Learning English

“English Learners” who are taught in English master the language much more quickly than students who’ve remained in bilingual classes, writes Dan Weintraub in the Sacramento Bee. Nearly half the students who took the California English Language Development test scored “advanced” or “early advanced” in proficiency. The rate has increased 22 percentage points since 2001.

The success appears to be largely the result of Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot measure that all but eliminated what was known as bilingual education and forced more students into English immersion.

We don’t have test scores going back that far, since the state didn’t even bother to test for English language fluency in any standardized way until 2001. Nobody knows how many children were mastering the language before the initiative passed.

But a handful of students in the state are still enrolled in old-style bilingual programs – meaning that they are taught their academic subjects in their native language rather than English. They are supposed to be taught English on the side. Only those children whose parents demand that they be taught in their native language are allowed to enroll in such programs.

. . . Only about 20 percent of children in bilingual programs were rated either “advanced” or “early advanced” on last fall’s test. That’s the same as a year earlier and less than half the rate at which the overall population excelled.

Children in bilingual classes start with less English than students who are taught in English, so the comparison is not exact. But it does make sense that students achieve proficiency more quickly if they’re taught in English.

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  1. Kids do learn English faster in an immersion situation. But the classroom environment should be CAREFULLY structured.

    The key to success is to lower the child’s “affective filter.” (as Stephen Krashen calls it.) In other words, the child must be made to feel that he or she is in a positive and nurturing environment where the student feels that others will not “make fun of” his or her efforts to speak the language.

    After a short “silent period” of a few weeks (in which they are absorbing vocabulary) the kids will often begin to speak quite a bit of English, at first halting, and with a heavy accent.

    With encouragement, they soon begin acquiring even more English skills. The amount of time varies considerably from child to child, (and will sometimes take years) but the kids do learn.