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Is English Immersion Best For Immigrant Students?


Q. 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 Your attitude is now officially outdated, since states like California and Arizona have switched to English immersion for several years now, and Texas is moving that way.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 academic progress.


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 class.

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:


By Susan Darst Williams Special Learners 03 2008





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