A Second Look At Bilingual Education

Spreading now is the teaching of immigrants in English only -- latest shift in a long-running controversy.

When Spanish-speaking children in Belen Rodriguez’s kindergarten class in Miami say, ”Ba,o, teacher, ba,o,” Rodriguez makes her pupils use English.

Says Rodriguez: ”If the kids know they can lean on my ability to speak Spanish, they will never learn English. So I reply, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ and they immediately say, ‘Bathroom, teacher, bathroom.’ ”

Such scenes are increasingly common in classrooms from Washington, D.C., to Houston as educators challenge the most widely used method of teaching 3.6 million schoolchildren who speak little or no English: Bilingual education.

Now even the parents of some immigrant children are backing moves to plunge them into classes conducted in English only — similar to the immersion process of past decades when waves of newcomers flocked to America and rapidly joined the mainstream.

In bilingual instruction, billed not long ago as most effective for children who do not speak English, subjects such as math and science are taught in native tongues while students learn English in separate classes.

Recently, critics have attacked that approach, arguing that young people grasp the language faster if they are immersed fully — all of their courses taught in English. Others counter that many young people are traumatized by immersion and that bilingual education should be continued.

Studies under way. Among lawmaking and administrative bodies wrestling with the issue:

* Schools in Dade County, Fla., including Miami, have started a three-year pilot project to assess whether students who speak little or no English learn subjects better using their home language or English only.

* The District of Columbia is facing such a rapid influx of poorly educated refugees from Central America that it must push students into English-only classes as quickly as possible to make room for newcomers who even more desperately need bilingual support.

* Congress is considering a broadening of the Bilingual Education Act to include funds for courses taught in English only as well as for those given in both English and another tongue.

Reflecting demands for change, the federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, which under previous administrations pushed dual-language instruction, is conducting a study of English-immersion techniques. Says Jesse Soriano, the director: ”We have never said there is only one way to teach math or social studies, so why should we say bilingual education is the only way?”

Fears voiced. Many Hispanics and members of other ethnic groups are opposed to returning to the wholesale immersion that was blamed for high dropout rates among children who were unable to learn through that method.

Warns Norma Cantu, head of educational programs for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund: ”We don’t want to turn back the clock and head in that direction again.”

Educators trying out intensified English programs say that their efforts differ greatly from the old ”sink or swim” approach. In Houston, where eight elementary schools are testing an English-only approach, all instructors have had special training in teaching students who speak another language.

Students participating in Miami’s pilot program receive 30 minutes of instruction daily in the language arts of their native tongues. Explains Ralph Robinett, director of Dade County’s Department of Bilingual/Foreign-Language
Education: ”Developing good communications skills in the students’ home language helps them to more rapidly translate these skills into learning English.”

Educators find that English-immersion programs are most successful with younger children from families that speak and write their native language with sophistication. Such programs fall short, however, for a recent wave of newcomers — teenagers from rural villages in Central America who read and write their native language poorly.

Since last fall, District of Columbia public schools have received 2,000 students from Central America, and 15 to 20 more arrive each week. Teaching English and other subjects is a cultural and educational struggle because most students cannot relate words such as traffic light to familiar concepts from their rural homes.

Sixty teenagers from El Salvador, their ages 13 to 19, are enrolled at Washington’s Francis Junior High School. About six years ago, the school switched from teaching courses such as science in Spanish. A major reason: Parents complained that their children were not learning English fast enough.

The school has since reintroduced a special bilingual program, and now 30 new Salvadoran refugees are learning subject matter in Spanish at the same time they are studying English. Notes teacher Bertha Lastre: ”These students can hardly read and write Spanish, which makes the transition into English that much more difficult.”

A typical problem at Francis: Many of the newcomers cannot find the subject in a sentence written in Spanish. But with home-language support, the math skills of one 18-year-old rose in a single semester from a third-grade to a seventh-grade level.

Educators are a long way from consensus on what approach is the most effective for equipping people who don’t speak English for a productive life in the United States.

Many, however, are convinced that there may be no single solution — that using a variety of methods may turn out to be best.

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