Building the literacy bridge for all students

El Cerrito—IN A SPEECH at the American Legion Convention on Labor Day, Sen. Bob Dole said, “If one of the most important missions of our schools is to make citizens of our children, and I believe it is, fluency in English should be a central educational goal of every state in our nation . . .”


We at the National Council of Teachers of English agree that all students should become fluent English language users. However, we recognize that many students in our schools today do not speak English as their native language.


The challenge of developing the English language skills of all students requires bridges that link skills and abilities in their native languages to the English language skills and abilities they need in school and the workplace.


Yet in America today, nearly half of our students go to schools where English as a Second Language (ESL) is not offered. Fully three-quarters of our students are enrolled in schools without bilingual classes. In a society where in 15 years the number of Hispanic American students has nearly doubled and the number of Asian American students has nearly tripled, the literacy bridges don’t stretch far enough.


In ESL courses, we use the students’ native language as a foundation. As students gain fluency in English, they are better able to learn and to study other academic subjects taught in English.


In his speech, Dole stated that fluent use of a common language forms a bond among society’s members. He wants to ensure that all of our children have the same opportunities in life.


But in order for students to reach full potential in the 21st century, they are going to need more than mere fluency in English. We must expect more than the simple decoding and recitation of English words and phrases. We must provide the kind of instruction that enables them to look at the meanings behind the words and the messages behind the images.


The ability to absorb information from many sources, to evaluate it critically and use it effectively, is crucial if our democracy is to flourish and if we as individuals are to thrive.


And if Americans are to compete effectively in a global marketplace, we must provide for literacy education that does more than simply bind us together as a nation, it must prepare us to harness the communication tools that technology is making available.


We urge everyone to support teachers in their efforts to build the literacy bridges needed to prepare all students, regardless of their country of origin, for 21st century life.


Find out how your district addresses these needs. Talk to the administrators, principals and English teachers in your community about what they are doing to help students to read and to write and to communicate in thoughtful and purposeful ways.


Look beyond the rhetoric that would identify language education as a force of division in this country.


Sound education in English and the language arts, taught by thousands of caring and well-informed professionals, will be the mortar of a strong foundation for the personal, social and economic well-being of our students, and our country, in the challenging times ahead.
Joan Cone, a member of the National Council of Teachers of English, teaches at El Cerrito High School. Beverly Ann Chin is president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English and a professor of English at the University of Montana.


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