Catching up despite divided time

This article in the El Paso Times along with the post in language log on word gaps by SES brought to mind arguments about teaching English as a second language and the assumption that more is better. In bilingual education, there is ample evidence that children who learn in dual language environments can and do “catch up” to their monolingual peers on measures of language. Yet, well-meaning school personnel persist in telling parents to switch to English because that will help children learn English better. It doesn’t.

One problem is of course that folks often expect children to catch up to their English-only peers within a year or two. When they don’t this is used as evidence that bilingual education or dual-language support doesn’t work. What we need to be able to do is to look at long-term language and academic outcomes.

Work  by Oller & Eilers shows that bilingual kids in bilingual and English only education close the gap in English outcomes by 5th grade as compared to monolingual English speakers.  So, it takes time for children to catch up.

When you do this testing does matter. So, at the end of kindergarten, the kids in English immersion did better on vocabulary in English compared to those in bilingual education. By second grade the gap between bilinguals in the two kinds of programs begins to close, by the 5th grade there is no gap. On other measures such as passage comprehension, word attack skills there aren’t differences in performance of bilinguals regardless of the type of education they’re getting, but of course they score lower than their English monolingual peers until they catch up.

The kids who are in bilingual education also show gains in Spanish measures. So, even while they’re learning to read and write in Spanish and English for example, it doesn’t negatively affect their English outcomes. These results are similar to a recent study by Durán, Roseth and Hoffman who on found that English language learning Head Start  children who received classroom instruction in EITHER Spanish or English did not differ in their English language outcomes. Both groups showed gains by the end of the year.

So, why do people persist in believing that children don’t progress in bilingual education? I think they just don’t want to. And it’s interesting (if you read the comments on the story in the El Paso Times) how obnoxious and dismissive people are in the face of data. It’s not just these particular studies either. There are a number of studies that consistently demonstrate the same thing. Here’s a recent posting about a talk Kenji Hakuta gave at AERA. This phenomenon of loud protesting in the face of facts is really based on fear I think. I’m not sure what that fear is based on. It’s hard to change someone’s mind even with facts if their opinion is based on ideology.

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