The Long Road to Fluency
LA Times
April 3, 2004

The acronyms help tell the story. Years ago they were ESL children, immigrant children for whom English was a second language. Then they were renamed LEP, for their limited English proficiency. Today those same kids are dubbed ELL, or English-language learners. The labels have changed to reflect educational fashion, and classroom methods have followed suit from the simple language and broad gestures used by English-speaking teachers in ESL classes, to bilingual programs taught by bicultural instructors, to the English-only classes instituted across California by electoral fiat. But the fundamental problems that keep immigrant kids from catching up seem stubbornly resistant to change.

School officials celebrated last month when test results showed that the state's ELL students were making significant progress toward learning English. Now, 43% of California's 1.4 million English-language learners are able to speak, understand, read and write English. That's 18% more than met that standard three years ago, when the state administered the first round of tests mandated by Proposition 227, the 1998 initiative curtailing bilingual education. But there is a difference between learning English and learning in English. Just 10% of ELL students were able to reach the "proficient" level in tests of English as an academic subject last year, and only 15% were proficient in math numbers largely unchanged from previous years. That suggests that too many kids are stacking up just short of fluency, lacking the skills necessary to understand photosynthesis, appreciate Shakespeare or calculate a word problem in an algebra class.

Supporters of bilingual education contend that the focus on mastering English slows immigrant students' academic progress, contributing to lower test scores and a higher dropout rate. It is taking, on average, more than six years for Spanish-speaking students to become fluent in English. Other groups are faring better Korean students take four years and Armenians five. But in a district like Los Angeles, where more than 300,000 children are still learning English, that adds up to too many years spent stumbling through science and history and math.

For too long, arguments about the value of English immersion versus bilingual education have been clouded by political agendas and cultural imperatives. The implementation of Proposition 227 might not put those issues to rest, but it can allow a clear-eyed examination of the strengths and the limitations of English-only: The single transition year of "sheltered English" envisioned by Proposition 227 might not be enough. More outreach ought to be aimed at parents, to teach them how to support their kids' emerging English. Older children new to this country might need access to native-language texts so they can keep up and don't get discouraged. Teachers should receive better training in ways to accelerate language development.

Proposition 227 was no magic bullet. There's no denying it is accomplishing one of its key goals, prodding children to learn English. That's good, but it's only a first step on a long march.

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