It has been 35 years since the famous Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974), in which the court ruled it was a civil rights violation to teach children in a non-native language they did not understand. The rationale behind the decision was the practice deprived these students of their right to an education, which they were entitled to under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned educational discrimination on the basis of national origin). However, the court decided not to prescribe a specific remedy. This left it up to the schools to decide how they would educate non-native language speakers, empowering them with free choice to decide the programs and techniques they would use.
For the most part, school districts developed their own ELL programs and they varied significantly. Not surprisingly, most districts decided it was “better” to teach non-native language speaking students to speak English, rather than provide instruction in the student’s native language. This approach was and is still rationalized by the district, claiming it is in the “best interests of the students”, citing local community circumstances and needs driving the practice. I would contend educating non-English speaking students using English is in the” best interest of the district”.
Back when court decision was made, it is true there was limited research available on the best practices for teaching English Language Learners (ELLs). Back then, it made sense that there would be a broad range of programs and strategizes used for teaching ELLs.
However, in the past 35 years, little has changed. We are far from having universally agreed-upon standards for teaching ELLs. It leads me to wonder why formalized standards and best practices for teaching ELLs is left to the district and not standardized at the state or federal levels.
We’ve known for decade that human learning and cognitive development is based upon activation of prior knowledge. Teaching ELLs in a language other than their native one prevents the ELLs from connecting much of their prior knowledge with the new information they receive. It seems as if this practice ignores one of the most basic fundamentals for human learning.
Still, many school administrators claim limited research exists on what is most effective for teaching ELLs. Some would even claim there is an ongoing debate regarding the best programs and techniques for educating ELL students.
However, there are clear benefits, as mentioned above, to providing ELLs with instruction in their native language. Unfortunately, the reality is economic constraints of delivering this kind of instruction, has created what I’d consider to be a false debate which results in many instances of ELLs being provided with an inferior education that is mediocre at best.
Today, most programs can be categorized into five categories (Hakuta, K., 2000). Those categories, as follows:
1) English as second language (ESL). These programs provide separate instructions for English-language skills. Academic content is provided through mainstream classrooms. (Often, the core content lessons are sacrificed when time is spent outside the classroom learning English under this model).
2) Sheltered instruction/structured immersion. These programs cluster ELLs by their proficiency levels. The subject matter can then be custom tailored to the level.
3) Transitional/early-exit bilingual education – ELLs receive academic instruction in their native language while gradually transitioning to English only instruction over a two-four year timeframe.
4) Maintenance/late-exit bilingual education – like Transitional programs, ELLs receive academic instruction in their native language and gradually transition to English instruction, but differs in that some instruction is continually taught in the students native language for the purpose of developing academic proficiency in both languages.
5) Two-way bilingual education/dual-language immersion – A class of students that consists of two groups: one is ELLs, who all speak the same native language; the other group is native English speaking students. The instruction is provided in both languages, to all the students in the class, and they all students gain bi-lingual academic proficiency.
Most schools in New York have implemented the English as second language (ESL) strategy. I find it interesting that they are all have no state mandated requirements for the mainstream classroom teacher of ELLs.
If we were to ever agree on a universally accepted program it would almost certainly incorporate some level of teaching in the student’s native language. This kind of instruction enables the ELL to activate their prior knowledge and makes cognitive processing of new information more effective.
However, the economic realities are the expenses associated with teaching students in their native languages make it impractical for most school districts. It would be unrealistic to think schools can find and afford to hire enough bilingual teachers, who proficient in both English and the students native language, and also knowledgeable in the requisite content areas. When you consider the dozens of languages spoken in the world, the problem is compounded exponentially.
Even if we could enough bilingual teachers with knowledgeable of the content areas, the class sizes would be relatively small for native languages other than Spanish. Once again, these small class sizes would make the practice cost prohibitive in most districts. This is unfortunate since research shows a positive correlation between smaller class sizes and higher academic performance.
So contrary to subjective debates on the best ways to educate ELLs, I contend it starts with delivering instruction in the child’s native language. The challenge is having adequate resources. I believe we may be able to deliver native language education still remain sensitive to the economic realities of the world we live in.
I believe native language learning is beneficial but currently unfeasible because of the costs. One solution may be to look at this like other learning services and offerings that are inefficient for smaller districts run and manage themselves in-house. The states New York B.O.C.E.S. (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) was established years ago so that individual districts could achieve economies of scale, and outsource services and programs that would be inefficient for the individual district to implement. By borrowing this model and working together, it may be possible to share resources amongst the districts. Then, bilingual teachers who were knowledgeable in the requisite subject areas would only cost the districts a small percentage of the total salary instead of a one full headcount for what may be a handful of students.
Under this plan, the school would then pays only a fraction of what it would cost them as compared to hiring full-time teachers. Not only are ELLs provided with a better education based on learning that utilizes their prior knowledge, but, the students are afforded some cultural familiarity, creating a sense of acceptance and belonging which is instrumental for learning as well. For ELLs, this may be of added importance since many times they are transitioning from a foreign country. Pooling students from neighboring districts also creates an opportunity for them to make new friends who share their cultural values while they learn, which, can also be instrumental for learning.
I am not suggesting that local schools turn the responsibility of educating ELLs over to B.O.C.E.S. Rather, borrow this shared services model to establish more cooperative relationships between neighboring school districts. This would enable them to pool groups of students, who speak a common language and are at same level, into class sizes that are economically feasible.