Reflections on English
Our city’s education leaders made the correct decision
in rethinking a one-sided approach to the city’s English
language learners. We hope that common sense, rather than political
pressure, helped Chancellor Klein and his team decide to use
a variety of proven approaches in making sure this growing
student population is capable of surviving the realities of
adult society. Contrary to research that shows that children
need one to two years to pick up social English, and five to
seven years for academic English, several states have moved
English learners into mainstream in an astonishingly short
period of time (for example, one year of intensive English
instruction in California).
In theory, the best way to learn a language is by being immersed
in that language. When English speakers want to learn Spanish,
for example, they do it more quickly when they reside in a
Spanish-speaking nation and communicate with Spanish speakers
in meaningful contexts. Thus, logic would dictate that placing
English learners in English immersion classes is the best way
to bring students up to speed. By dropping unprepared students
into mainstream classes, though, we are doing a disservice
to students and teachers alike.
There are dozens of systems that
have been proven effective in getting students up to speed
in acquiring language. English immersion, the mayor’s
first choice, is one way. Without help, though, schools will
revert to the period pre-Lau vs. Nichols, the landmark 1974
Supreme Court case recognizing that providing equal physical
access alone to schools does not ensure non-English-speaking
children equal access to instruction. One form of support
is the use of the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol
(SIOP) to plan lessons. SIOP is a research-based framework
that allows educators to teach content such as mathematics
or social studies while promoting English language development.
Each lesson is built around specific content and language objectives.
Students learn content as they build up their language skills.
The SIOP model works well with a language arts intensive mathematics
program, such as Everyday Mathematics.
The much-maligned transitional bilingual
education has been successful in certain situations. Transitional
bilingual education is based on the premise that students
who master their first language have an easier time learning
English. The chief complaint, though, is that it takes too
long to wean students from their first language. In some
cases around the country, students have very little access
to ESL instruction as all content is given in the students’ first
language. The strength of these programs is the strong cultural
component that can help students break down barriers of living
and studying in a foreign culture. The downside is that a
student who has limited exposure to ESL instruction each
week will need at least three years to learn enough social
English to communicate in English on the playground. In the
classroom setting, it is doubtful that students will ever
acquire the English needed to excel in college. Students
enrolled in programs with a stronger ESL component fare better
as they transition to the mainstream classroom, which is
the ultimate goal of transitional bilingual education.
Another form of bilingual education
has been proven successful in a number of schools around
the country. In two-way immersion dual immersion-programs
(the U.S. Department of Education uses the term developmental
bilingual education), classrooms employ one language—either the target language (e.g., Chinese,
Spanish) or English—in extended periods of instruction.
Ideally, the student body ratio would be half native speakers
of the target language and half native-English speakers. In
this way, student peers model both languages as they work together
to perform academic tasks. After about five years, students
are fluent in the two languages. Although this may seem a long
time, the students have gained a valuable skill in today’s
global marketplace: They have become comfortable in the two
No one can argue the necessity of learning English. Children
must master the language to help ensure their future livelihood
and to become informed citizens. They should also learn English
because it is the language of our land. Without fluent reading,
writing, speaking, and listening skills, children will be doomed
to a future of academic, economic, and social disenfranchisement.
And just like there are dozens of ways to solve a mathematics
equation, there are many ways to teach English.#
Adam Sugerman is associate editor of Education Update and
is the publisher of Palmiche Press.