Kids Learn Better When They're Taught in English

In all the hullabaloo over bilingual education, the only really important thing to keep in mind is which system helps students master English the fastest. In other words, what works.

On that score, the New York City Board of Education’s figures speak for themselves: The more English a student hears, the better. So an instructional program of total immersion in English is likely to be the best.

The board is considering offering total immersion as an option. It should not only be offered, but students should be encouraged to choose it.

Overall, the present situation is discouraging: Only 49.6 percent of English learners in New York’s public schools graduate into mainstream programs within the three years recommended by the state. That’s a sorry state, especially since the majority of foreign-language speakers start school here as kindergartners, when their nimble young minds are uniquely primed to absorb a new language.

Children who are placed in programs that teach the course work in English do consistently better than those who elect “bilingual” programs, in which courses are taught in the native language, with English language instruction provided on the side. The reason is obvious: Children who spend much more of their day surrounded by and immersed in English while they are at school are going to become proficient in the language that much sooner.

It’s as intuitive as the notion that the best way to learn French is to spend a year in Paris.

California’s experience has been instructive. Just two years after immersion programs were introduced by popular ballot there, standardized test scores of immigrants in all grades spiked upward in both math and reading, turning around a lot of skeptics.

Parents who still want to choose the city system’s other language programs for their children will be able to do so, since the option must be offered by law.

But all English proficiency programs should be viewed as a means to an end, not a way of life. Within a few years, students should be as comfortable saying “see you later” as they are saying “adios,” or “au revoir.”

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