THE White House response to Sen. Bob Dole’s call to make English
the official language of the United States was high on knee-jerk
political correctness and low on common sense.
White House spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said Dole’s proposal was “not
realistic because so many young students don’t speak English, and in
order to communicate with their teachers and reach full competency in
their courses, they have to be taught in Spanish” or other languages.
Actually, a longitudinal study published in October 1994 by the New
York City Board of Education shows that the opposite is true. Students
who are taught in English from the beginning achieve higher scores in
reading and math than those taught in their native language.
New York City employs two methods to teach LEP (limited English
proficiency) students. Bilingual education uses the student’s native
language for content instruction. This means students spend most of the
day in classes taught in their native language. ESL (English as a second
language) uses English as the medium of instruction, but students are
not simply immersed in the language. Instead, they are taught by a
specially trained instructor who uses “controlled” or limited English to
introduce new aspects of the language systematically.
The longitudinal study demonstrates that students who receive ESL
instruction fare far better than those taught primarily in their native
language. A comparison of the three-year exit rates for students in ESL
and bilingual programs shows that those who receive ESL instruction test
out faster and in higher percentages than those who receive instruction
in their native language, regardless of the grade in which they entered
school. For example, 79.3 percent of the children who entered ESL
programs in kindergarten tested out, while only 51.5 percent of those
who received their education in their native languages did. Likewise,
72.9 percent of the ESL students who entered programs in the first grade
tested out, while only 38.5 of those in bilingual programs did. For
students who entered LEP programs in the ninth grade, 91.6 percent of
those in native-language instruction classes still hadn’t tested out
after three years, as compared with 78.1 percent of those in ESL
Furthermore, children who had been in ESL classes tested higher in
English and math once they exited LEP programs than those who had
received native-language instruction. Of the LEP students who entered in
kindergarten or the first grade, 49 percent of those who had been in ESL
classes eventually read at grade level, while only 32 percent of those
who had been in bilingual classes performed that well. In math, the
statistics are even more impressive. Of the children who entered in
kindergarten or the first grade, more than 69 percent of those who had
been in ESL classes eventually performed at grade level or above, as
opposed to 54 percent of those who had been in bilingual classes.
Naturally, the study provoked a barrage of criticism from the highly
political and vocal bilingual lobby, which prompted the New York City
Board of Education to issue a paper in November 1994 mitigating the
findings of the study and ignoring the distinction between students in
ESL and bilingual education programs. Rather than exit rates, this paper
focuses on the achievement of LEP students during the period in which
they are in bilingual or ESL classes. The authors show that although the
scores of LEP students were below average on the English-language test,
their scores in all areas showed improvement; they point out that in
math, there were insufficient data on the progress of LEP students to
draw valid conclusions.
However, a report on citywide mathematics test results in New York
last spring deals more fully with the math scores of the 26,248 students
who were examined the previous school year in Chinese, Spanish, or
Haitian Creole. According to this document, only 16.6 percent of these
children were performing at or above grade level in mathematics.
Although this figure represents an improvement of 1.1 percent over the
scores of the previous year, it discredits the argument that
native-language instruction keeps children performing at grade level in
subject areas. Although LEP students are improving faster than the
national norm, they continue to perform far below the norm.
Several other studies also demonstrate that LEP students taught in
English do just as well or better than those taught in their native
language. In El Paso, Texas, a longitudinal evaluation shows that young
children in the “bilingual immersion” program, which uses English as the
language of instruction from the first day of the first grade, actually
do better in math and reading than those taught in their native
language. In addition to bilingual immersion, many other new programs
that combine English with subject-area instruction have been developed.
Clearly, it is not necessary to teach LEP children in their native
language, and doing so may actually be detrimental to their academic
achievement. Furthermore, by isolating children into language ghettos in
school, we discourage contact with English-speaking youngsters who could
facilitate newcomers socialization into American society and contribute
to their mastery of English.
It is simply common sense that students who are taught in English
will learn the language more quickly and qualify for mainstreaming
earlier than those who are not. And it is common sense to use methods
that produce positive results in the classroom.
Barbara Mujica is a professor of Spanish at Georgetown University. She
wrote this article for The Washington Post.