Teaching English as a Second Language in US Schools

As more and more immigrants are coming into the United States, one of the biggest responsibilities for American educators is how to teach English to students with a different home language so they may function in American society. However, not all educators agree on how this task should best be approached, and most educators utilize one of two approaches: English immersion or bilingual education programs. In English immersion programs, students do not use their home language as part of the curriculum; they are taught in English and expected to use only English from the first day of instruction. Bilingual education programs, though varying in nature, utilize the students’ home language either as a resource for teaching English or until students’ English is considered advanced enough that they no longer “need” their home language as support.

In their article “Reading and Language Outcomes of a Multiyear Randomized Evaluation of Transitional Bilingual Education,” Robert E. Slavin et al. argue that the type of English education students receive does not matter as much as the quality of education they receive. They came to this conclusion based on results of five tests – two which did not require any comprehension from students, but only the ability to make sound-letter correspondence – given to Spanish-speaking elementary school learners of English. Their findings showed that after five years, students in transitional bilingual education programs (which gradually shift students into English-only classrooms) scored the same as students in standard English immersion programs in both Spanish and English proficiencies.

Barnett et al., however, disagree: they argue in “Two-way and monolingual English immersion in preschool education: An experimental comparison” that dual-language bilingual education programs are more beneficial to students than standard English immersion programs because they develop English and the home language. They administered eleven different tests throughout the study period of one academic year (some of these tests were performed more than once); three tests measured sound-letter correspondence and pronunciation, four measured cognitive ability, and four measured classroom environment. Their findings showed that both programs lead to similar English improvement, but English immersion programs did so at the expense of the home language, Spanish, which was contrastingly improved through dual-language programs.

Slavin et al.’s assertion that the quality of education is very important is correct, but “quality” of education can mean very different things to different people. Barnett et al. measured various aspects of the learning environment, which is valuable because learning does not occur in a vacuum, but in “the real world,” where learning should be enjoyable and students should feel valued. This is also why it is important for students’ home languages to be developed in school – students are not just English learners, but also bilinguals, and their identity as such should be recognized and utilized. Even though Slavin et al. found that students’ Spanish was the same through both transitional bilingual education and standard English immersion, it is important to remember that elementary-level Spanish vocabulary can often be easily acquired in the community, especially if that community consists of a large Hispanic population; beyond elementary school, students will need to acquire more difficult vocabulary that they would be much less likely to experience by chance in their community. Spanish should not be treated as a “home language” that will be developed outside of school, but as a valid language students possess that contributes to their knowledge and identity. What is considered “quality” education is debatable, but it would seem that an environment allowing students to feel like their home life can contribute to who they are and what they know would constitute as “high quality.”

Slavin et al. only consider two options – transitional bilingual education or standard English immersion – but Barnett et al.’s study proves that there is at least one more option – dual-language bilingual education. Educators should not feel limited to choose between English-only programs or programs that ultimately result in English-only. American educators constantly stress the need for American-born, English-speaking students to be bilingual, so why do they deny students who are learning English this right? Barnett et al. show that utilizing and developing the home language does not hinder English acquisition, and, in fact, develops the home language, leading to the bilingualism that educators want and expect from other students. Students should be able to use whatever resources they possess without being shamed for it or being labeled as “English learners” – a term which, in itself, suggests that students will never truly be speakers of English, but always lesser than their English-native peers.

Works Cited

Barnett, William S., et al. “Two-way and monolingual English immersion in preschool education: An experimental comparison.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, 2007, pp. 277-293.

Slavin, Robert E., et al. “Reading and Language Outcomes of a Multiyear Randomized Evaluation of Transitional Bilingual Education.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 33, no. 1, 2011, pp. 47-58.