Some may think, why is everyone making such a big deal out of learning English? Every student in the United States must learn English anyway, so why all this fuss about bilingual students? The issue boils down to one major theme in American education: equality. People of the United States deserve to be treated equally under government funded services and one of the main program is education. Especially now, when people religiously believe higher education leads to higher living standards, it’s vital that immigrant students and ELLs have the opportunity to learn on the same grounds as white students.
Research found that English Language Learners need an average of 4 to 7 years of instruction to achieve English proficiency. Even this varies by the hereditary or environmental factors of ELL students. (1) This poses a difficulty for bilingual educators since every student has a different learning curve of a second language. Moreover, research claim the best type of instruction for ELL students is bilingual education, using both their native language and English to teach core subjects, rather than complete immersion in English.
This struck me unexpectedly since I always believed that students, especially younger children, achieve language proficiency naturally and easily once they are completely immersed in that language. I based this opinion on my personal experience: I was put into an English-speaking class in first grade without prior encounter with the English language. By the end of the year, I spoke English fluently and comfortably as if it was my first language. I even spoke English outside of class with my sister and my parents at home.
But the issue with bilingual education is that immersion helps students achieve proficiency in colloquial oral English skills. To be at grade level with academic English skills, students must develop both their native language and English simultaneously. This finding also clashes with the NCLB set up. The NCLB requires bilingual students to be tested three years into their education and must show progress. According to research, students can reach grade-level performance in their second language in four years, only if they have proper schooling. Three years, then, is certainly not enough for students to be tested.
The notion that bilingual programs are better than immersion/English-only programs is backed up by this study in 2004. (I wasn’t able to find an updated version or a current replication of this study – please correct me if you have the resources). A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement found that the strongest predictor of second language achievement is the amount of formal native language education students received. In other words, the more first language schooling, the higher second language achievements. Of the eight different types of ELL classes identified in this study, 90-10, 50-50 one-way or dual language programs that aim at developing students’ first and second language simultaneously were the only programs that helped students reach the 50th percentile on standardized tests and maintain that level of performance. (2)
Interestingly, many publications on recommendations for teaching bilingual students focus much more on English acquisition rather than successfully using both L1 and L2 to instruct students. Some of the points suggested in Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School (3):
- Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensely throughout several days.
- Develop both oral and written English skills when teaching specific subjects.
- Provide regular and structured opportunities for students to develop academic English writing skills.
- Focus on small groups of students struggling in the language.
Similar points are made by another publication suggesting tips on instructing bilingual students. (4) The lack of recent studies on ELL programs and resources to guide teachers suggest the need for more support in bilingual education. This is what all the fuss is about. Such limited information provided to the public and teachers indicates one necessary solution to improving bilingual education. Increased funding must be devoted to bilingual education research and designing proper dual language immersive programs. The money should additionally be used to promote the need for bilingual programs to students, parents, and teachers. Also, policies (NCLB) putting pressure on ELL students through testing must take into account all the scientific research on bilingual education and respect students’ need of proper instruction. Despite the existing information on dual language programs, the national government perpetuates the “circle of death” that I mentioned in my previous post. This prompts me to question whether the federal government is creating and neglecting the unequal education system of America.