There’s a very nice opinion piece in the NY Times on how to teach children who don’t speak English as a first language. Various perspectives are represented and these are based on available data. While I found the different viewpoint interesting and fact-based, the comments were less so. Comments for the most part were based on people’s own experiences and arm-chair analysis. Not that ones own experiences don’t count. But, an experience is only an n of one. We need facts and careful study based on larger numbers in order to develop policy and guidelines. For children in the process of learning a second language there are a number of factors that impact school success so that a one-size-fits all is probably not feasible. So, what is it we do know?
One of the most comprehensive studies of the long term outcomes of ELL children was done in Miami by Oller and Eilers (2002). This study examined performance of Spanish-English bilinguals. An advantage of this study was that (in contrast to previous studies) the researchers were able to directly compare different types of programs, compare the role of socio-economic status (SES), and they were able to follow children over several years (from kindergarten to 5th grade). These factors are advantages because many studies of this type focus on one kind of program or another, some only look at one-year or two-year outcomes, others only look at low SES children. In this study there were children who were exposed to both languages from birth and children who started learning English in school. In kindergarten both groups of children (bilingual from birth and early sequential bilinguals) scored lower than English only children on language and preliteracy measures in English. This result makes sense because these children were still in the process of learning both their language and one group barely spoke English. By 2ndgrade, the children in the English immersion program performed better in English than those in bilingual education. This kind of finding is usually cited to make the argumentthat immersion is better. But, by the 5th grade, the differences in performance between the bilingual children and the monolingual comparison group were small or absent. By 5th grade it didn’t matter whether children had been educated in English only, or if they’d been educated in a bilingual-transitional program. Of course the children who were in the bilingual education program also did better in Spanish on oral language and literacy tests in comparison to the English only program. So, for them there was no cost of learning both and in fact there was an advantage (bilingualism).
A final finding needs to be reported with regard to this study. Outside the classroom setting and outside the home both groups of bilingual children chose to speak English with their peers rather than Spanish. This finding is consistent with other reports that second generation children tend to prefer the host language over the home language. This means that contrary to what some people may believe, English usage is not in any danger in this country– the home language is what is more vulnerable.
Finally, note that we’ve talking about children from kindergarten to 10-11 years old. The way older children learn a second language and the time it takes to learn that language may be different. Factors that might be involved in L2 learning when older include previous schooling and literacy level in L1. So, the information presented here may not generalize to this other population. I’m certainly not an expert with this older age group and I suspect there is less available large-scale research (of course that may be a function of my own focus on young children).
The debate on ESL and bilingual education will continue. We have to make sure however that whatever policies and programs are developed for these children are based on facts rather than ideology.