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Pitch for English as the National Language Includes Pitch for English Immersion


In a commentary arguing that the United States should establish English as the national language, a couple of writers from the Heritage Foundation also claim that English immersion is more effective in schools than bilingual education. The commentary was posted today on the Tucson Citizen Web site.

In the piece, writers Matthew Spalding and Israel Ortega imply that schools should use English immersion to teach children from immigrant families. Here's an excerpt: "The empirical data in favor of English immersion—the opposite of multilingualism—are overwhelming, with even its most vociferous opponents conceding its merits."

Apparently as an example of a "vociferous opponent" acknowledging the merits of English immersion, the authors note that Ken Noonan (they mistakenly call him Ken Noon) publicly supported English immersion after California voters approved a ballot measure in 1998 to curtail bilingual education. He had previously been an advocate of bilingual education. The authors do not, however, cite any of the "empirical data" in favor of English immersion.

As usual, Stephen D. Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and an advocate for bilingual education who keeps close tabs on editorials that run in newspapers about this subject, did not let the view of the Heritage Foundation writers stand uncontested. He posted a comment, saying "The empirical data is not in favor of English immersion. In fact it is 'overwhelmingly' in favor of bilingual education. Study after study shows that children in bilingual programs consistently do better than children in English immersion programs on tests of English reading."

The example of Ken Noonan's change of view has been included repeatedly in newspaper articles for eight years. Education Week first quoted him in 1999 when he was the superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District in California. For much longer than that, Mr. Krashen has been trying to set members of the public straight regarding what research says about the merits of bilingual education.

Educators, do you have examples on the ground to flesh out the claims on either side of the debate? If so, let us know what they are—and next time I write an article about this topic for Education Week, I'll contact you.

I'd like to get some new voices into this debate.


Why are you just asking for people on the "other side" of this debate? That struck me as odd.
My experiences are in dual language programs - English speakers learning Spanish and Spanish speakers learning English. Not only do the Spanish speakers do better than their schoolmates in English only programs, the English speakers do better on English tests of reading and writing than their monolingual schoolmates.

Not the new voice you asked for, but an old voice (old enough for social security), and not evidence “on the ground” that you requested, but perhaps of some interest:

Is there another side to the story? This is a very good question. About ten years ago, a member of the GAO (Government Accounting Office) contacted me. They were doing a review of bilingual education research and wanted to know, among other things, who else to interview. I gave them the usual list of names, and they responded that they had already contacted everybody I mentioned. They then asked which scholars were arguing against bilingual education, based on the research. I said I could think of only one at the university level, Christine Rossell. They had already contacted her, they said, and wanted to know if I could think of any others. I couldn’t. Neither could they.

Rossell maintains that immersion is better than bilingual education, but has stated that there is not enough data to make a policy decision, that differences are not huge, and there are some effective bilingual programs. Our analysis of her position, in Krashen and McField, shows far more similarities than differences between Rossell and those supporting bilingual education.

It is astounding that the scientific research is so consistently supportive of bilingual education, that nearly all scholars who have reviewed the studies agree that it works, and there is so much opposition to it. We have clearly failed to inform the media and the public about these findings.

We supporters of bilingual education have also failed to explain the rationale of bilingual education to the public. This shouldn’t be very hard. The results of a number of studies suggest that bilingual education can make sense to non-professionals when explained properly. Fay Shin and others have found that parents and other “civilians” generally agree when you ask them if learning subject matter in the first language helps make instruction in English more comprehensible, and they agree that developing literacy in the first language helps in developing English literacy. These are the “pillars” of bilingual education. They are, apparently, not aware that bilingual education is based on these principles, and that studies show that it works.

I too am eager to hear/read new voices and get evidence on the ground. I am glad you asked for this.

Recent review of research in bilingual education:
1. Slavin, R. and Cheung, A. 2005. A synthesis of research of reading instruction for English language learners, Review of Educational Research 75(2): 247-284.
2. Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K., & Glass, G. 2005. The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. Educational Policy 19(4): 572-594.
3. Genesse, F., Lindolm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., and Christian, D. 2005. English Language Learners in U.S. Schools: An Overview of Research. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(4), 363–385.
4. Francis, D., Lesaux, N., & August, D. 2006. Language of instruction, In D. August & T. Shanahan, (Eds.) Developing literacy in second-language learners, pp. 365-413. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rossell’s latest: Rossell, C. and Kudar, J. 2005. Meta-murky: A rebuttal to recent meta-analyses of bilingual education. In J. Söhn, Ed., The Effectiveness of Bilingual School Programs for Immigrant Children. Berlin, Germany: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung.

Our review: Krashen, S. and McField, G. 2006. What works? Reviewing the latest evidence on bilingual education. Language Learner 1(2): pp. 7-10, 34.

Let me address the first comment for this blog item and reiterate that I am asking for examples on the ground to flesh out the claims on both sides of the debate, from both educators with experience in English immersion and educators with experience in bilingual education.

Mary Ann Zehr, Learning the Language

It is my experience that "immersion" means different things to different people. How is it defined here?

Also, some States have added "inclusion" as an instructional approach.

I think that our ELL students spend way too much time in their bilingual class. Years ago my bilingual students spent 45 min. a day in their bilingual class and in my class, where they were immersed in English, the rest of the day. Always by the end of the school year those students were speaking English beautifully. Now they are there for 72 minutes and they are learning less English. I also believe that there needs to be more of a push for the parents to learn English and then the students will learn English faster.

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