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P-3 English Language Learners (ELL)

Bilingual education is a method used to teach language-minority students in public schools. The concept is that teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) partially in their native language will enhance their understanding of the curriculum and help them succeed in an otherwise English-based environment. The hope is that once ELL students are fairly proficient in English, they can continue their education in classes with their English-speaking peers.

The question of whether or not these programs offer the best education for ELLs remains a point of contention. Proponents of bilingual education believe it is the ELL's right and need to make use of their native languages to ease their transition to an English-only education. Opponents say that the programs are hindering students' ability to learn curriculum by cradling them in their native languages too long.

The bilingual programs of today are mostly a product of the Bilingual Education Act (Title VII) passed in 1968. Congress passed the act as part of Civil Rights Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The Bilingual Education Act requires that, when needed, schools must provide equal educational opportunities specifically for language-minority students. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) enforces the act.

Under the act, ELL students must be kept in an adequate program until they can read, write, and comprehend English well enough to participate meaningfully in all aspects of the school's curriculum. While the OCR provides a set of characteristics that bilingual programs must have, it does not require any specific program for ELL instruction. Some of the common programs used by schools include:

  • English as a Second Language (ESL): The main focus of this program is to teach students the English language. Classes may include students of different languages, all receiving intensive instruction. The language of instruction is mostly English, with little or no use of the ELL's native language. Usually ESL is taught during a specific school period, and students are involved in other mainstream, immersion, or bilingual classes during the day.

  • Transitional bilingual education: This program might also be described as an early-exit program. The emphasis on grade promotion and graduation requirements encourages students in these classes to learn English-language skills and join classrooms with their English-speaking peers as soon as possible. While both English and the ELL's native language are used for instruction, programs vary in the amount of time each language is used.

  • Dual-language immersion: In these classes, there are a fairly equal number of English-proficient students and ELLs. The classes are structured so that the curriculum is taught both in English and the other language. For example, an instructor might teach sociology in Spanish one week and in English the next. All students are expected to learn both languages. Dual-language immersion also might be described as two-way bilingual education.

Because of variations among bilingual programs, data on the academic success of ELL students can be difficult to evaluate. The General Accounting Office reported in February 2001 that out of 70 studies reviewed, only three focused specifically on how long it took students to attain English proficiency. General estimates ranged from four to eight years.

Part of the problem is a lack of consensus on how English proficiency is defined. Adding to the confusion, most states allowed ELLs to be exempted from assessments if they had been in the United States or enrolled in bilingual education programs for three years or less. ELL students also had been given exemptions based on their English-language-proficiency levels.

The 1994 and 2002 versions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), however, required each state to develop an assessment system that includes ELLs and ensures that they make adequate progress from year to year. The Improving America's Schools Act (IASA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) tightened many of the testing exemptions used by states and raised the accountability stakes for tracking and improving ELL student performance.

Another development affecting bilingual education is the English-only movement. Founded in the early 1980s, this movement promotes the enactment of legislation that requires the use of English by government agencies. In a similar vein, English for the Children, a national advocacy organization founded by Ron Unz, encourages the dissolution of bilingual education in favor of English immersion.

Unz sponsored successful ballot initiatives in California (1998) and Arizona (2000) that require schools to use "sheltered" English immersion as the core method for teaching ELL students. This method temporarily shelters ELLs from competing academically with native English-speaking students in mainstream classes. ELL students must transfer out of sheltered classes after one year, unless a waiver is signed by the parent. (By contrast, traditional bilingual programs have no time limits.) Unz's goal is to accelerate the process of moving ELL students into mainstream classrooms. Unz plans to push for similar legislation in other states.

More detailed information on Arizona and California is available on this issue site under What States Are Doing. Also included on this site is recent state legislation affecting bilingual education, general statistics, a selection of research reports and readings, and links to various programs and practices. The Frequently Asked Questions section includes links to teacher requirements by state and testing accommodation policies.


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