Debate Over English Language Acquisition
Kara H. Stein & Heidi Fisher
the past decade, as the student population in the U.S. has grown
increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse, the debate
around English language acquisition has come to the forefront
of national educational policy. In 2001, for example, almost 3
million students in the U.S. were enrolled in programs for English
language learners; approximately 75 percent of these students
are from nations whose principal language is Spanish. Moreover,
the majority of English language learners have matriculated into
public school systems in urban and rural areas, which face increasingly
restricted physical and pedagogical resources and a lack of qualified
(i.e., fully certified and/or competently-trained) English language
acquisition instructors. Schools now face the challenge of educating
more English language learners than ever before–in the midst of
rising academic standards, diminished resources, and an increasingly
The debate between proponents of traditional bilingual education
programs–which use students’ native languages to help them learn
English and content areas–and those who favor an English language
immersion approach–teaching new English learners only in English–is
being played out across the country. For example, legislation
that severely restricts or completely eliminates bilingual education
was enacted in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000. Similar
initiatives will be voted on this fall in Massachusetts and Colorado.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that new English language
learners, previously exempt from many standardized exams, are
now required by federal law to take most of these tests. This
only increases the need for innovative and effective ways of educating
these students, since in some cases decisions about monetary rewards
and sanctions for individual schools and districts are based on
students’ scores on standardized exams.
In June 2000, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organization
dedicated to improving education and advocacy for human rights
around the world, adopted a statement in which it reaffirmed its
commitment to public education. It stated, “AJC believes there
must be a rededication to public education on the national, state,
community, and family levels so that the public schools can fulfill
their promise as democratic institutions and launching pads of
opportunity for all children.” In keeping with this position,
AJC believes that the ultimate goal of public schools is to prepare
all students to be full participants in American civic life
and to maximize their chances for individual success.
Applying these principles to the English language acquisition
debate, AJC believes that both bilingual and English-only immersion
approaches can be effective ways of incorporating new English
language learners into the linguistic, social, and economic mainstream
of American society and thus strongly opposes legislation that
mandates one methodology or approach over another. Schools should
have access to a range of options that can be tailored to meet
the needs of students, based on their backgrounds, prior levels
of educational attainment, age, and knowledge of specific content
areas. Whichever program or methodology schools decide to use,
AJC believes that its primary aim should be facilitating students’
proficiency in English as quickly as possible.
The education of America’s diverse children is a matter of concern
to all of us. Our public schools must find a way to teach English
language learners both English and subject matter content. The
health of our democracy depends upon it.#
H. Stein is Assistant Legal Director of the American Jewish Committee.
Heidi Fisher is Public Education Consultant to the American Jewish
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: email@example.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express
consent of the publisher. © 2002.