.

“A lot of what we know works for children runs counter to what we know the state is trying to do,” said Antonio Villar, the coordinator of biliteracy programs in the San Diego schools.

Under Proposition 227, a ballot measure approved last year by California voters, most LEP students in that state are now placed in English-immersion programs and then shifted as quickly as possible into regular classrooms.

But the researchers at the July 15-16 conference told participants that students need at least three to five years of supported English instruction to be proficient.

“A child who comes to school and is already behind requires something more than what other children are getting, and the public in general does not want to pay for that,” said Peter J. Negroni, the superintendent of schools in Springfield, Mass. About 3,000 of the district’s 26,000 students are enrolled in English-language programs.

But Christine Rossell, a Boston University political science professor who is critical of bilingual education programs, said researchers may in fact have created the current debate over policies for LEP children.

“The advantage of native-tongue instruction is that it’s easier to read and write in a language you understand,” said Ms. Rossell, who did not attend the conference. “So why do they not get bigger effects? Because of this cockamemie theory that the academic have constructed that you have to reach a high level of proficiency in your native tongue before you can be transitioned to English.”

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