Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Immersion Discussion

Yesterday, I immersed myself in a discussion about our foreign language immersion programs which offer the opportunity to parents to put their children in either a Chinese immersion (Madison) or Spanish immersion (Clearview) program. Somehow this topic got mixed up with a significantly different topic, the appropriate strategy to teach English to non English speaking immigrants. I understand the reason for the confusion, I think. It begins with this basic question: "If Spanish immersion does a great job of teaching Spanish to native English speakers, why doesn't it follow that English immersion should be used to teach English to students whose native language is Spanish or Somali?." I think the answer comes in two parts. First, many of the concepts behind immersion apply to to teaching English to non-English speaking students. Language is best introduced at an early age. Language is best learned conversationally, especially in the context where you must use it constantly. Language is best learned when your peers are speaking it as well. Language benefits from constant repetition.

But there are differences as well. English language learners in a school environment are generally not speaking English at home. That means that the primary place that they are learning English is in school. Second language learners are getting strong English language support at home and elsewhere, and they are already native speakers. The dialog on immersion for non-English speakers, for me, is basically one of tactics, not politics. Its a question of doing what works. I think before one engages in a dispute over the full immersion approach to teaching English to non-English speakers, its important to try to see if there are some things about which we can all agree.
  • There is evidence that by the year 2025, 1/3 of the students who arrive in public schools in the United States will arrive in kindergarten not speaking English. If we want to make sure that these students succeed in school, and if we want to make sure that they develop proficiency in English, public schools will need to use methods that really work. We cannot afford to use methods that are chosen out of political correctness, or because of nationalistic fervor, or based on anger or emotion. If we believe that all students must learn English and learn it well, then we must get really good at teaching English to non-English speaking children.
  • I take it as a given that it is critically important that all young people must become fluent in English as quickly as possible. I think that this proposition cannot be considered controversial. In order to function effectively in school, in the world of work, in civic affairs, it is important that public education assure that all of our students learn English. Moreover, we need to evaluate the effectiveness of our school instructional programs for non-English speaking children by whether they achieve this objective--of assuring mastery of English as rapidly as possible. This is something that I hear over and over again from parents of immigrant students as well. They want their children to learn English, and their children want to learn English right now.
  • The only reasonable debate, then, in my opinion, is what works the best in delivering the critical goal of arriving at English proficiency. There are advocates for many different approaches, but we should not confuse the question about the most cost effective efficient means, which is subject to debate, with the question of the end, which is not. We want all our students to learn English now.
  • We need to recognize that public school districts operate within some legal constraints, but that currently the primary constraint is that school districts must adopt methods that work. In 1974, the United States Supreme Court issued the landmark case, LAU v. NICHOLS., which held that the City of San Francisco could not put non-English speaking children into classrooms that were taught in English only, at least under a system which made no effort to assure that those students succeeded. The reasoning of the case is complex, and it depended in part upon California law as well as national civil rights laws. But since the Lau decision, local school districts have been subject to varying national mandates, sometimes favoring bilingualism, and sometimes offering more local freedom. Title III of No Child Left Behind, (the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act) requires States to ensure that ELL students “attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet.” §6812(1). It requires States to set annual objective achievement goals for the number of students who will annually progress toward proficiency, achieve proficiency, and make “adequate yearly progress” with respect to academic achievement, §6842(a), and it holds local schools and agencies accountable for meeting these objectives, §6842(b). The statute has been interpreted to foster local flexibility in selection of means to reaching the goal of proficiency.
  • This question of what works has often been muddled with other issues that divert our attention from the central goal--which is to do what works. If you believe that English should be the national language, please understand that this is a political ideology, but it has nothing to do with the question of pedagogy--what is the fastest way to teach students to learn English. If it makes you angry for some reason to think that in a classroom, a teacher might be occasionally speaking Spanish, or Somali, or some other foreign language, you are entitled to be angry, if it makes you feel good. If you are politically committed to bilingualism, because you really think its a great way to honor another culture, you are entitled to that belief as well, but don't confuse that with the central issue. The central issue, as far as I am concerned is which method of teaching achieves the main goal, to teach children to learn English with the maximum proficiency in the shortest amount of time, and the answer to that question is not going to come from your beliefs, its going to come from measuring results.
  • The use of immersion programs to teach a second language to native English speakers raises fundamentally different issues, because native English speakers have already achieved the central goal of speaking English fluently. They are reading and speaking English at home, and everywhere else. This is starkly different from the experience of the non-English speaking child, who likely hears no English at home. In order to learn English at school, they need massively more English at school, if they are going to reach proficiency in English. We offer Spanish and Chinese immersion as a choice, and parent can enroll their children in these programs if they wish, based on their own evaluation of whether it will work for their own children. If the program fails to live up to their expectations, still their children will be proficient in English.
We spend too much time these days, arguing about things that make us angry at each other. Let's agree on something that ought to be completely non-controversial: let's make sure that everybody in our community can speak English, and especially young people. Let's do it the way that works the fastest, that prepares every non-English speaking child to function effectively in science, math, and language arts in English.

With that starting point, let's borrow a bit from a website at the University of Michigan, to try to understand the pedagogical debate about the best way to teach English to non-English speaking children. To look at the website, Click Here: U Michigan website.

The website tells us that there are four main approaches to teaching English to non-English speaking children:
  • Submersion: In submersion, "language minority students are placed in an ordinary classroom where English is spoken.." The class makes no special accommodation. The teacher teachers the class exactly the same as she would if all her students were English proficient. Sink or swim. If you believe in doing what works the best, then don't tell my you favor this approach because it makes you feel good. The issue is whether it really works. It is submersion that the Supreme Court found unlawful in the Lau case.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL):In traditional ESL, students are placed in regular submersion instruction for most of the day. During part of the day, however, these students receive extra instruction in English.
  • Structured Immersion Structured immersion involves special accommodations to assure that non-English speaking children are given a fighting chance to succeed in the immersion environment. Content is introduced in a way that can be understood by students. The English language is the main content of instruction. One form of structured Immersion has been implemented in Arizona, described as follows in a 2009 Supreme Court decision, Horne v. Flores "Sheltered English immersion’ or ‘structured English immersion’ means an English language acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language… . Although teachers may use a minimal amount of the child’s native language when necessary, no subject matter shall be taught in any language other than English, and children in this program learn to read and write solely in English.”
  • Two-Way Bilingual Immersion: Students are taught in two languages; both their native language and English. "Two-way bilingual immersion programs that follow the 90-10 models begin by immersing students in instruction through the non-English language. As children progress through the program, the amount of English language instruction is increased until the two languages attain parity in the delivery of instruction." "90-10" denotes that 90% of teaching in Kindergarten and first grade are done in the native language and the other 10% of the day is taught in English." In some versions of this program, the school will attempt to enroll a roughly equal number of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language (each group making up between one-third and two-thirds of the total student population) and the two groups of students are integrated for all or most of the school day.
Now you can find all sorts of highly educated experts who claim that the evidence favors one of these programs over another. You can find different definitions as well. Some refer to a form of Bilingual education as "the practice of teaching non-English speaking students core subjects in their native language as they learn English" Under this definition of bilingual education, "such programs were intended to help children keep up with their peers in subjects such as math, science and social studies while they studied English" .

For a defense of bi-lingual education see this page: Bi-lingual education fallacies For an rejection of the approach, see Teach our children English.

See also: USC Resources A lengthy article from the Hoover Institution discusses the issue from an anti-bilingual approach.

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