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Report Bilingual classes better than English-only approach
Ventura County Star
 January 24, 2004
Kathleen Wilson

Calling for an end to hostile debates on teaching limited-English students, a new report finds bilingual education programs produce higher levels of reading achievement than English-only approaches.

The analysis from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the Success for All Foundation reported on studies conducted over 30 years. It found that:

Of 17 studies on reading in the elementary grades, most showed that bilingual programs positively affected reading performance.

In no case did an English-only strategy exceed that of a bilingual strategy but in some cases the two strategies were equally effective.

Many effective programs used a quick transition from the primary language into reading English or taught reading in both languages. That contrasts with the classic bilingual approach in which students do not begin reading in English until third grade or later.

Instructional programs that teach reading using step-by-step phonics and tutoring were effective.

Educators in Ventura County said Friday they were not surprised by results supporting bilingual education.

"Over time, that has been our deduction," said Sergio Robles, who oversees English-learner programs in the Hueneme School District. "That's why we've continued it."

Typically in Ventura County, bilingual programs call for students to learn academic subjects in their primary language in kindergarten through second grade, while they are learning to speak and understand English. By third grade they are supposed to begin reading and writing English. They move into regular classrooms in fourth or fifth grades, educators said.

But voters in California and other states have passed initiatives curtailing bilingual education, as opponents complained of low achievement and segregation from English-speaking classmates. Some parents complained that their children were consigned to bilingual education for years and that they could not get them out of the classes.

By passing Proposition 227 in 1998, California voters required that children be taught overwhelmingly in English unless their parents exempted them.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of children statewide have been added to English immersion programs. About 90 percent of limited-English schoolchildren in California are being taught in English-only programs now compared with 70 percent before the proposition passed.

Test scores have risen for limited-English students in both types of instruction since the proposition passed, but there still is a large gap between their performance and that of children whose primary language is English.

More research recommended

Co-authors Robert Slavin, a Johns Hopkins research scientist, and senior researcher Alan Cheung of the Success for All Foundation -- the Baltimore foundation develops programs for disadvantaged students -- said more high-quality research is needed.

The report, for example, does not address in detail the experience and expertise of teachers.

That's the issue for the Fillmore Unified School District, which moved away from bilingual education to English immersion classes before Proposition 227 passed. The district simply could not find enough qualified bilingual teachers, Assistant Superintendent Martha Tureen said.

Tureen said the district chose instead to make sure teachers have received special training to educate Spanish-speaking children in English.

"I believe a high-quality program in English instruction is better than a poor-quality primary language program," she said.

One of the lingering issues in the bilingual education debate has been the length of time students need to stay in a bilingual program. In a surprising finding, Slavin and Cheung said, many successful bilingual programs taught students to read both the child's primary language and English right away, rather than waiting a few years to teach English reading. Some programs offer students English reading after a year, not the three or four typical in Ventura County.

The Moorpark Unified School District began using a similar approach last year. Children now begin reading English in second grade, instead of waiting until third or later.

Administrator Marilyn Green said the district took the step to ensure that schools meet demands of the federal accountability system outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act and because achievement tests are given in English.

Another reason is the structure of Moorpark's elementary schools. Some campuses offer only the first few grades, so students still reading in Spanish would lead to low scores for those schools.

Some educators say the best approach is to teach children both languages.

University Preparation School, a charter school affiliated with California State University, Channel Islands, offers a dual immersion program in which many children are taught half the day in English and the other half in Spanish.

"We chose to have a dual language program because we feel biliteracy and multiculturalism (are) just the key to the way our society's developing," said Principal Linda Ngarupe. "We based that on all the research showing that as children are learning a second language, it helps them academically, emotionally, socially, in all other areas of their lives. It develops their brains."

AABE NOTE: The full report "Effective Reading Programs for English Language Learners: A Best-Evidence Synthesis:" http://www.csos.jhu.edu/crespar/techReports/Report66.pdf