Is English Immersion Best
For Immigrant Students?
I'm confused. I thought that it was best to teach an immigrant child regular
school subjects in his or her own native language, for the most part, and
gradually ease the child into the regular English-speaking classroom over a
period of years. But now they're talking about "sink or swim" English-language
immersion for non-English speaking kids. What gives?
Bilingual education has witnessed a
sea change in attitudes about what's best for children in public school who are
learning the English language as well as the regular curriculum. Your attitude
is now officially outdated, since states like California and Arizona have
switched to English immersion for several years now, and Texas is moving that way.
Most educators didn't want to make
the switch. A powerful force for change, though, has been Hispanic parents.
They contended that the gentle, slow approach to making Spanish-speaking kids
proficient in English, which often took years, slowed down their children's
In typical bilingual ed programs,
non-English speaking children were segregated in special English As a Second
Language classrooms for several years. They were often taught in their native
language and not in English, and given a lot of multicultural curriculum
instead of the old 3 R's.
The result: their test scores were
enormously worse than the native English speakers. It was feared that instead
of becoming bilingual, they were becoming illiterate in TWO languages!
For school systems, it was a
headache to find bilingual teachers, and then the way most systems were set up,
there were disincentives for those teachers to make the children good enough at
reading and writing in English to leave their classrooms and take funding and
"need" away from those teachers.
For public policymakers, bilingual
education was a nightmare because a "good" English competency level in one
school district might be evaluated as "unacceptable" in the next one. It was
hard to explain to the public why the dropout rate among non-English speaking
kids was so much higher than for native-born Americans, when we were spending
so much more per pupil on the immigrants than on the lifelong citizens. Then
there are the valid fairness complaints from taxpayers, since some of these
children are here illegally, with parents who are undocumented workers.
The breakthrough came from educators
like Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside, Calif., schools and vice
chairman of the California State Board of Education who was co-founder of the
California Association of Bilingual Educators. For 30 years, he was militantly
in favor of bilingual education and against English immersion. He campaigned
against California's Proposition 227 in 1998, the ballot measure that eliminated
bilingual education and substituted one year in a structured English-immersion
classroom before the English language learner is assigned to a mainstream
Noonan and others have raved
about the results ever since. He advises schools to reduce class sizes to 20
children or below in the early grades, and teach reading with phonics-only
instruction, to get results like his district's. After two years of English
immersion, the limited-English second-graders in Oceanside raised their scores
on standardized tests from the 13th percentile to the 32nd
percentile, getting nearer and nearer to the national average.
Homework: See the Oct. 25, 2005,
white paper, "Immersion Not Submersion: Converting English Language Programs
From Bilingual Education to Structured English Immersion in California and
Elsewhere," on this think tank's website: www.lexingtoninstitute.org/docs/707.pdf