What’s the Best Way to Teach Kids English?

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Nearly one in 10 kids in American public schools are English language learners.

By Francie Diep

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(Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

For decades, educators and researchers have wrestled with how to best teach English to kids who come to school with a less-than-proficient grasp of the language. Now, the controversy is getting a fresh boost from Proposition 58, a controversial bill on California’s November ballot.

Knowing what sort of classroom is most conducive for kids who aren’t fluent in English would be a boon to families and states all over America. In the 2013–14 school year, 9 percent of America’s public school kids (4.5 million students) were English language learners. In California, 22 percent of students entering public schools in the fall of 2015 needed help with English.

Proposition 58 would lift long-standing state restrictions on so-called bilingual classrooms for English-language learners. In bilingual classrooms, students who aren’t fluent in English are taught reading, math, social studies, and other academic subjects in their home language for their first couple of years in American schools. They learn English separately.

Once these students learn enough English to join a mainstream classroom, they do just that; in more progressive programs, they may continue to learn in both their home language and English throughout their school years. (The latter may also attract kids for whom English is a native language, but whose parents encourage their bilingualism.)

In California, 22 percent of students entering public schools in the fall of 2015 needed help with English.

Currently, if California parents want their kids to be taught in a bilingual classroom in a public school they must sign a waiver asking as much. Otherwise, the kids are automatically funneled into English-immersion programs, where they immediately learn all subjects in English.

The debate over the two types of program is an urgent and fraught one. In 2013, American kids whose first language wasn’t English were 33 percent less likely than the average American student — and 42 percent less likely than white students — to graduate high school.

So what’s the scientific consensus? Among the researchers Pacific Standard talked with, all said good bilingual programs have modest but real advantages over English-immersion ones. Since the 1990s, several large studies have made the same point. At worst, children who graduate from bilingual programs tend to doas well on tests as their English-immersion peers, including tests of English-language skills. Many studies find bilingual-education students perform better in subjects such as reading, mathematics, writing, social studies, and listening comprehension. And, as a bonus, they end up fluent in two tongues.

“Bilingual education, well-planned, well-delivered? There’s absolutely no question bilingual education is the better program,” says Kathy Escamilla, an education researcher at the University of Colorado–Boulder.

“It’s not the difference between dropping out of high school and going to an Ivy League,” says Claude Goldenberg, an education researcher at Stanford University, “but, in the long run, [kids in bilingual classrooms] end up doing better.”

Some researchers believe the opposite to be true. In 1996, researchers Christine Rossell and Keith Baker published an influential meta-analysis that found all the studies they identified as sound pointed to English immersion as being better for students. Rossell, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has since written a policy paper supporting English immersion over bilingual education. In the academic literature, several research teams have argued Rossell and Baker employed flawed methods; Rossell has published defenses of her work.

Supporters of English-immersion say it’s the best way for kids to learn English quickly, which is crucial to their success in the American education system. Bilingual education supporters argue that forcing young children who are still learning to read and do math to struggle with English at the same time keeps them behind. On the other hand, if these kids can learn at-speed in their home languages, they’re able to quickly transfer the concepts to English—once their English is good enough.

Proposition 58’s supporters hope more bilingual education will help California narrow its own long-standing English language learner achievement gap. But nobody thinks it’ll be the silver bullet—English language learners tend to go to poorer schools with fewer teachers.

Even if Proposition 58 passes, it takes specialized books, teachers, and know-how to set up a bilingual classroom. Since the original restrictions on bilingual education passed in 1998, few public schools in California have invested in it. For schools that are interested — or may become interested after November 8th — Escamilla suggests starting small “and [making] sure you can do it well.”

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