May 10, 2010

Language of instruction not most important for English-learners

A new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education could change the way schools in the United States teach nonnative speakers to read and speak in English.

The traditional argument surrounding the instruction of English-language learners has been whether English immersion or bilingual approaches work the best. But the Johns Hopkins study is poised to make that debate irrelevant: After five years studying Spanish-dominant children in six schools in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Illinois and Texas, the researchers found that the quality of instruction had a greater impact on how easily the children learned English than did the language of instruction.

“There is considerable controversy among policy-makers, researchers and educators about how best to ensure the reading success of English-language learners,” said lead researcher Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education. “The goal of our study was to identify the appropriate role of native language in instruction.”

Unique in that it follows children over a long period of time, the study was presented last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Denver. On May 1, Slavin was among 67 fellows inducted into the association.

Funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, the study tracked the reading and language performance of three cohorts of English-language learners who entered kindergarten in 2004, 2005 or 2006. Serving a range of impoverished neighborhoods in big cities and small towns, the schools studied were almost entirely Hispanic, but two had significant African-American groups and one had 23 percent white, non-Hispanic students.

The children studied were randomly assigned to either transitional bilingual education or structured English immersion conditions. During their kindergarten year, those in transitional bilingual classes were taught to read entirely in Spanish and then, by third grade, they transitioned to English reading instruction. In English immersion classes, all materials were in English, and teachers taught in English except for occasional Spanish explanations.

To ensure that children in both conditions received consistent curriculum and instruction, Success for All—a reading program with parallel versions in Spanish and English—was provided to all students. Success for All was developed by Slavin and has been extensively used and evaluated with Hispanic children. The current study did not evaluate Success for All but used it to provide consistent reading instruction.

Slavin and his colleagues found that neither bilingual nor immersion programs offered a distinct advantage to students. On measures of Spanish language and reading, fourth-graders who had been taught to read in Spanish from kindergarten to second grade did not significantly outscore students taught only in English. And while English immersion students earned higher scores on reading tests in the early grades, there were few significant differences in their scores by fourth grade. Any advantages in either method’s favor diminished or disappeared by the fourth grade.

Results of the study did not support the notion that native-language instruction in beginning reading rather than English immersion should ultimately help Spanish-dominant children read better in English. Nor did the results support the superiority of English immersion. On the contrary, the study suggests that the language of instruction is not a key factor in the reading success of English-language learners. “Schools may choose to teach English-language learners in either their native language or in English for many reasons, including cultural, economic or political rationales, and either method can be successful if a quality instructional program is in place,” Slavin said.

The full study is available on Johns Hopkins’ Best Evidence Encyclopedia Web site at www