October 26, 2007

The benefits of bilingual education for English language learners

Source: NYSUT News Wire

Luis O. Reyes, who grew up in the projects of South Bronx, offers compelling personal and professional arguments on the merits of bilingual education, which emphasizes developing literacy in a child's home language as essential to acquiring literacy in the second.

"I went to school and they said my name was Louis," Reyes recalls. "My name became Louis and stayed Louis until I got my doctorate from Stanford University."

Shortly before graduation, he had an epiphany: Louis was not who he was. So Luis was the name on his doctorate, and the name he pronounced carefully in introducing himself to the participants in the "Ending the Gap" workshop on raising achievement for English language learners (ELL).

His experiences as a scholar and educator convinced him that students thrived when their home language and culture were sustained in the educational process. Reyes also delineated a significant body of research that says English language learners do best in programs that emphasize continued learning and literacy in their home languages.

He began by outlining four principles he believes are essential to education:

  • It must be upwardly mobile, so that every child can go as far as their potential takes them.
  • It must be downwardly stable, grounded in family, community and identity.
  • It must be inwardly fertile, not just about test scores but about educating the whole child; and
  • It must be outwardly global, with an expanded horizon for every child.

He offered a list of circumstances that undercut the goal of providing quality bilingual education, including disproportionately high Latino dropout rates and academic underachievement; lack of appropriate guidance and support services; failure to comply with requirements for services; discouragement of parental involvement; and low representation of Latinos in teaching and administration.

Ironically, Reyes said, that list was compiled in the 1970s but nonetheless reflects "not ancient history, but current events."

Reyes, a visiting fellow at the Bronx Institute at Lehman College, CUNY, stressed a focus on helping students become literate in two languages. That philosophy rejects the symbol of America as a melting pot that erases differences. Instead, it emphasizes a student's right to get an education by adding to his or her home language, not subtracting it from the child's life.

"Too many people see children speaking a language other than English as a problem, a deficit that needs to be fixed," Reyes said. "Bi-lingual, bi-cultural education is a different philosophy. It says that children have a civil right to their home language and that language should not be a barrier to getting an equal education."

Languages other than English are a resource, not a problem, Reyes added. He said language is easy to learn when it is sensible, relevant, interesting, belongs to the learner and is presented to the student through choices. Language becomes hard to learn when it is artificial, dull, broken into pieces, belongs to someone else and is out of the context of real communication.

"The stronger the base in the first language," he said, "the more developed their literacy, the more successful they are in acquiring literacy in the second language."

He cited research affirming the value of bilingual education, including a study at George Mason University that compared dual language programs and found those most successful at closing the gap offer more enrichment and a commitment to full development of literacy in both languages.

Whole language expert Debra Goodman at Hofstra University affirms the need to build bridges between home, school, community, Reyes said. For English language learners, it's important to build bridges between what schools expect to achieve academically in content areas and what is expected on English Language Arts tests.

It's a typical mistake, Reyes said, to assume that "Limited English Proficiency kids also are limited in literacy." That ignores the richness, poetry and language ability they have developed in their home language.

Citing scholar Jim Cummins, Reyes stressed that when students' identities are affirmed in the classroom, they then feel comfortable and participate fully in literacy learning. Other contributors to student engagement include:

  • Use of first language is not discouraged
  • Decoding techniques -- the mechanics -- are not the be-all and end-all
  • Students feel they have a voice and are listened to
  • They participate in inquiry through teams.

"When these are accepted parts of the process, students learn better and become engaged," Reyes said.

He cited some negative effects of the testing and strictures of No Child Left Behind, saying that under NCLB, "teachers too often are directed to ignore best practice and follow the script. When standardized tests dominate, first language literacy is discouraged and not valued."

This contradicts what we know about research on reading acquisition, Reyes pointed out. In Maryland, one study found that because of the growing amount of time spent on tests, ELL fifth-graders missed 33 days of ELL classes, or 18 percent of that instructional time.

A New York City study compared two different strategies: acquiring English as a Second Language; and bilingual education that stresses acquiring literacy in both. It found that the ESL group exited their language classes faster, but the bilingual group did better academically over the long term.

Reyes summarized research by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier that found two-way instruction - where native English speakers were part of the class and were themselves working on acquiring a second language - positioned ELL students as resources as well as learners. Their studies found "two-way" instruction had the best results for student achievement long-term.

Now that New York state is emphasizing the importance of universal pre-K, Reyes suggested it is essential to examine these options for ELL.

Quality pre-K programs, he said, would view the child's home language as the crucial foundation for cognitive development; and affirm social and emotional growth and the home culture and language. They should recognize that literacy in one language enhances literacy in both.

The recent decision by day care providers in New York City to affiliate with the United Federation of Teachers will have a positive effect on the improvement of daycare services, Reyes said, because it will facilitate providing high quality research-based professional development for those who care for the youngest children.

It will also establish a pipeline, he noted, for expanding an ethnically diverse pool of future teachers.

Getting it right in educating English language learners is critical, Reyes said, because "they are here and growing." ELL comprise about 12 percent of the school population, with the largest growth not in New York, but states such as Idaho and Arkansas. Some 79 percent are Spanish speakers, and 64 percent were born in the United States. They are twice as likely as native -born students to live in poor families.

"Racism is not just an American reality," Reyes said. "In Latin American countries, issues of race and color say something about who you are and what your life chances are." An important part of education, he said, is for it to help students situate themselves: "Schooling is not just for society or your parent's dream for you; it is about living out your dream."