Bilingual education is most effective choice for English Language Learners

iStock_000020536048XSmallBilingual education for English Language Learners (ELLs) has been one of the most controversial and even contentious issues in the field, with some groups like ProEnglish and anti-immigration groups actively opposing it as a threat to national identity.

Yet the research is quite clear that when it comes to what is the most effective approach for teaching ELLs, bilingual education gets the best results, writes researcher Claude Goldenberg in a recent issue of American Educator.

This is one of the simplest lessons about teaching ELLs that Goldenberg draws from two recent major reviews of the research, one by the National Literacy Panel (NLP) and the other by the Center For Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE), both completed in 2006.

“This consistent finding might surprise some readers,” Goldenberg writes. “But the NLP was the latest of five meta-analyses that reached the same conclusion: learning to read in the home language promotes reading achievement in the second language.”

“Readers should understand how unusual it is to have five meta-analyses on the same issue conducted by five independent researchers or groups of researchers with diverse perspectives. The fact that they all reached essentially the same conclusion is worth noting. No other area in educational research with which I am familiar can claim five independent meta-analyses based on experimental studies–much less five that converge on the same basic finding.”

If at all feasible, the author writes, children should be taught reading in their primary language. Primary reading language instruction develops first language skills and promotes reading in English.

Counterintuitive finding

That it’s better to teach ELL in two languages rather than the one they’re trying to learn is counterintuitive, which may be one reason it has been difficult for educators to embrace, Goldenberg says. The reason that students taught in their first language read better in their second language, the author says, is no doubt because of “transfer”–literacy and other skills and knowledge seem to transfer across languages, according to the research.

Children who learn decoding, comprehension strategies or the meaning of democracy in their first language simply transfer it to English. This applies not only to languages that share the same alphabet but also to languages that use different systems, although the degree of transfer is likely diminished.

While there is a consensus in the research about the superiority of bilingual education in teaching ELLs, Goldenberg says, he notes that the effects of primary language instruction are modest.

“What this means is that after 2-3 years of first and second language reading instruction, the average student can expect to score about 12 to 15 percentile points higher than the average student who only receives second language instruction. That’s not huge, but it’s not trivial either.”

Bilingual education has the added advantage of helping ELLs become bilingual and biliterate, a desirable goal for all students, he writes.

While the research is clear on the benefits of bilingual education for ELLs, there are still some important questions to answer: Is primary language instruction more beneficial for some learners than for others, for example, those with weaker or stronger primary language skills? What level of skill in the students’ primary language does the teacher need to be effective? How long should students receive instruction in their primary language?

ELLs benefit from same effective instruction

The other clear lessons Goldenberg draws from the research are that good instruction for students in general tends to be good instruction for ELLs, and when instructing ELLs in English, teachers need to modify instruction to take into account students’ language limitations.

The NLP found that, just like English speakers, ELLs benefit from explicit teaching of the components of literacy, such as phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and writing. In one study of 5th graders, explicit vocabulary instruction, exposing students to words in texts likely to interest them, along with providing them with opportunities to use the words in numerous contexts, led to improvements in word learning and comprehension. These same principles have been found to be effective for English speakers, the researcher writes.

Other types of instruction that the NLP review found to be promising with ELLs, include cooperative learning, encouraging reading in English, discussions to promote comprehension and mastery learning (which involves precise behavioral objectives giving students the chance to reach a mastery level before moving to new learning). One study found that mastery learning was more effective in improving reading comprehension of Mexican-American students’ comprehension than teaching to the student’s “cultural learning style,” Goldenberg writes.

Based on its review of the research, the CREDE report concluded that a combination of interactive and direct approaches to instruction seems to obtain the best results. Examples of direct and explicit instruction include teaching skills such as spelling patterns, vocabulary words or mathematical algorithms and examples of interactive instruction includes structured discussions, brainstorming and editing student or teacher writing. This combination of interactive and direct instruction was more effective than “process approaches”. For example, in one study, Spanish-speaking ELLs who received structured writing lessons outperformed students who received ample opportunities to do “free writing”.

A very important finding from the NLP review of the research is that the impact of instructional practices or interventions tends to be weaker for English learners than for English speakers, Goldenberg writes. In the early stages of learning to read, when the focus is on sounds and letters, ELLs can make progress that is comparable to that of English speakers, but as content gets more challenging, there is a greater need for instructional modifications, he says.

Among the modifications that can support ELL learning is use of familiar texts, such as texts with stories or themes from the students’ own cultures. Or, teachers can teach a unit in which students read about a topic for several days or weeks, progressively introducing more challenging material as students become more familiar with the content. Visual representation of concepts, not just a language-based explanation, provides children additional support in learning vocabulary. Use of the primary language for clarification and explanation by an aide, the teacher or peer or volunteer is another instructional modification. The article includes many other suggestions for instructional support.

Reading instruction not enough

High-quality reading instruction alone, however, is not sufficient to support equal academic success for ELLs, but building oral proficiency is also required, the researcher writes. “Vocabulary development, is, of course, important for all students, but it is particularly critical for ELLs,” he says. “There can be little doubt that explicit attention to vocabulary development–everyday words as well as more specialized academic words–needs to be part of English learners’ school programs.”

NLP researchers took nearly three years to complete their research survey, identifying over 3,000 reports, documents, dissertations and publications from 1980 to 2002 as candidates for inclusion in the review. Fewer than 300 met the criteria, which included that the research focus on children ages 3-18, that it focus on clearly identified language minority populations, and that the studies be empirical–collected and analyzed data as opposed to reviewed previous research or stating opinions.

The CREDE report was produced over two years and included about 200 articles from roughly the same time period. Studies were all conducted in the U.S. and only took into account outcomes in English. NLP included studies conducted around the world and took into consideration outcomes in children’s first or second language.

“Teaching English Language Learners, What the Research Does–and Does Not–Say,” by Claude Goldenberg, American Educator, Summer 2008.

Published in ERN September 2008

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