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A skill, not a weakness

Learning more than one language is a 21st century skill. It provides students with economic opportunities across the globe and at home. Many students enter our schools fluent in a language other than English. They speak Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Farsi, Arabic, Khmer and dozens of other languages important in international trade. They come with a resource.

Ideally, these students — more than 1.5 million in California who enter school speaking a language other than English — would gain English proficiency while enhancing their home language skills. They would graduate from high school fully bilingual or multilingual and ready to compete in the global marketplace.

Instead of nurturing the promise of our English-learner children, California’s adherence to an “English-only” teaching policy has left most of them in a linguistic no man’s land, with inadequate English skills and undeveloped skills in their home languages.

In California, more than 95% of students who come to school not knowing English receive instruction in English only. Unfortunately and unfairly, this approach has resulted in English learners falling further and further behind academically compared with students who speak only English.

The Los Angeles Unified School District offers English-only instruction to 97% of its English learners. In 2002, only 14% of third-grade English learners achieved proficiency in English reading. In 2009, even fewer third-grade English learners scored proficient (11%). A recent study of English learners in secondary schools in 40 California school districts found that after six-plus years of California’s English-only approach, 69% of English learners in grades six through 12 still had not developed the English language and academic skills they need to be successful.

English competency is a must for all children. In school districts like Glendale and Chula Vista, near San Diego, various types of bilingual education programs are promoted and supported.

In Glendale, the board and superintendent advocate that all students learn at least one language other than English. Japanese, Italian, Armenian, Korean, Spanish and German are all offered starting in kindergarten. The goal is proficiency and literacy in two languages upon graduation from high school. What a marvelous opportunity.

Chula Vista Elementary School District provides high-quality instruction in English and Spanish to large numbers of students — those who enter speaking only English and those who come to school speaking Spanish. They leave the school district bilingual and biliterate.

The English learners in both of these districts have reached or exceeded the English and math academic targets set by the state and federal governments. They score well above the state average for all English learners at every grade level.

One type of bilingual program — dual language immersion — teaches in two languages to all students, both English learners and English-only speakers. When well implemented, these programs have consistently produced the highest academic outcomes, the best English proficiency and the lowest dropout rates. All that, with the added bonus that students come out with mastery of and literacy in two languages.

There is no one approach to educating English learners. However, there is an emerging consensus among researchers and educators. One pathway to English academic success for English learners includes quality English instruction coupled with home language instruction. Children taught this way learn at a more challenging and rigorous level.

California needs a new vision that meaningfully prepares students to compete with students from Europe, Singapore and China who are required to learn the language of their country and one or two other languages by high school graduation. With greater emphasis on using the home language assets that children bring with them to school, we can do all of this and close the achievement gap, build family and community cohesion and develop 21st century skills.

Laurie Olsen is a researcher on educating English learners and the author of the recent report, “Reparable Harm: Fulfilling the Unkept Promise of Educational Opportunity for California’s Long-Term English Learners.” Shelly Spiegel-Coleman is the executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of 23 statewide parent, professional and civil rights organizations that advocates for programs and policy for educating English learners.


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