When Pablo entered fourth grade last August, he represented the dream of the English Only movement: a bright little boy from a Spanish-dominant household who had been mainstreamed into English from the get-go. All his schooling had been in English, and even his day-care prohibited children from speaking Spanish. There’s only one problem: After five years of all-English instruction, Pablo can only read at a beginning first-grade level.

I have encountered too many kids in Pablo’s shoes. As a bilingual teacher, I have taught a number of fourth-grade non-readers who had struggled for years in an all-English classroom environment. Despite the fact that they have learned to speak conversational English well enough, they lack a sufficient language base to make meaning out of English print. Suddenly, when I teach them in Spanish, the pieces fall into place. They start to read in Spanish, and before long they are transferring these skills to English reading. For Pablo, unfortunately, it was too late even for that. When I tested him for language proficiency, it emerged not only that his English was limited, but also that he had lost his ability to speak Spanish. In other words, Pablo has no language in which he can communicate well. In my interactions with Pablo it has become clear that he is highly intelligent, but also that he has given up on school and on himself.

Fortunately, I also get to see the flip side. I have learned that kids who read and write well in their native Spanish also develop strong literacy skills in English. On their own, my bilingual fourth-graders are devouring chapter books in English from the library. They don’t have to begin with learning the alphabet and blends in English, or even with books at a primary grade level. Like adults learning a second language, they are able to transfer literacy strategies without starting from scratch, because they understand what reading is for and how it works.

It’s like this: Human beings read and write in order to decode and construct meaning. Research indicates that children can best learn that in their strongest language initially, and that they can then transfer these skills effectively into English. Students who are expected to learn to read for the first time in a language they barely speak have a much more difficult time uncovering the significance of the words and sentences they read. They may be able to string together syllables, but they lack what they need in order to comprehend them. Developing fluency in a second language typically takes several years, as those of us who have wrestled with a foreign language can attest. This is no different for immigrant children. Small wonder that by the time they have developed their English ability, language learners in all-English instruction tend to lag far behind their native English-speaking peers in all academic areas, particularly in reading and writing.

It is crucial for immigrant children to learn English well, and that is a top priority for every bilingual teacher I have ever run across. In accord with the students and parents we serve, none of us is so foolhardy as to think that a kid can make it without a firm command of English. But in the long run, effective bilingual education actually provides a stronger English foundation than immersion in English. Through native language instruction, students are able to develop advanced cognitive and literacy skills while acquiring English, instead of needing to wait for that to happen until their English is in place (a delay that often leaves them irretrievably behind).

Then why are so many immigrant children failing? In fact, most Limited English Proficient students in California have never had the benefit of native language instruction, so it is doubly ironic that bilingual education is the scapegoat for their lack of academic success. Of course there is also room for improvement in bilingual programs, which suffer from severe shortages of qualified teachers, of quality native language materials, and of administrative and political support. But these pressing issues, not bilingual education as such, need to be the target of our efforts to make our schools better serve those students just learning English.

California Proposition 227 was approved on June 2, probably by many well-intentioned voters who honestly think a mandated ban on bilingual education will improve immigrant children’s chances for success. A similar initiative could easily take hold here in Arizona before long. Before we realize what we have done, there will be a great many more Pablos, who lack the words in any language to tell us we have failed them. Maren Aukerman is a fourth-grade bilingual teacher at Squaw Peak School in Phoenix.


Photo by Kim Kulish/New York Times; Caption: California’s recent approval of Proposition 227 eliminates classes in bilingual education, such as this one taught by Veronica Lares, instructional aide at Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana, Calif.

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