English-only: key to fluency?

Orange Unified deems its first year of immersion a success, but detractors say there is no simple answer.

Orange Unified school officials say students who entered the district’s immersion programs last year speaking little or no English made swift strides toward fluency.

But scholars say Orange’s results don’t prove the effectiveness of a one-year program of English immersion – the kind that schools throughout California must adopt under Proposition 227.

Orange received a waiver last year exempting it from having to provide bilingual programs. Voters in June approved Prop. 227, which mandates English immersion for nonfluent students.

A study released Thursday by educational consultant Kevin Clark showed that 81 percent of Orange Unified’s nearly 5,000 limited-English students were at higher stages of English proficiency after seven months of immersion classes.

The district put students into four levels of oral English growth – from kids who started school speaking no English to those who could communicate clearly.

Officials said students in lower levels – those who went from speaking no English to knowing a few phrases – progressed faster with less time.

“The students are making rapid progress by learning in English,”
said Neil McKinnon, Orange Unified assistant superintendent. “There’s a direct correlation to our programs. It’s a simple concept.”

McKinnon says the study will be used as a base line to measure language progress after one year. Detractors of Prop. 227 say numbers can be manipulated to fit a desired outcome.

“Kids pick up English better if they’re learning to speak conversationally,”
said Jeff McQuillan, a professor at California State University, Fullerton.
“Saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ comes easily to kids. But explaining science is more challenging.”

McQuillan’s reading of Orange Unified’s report shows that 50 percent of students who spoke little or no English remained in the lower levels of English fluency after the first year. Seventy-six percent, he contends,
were not prepared to use English in their classwork without assistance in their native language.

Scholars and educators say there is no simple answer for how students with different educational, socioeconomic and family backgrounds learn language.

Before the passage of Prop. 227 in June, Santa Ana Unified provided a variety of language programs, including English immersion and bilingual education. A researcher who studied Santa Ana’s programs said no one method proved superior.

“The differences in outcome (between bilingual and English-immersion)
are small statistically,” said Douglas Mitchell, a University of California,
Riverside, professor. “If you look at the end results, this issue doesn’t deserve the political energy it has received.”

Mitchell’s study found students who spoke no English learned faster through bilingual methods initially. As they learned phrases and sentences, immersion methods produced more growth. And when higher concepts such as science theories and philosophical arguments are introduced, kids relied on bilingual methods again.

But both Orange officials and education researchers agree that one year isn’t enough.

“The flaw with (Prop. 227) is that you have to pull kids out of a program after a year,” said McKinnon. “In our schools, kids with limited English aren’t shuffled off into a corner where they have to learn together.”

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