Early Bilingual Programs Found To Boost Test
By Mary Ann Zehr, Education Week, September 4, 2002
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English-language learners do better academically over the long
term if they participate in special programs to learn English
at the start of their school careers, rather than attend only
mainstream classes, according to one of the largest
longitudinal studies of such students ever conducted.
That conclusion comes from a study of English-language
learners released last month by Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia
P. Collier, researchers at George Mason University in Fairfax,
"We now know that very unhappy things happen when you just
submerse English-language learners in a regular classroom—when
the teacher has no special training and no special things are
done for them," Mr. Thomas said.
The authors say the study also confirms what they found in
earlier research: Students who take bilingual education
classes do much better on standardized tests after entering
mainstream classes than students who take English-only
The study reports on student records from 1982 to 2000
provided by five school districts, including the
208,000-student Houston district, and is part of an ongoing,
federally financed study of programs for English-language
learners in 16 school districts. ("Learning Gap Linked to LEP
Instruction," April 25, 2001.)
Mr. Thomas and Ms. Collier stressed in an interview that some
bilingual education programs are much more effective than
others, something they say is often lost in the national
debate about how best to teach students English.
For instance, they've found that transitional bilingual
education, in which students are taught some subjects in their
native languages with the expectation that they will move as
quickly as possible into mainstream classes, is only slightly
more effective than English-only instruction.
"The issue is not just bilingual versus English-only," said
Mr. Thomas. "How effective you are depends on what kind of
bilingual and English-only programs you're talking about."
The study found that long-term bilingual education programs
that develop strong literacy both in students' native
languages and in English—in contrast with short-term programs
that emphasize learning English as quickly as possible—are the
most effective kinds of programs. In fact, the study says
they're the only kinds of programs that fully close the
achievement gap between English-language learners and native
English-speakers over the long term.
The researchers give "90-10" two-way bilingual programs, begun
in 1996 in Houston schools, as an example. Those programs
strive to teach both native speakers of English and Spanish
attending the same classes academic content in both languages.
The students initially receive 90 percent of instruction in
Spanish and 10 percent in English.
The amount of English used for instruction increases with each
grade. English- language learners in such classes scored at
the 51st percentile in reading on standardized tests at the
end of 5th grade.
In contrast, Houston students who participated in "ESL
content" programs, in which teachers use English-as-a-
second-language techniques to teach core academic courses,
performed at the 32nd percentile on standardized tests in
reading in the 11th grade.
And English-language learners in Houston public schools whose
parents had chosen to place them only in mainstream classes
scored on average only at the 12th percentile on standardized
reading tests in 11th grade.
Many of the findings of the researchers are longitudinal,
following the same students over time.
But the particular comparisons regarding Houston's programs
are not based on the achievement of the same students over
time. Rather, they are based on different students enrolled in
the same kinds of programs.
Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University,
said the study was important for the field because of its
scale and ability to follow students over a long period of
time. The much more common short-term studies in the field
"are limited as to what they tell us," he said.
Mr. Hakuta pointed out that Mr. Thomas and Ms. Collier used a
research approach that differs from the methodology of some
other large-scale studies, in that they deeply involved
district personnel as observers and collectors of data. Such
an approach provides them with excellent access to student
information, he said, but also causes the study to lose some