Should students who are learning English spend the school day in classes where only English is spoken? Or should they be taught reading and other academic skills and content in their native language? Or should their classes be primarily in English, but include some explanations or materials in their native language? If their native language is to be used, how much native language instruction should they receive and for what purposes? And aren’t there other issues we need to consider, aside from language of instruction? These are important questions, and anyone who can provide a quick answer is surely oversimplifying the issues. Some English language learners (ELLs) do not speak a word of English and are not literate in their native language. Others have some conversational English, but are not yet fluent, and in their native language they are not only literate, but have mastered a great deal of academic content. There will probably never be a formula for educating ELLs, just as there is no formula for educating students who already know English. What we can do is provide guidelines based on our strongest research about effective practices for teaching ELLs.
It’s time to move beyond charged debates and all-too-certain answers. What students need is for educators and policymakers
to take a more in-depth look, starting with what existing research does—and does not—say. In this article, Claude Goldenberg walks us through the major findings of two recent reviews of the research on educating ELLs. Given all the strong opinions one sees in newspaper op-eds, readers may be surprised to discover how little is actually known. What’s certain is that if we conducted more research with ELLs, and paid more attention to the research that exists, we would be in a much better position. And so, we bring you this article with four goals in mind. First, we hope that everyone who engages in debates about educating ELLs will become a little more knowledgeable and, therefore, will start taking a little more nuanced positions. Second, we wish to spur more research (and more funding for more research). Third, to keep the snake-oil salesmen at bay, we think it’s best for educators to know what existing research cannot support. And fourth, we believe that what has been reasonably well established is worth knowing. –Editors
By Claude Goldenberg
Claude Goldenberg is professor of education at Stanford University. Previously, at California State University, Long Beach, he was associate dean of the College of Education and executive director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research. He served on the National Research Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Early Reading Difficulties in Young Children and on the National Literacy Panel, which synthesized research on literacy development among language minority children and youth. This article is adapted with permission from “Improving Achievement for English Language Learners,” a chapter in Educating the Other America: Top Experts Tackle Poverty, Literacy, and Achievement in Our Schools, edited by Susan B. Neuman, forthcoming in August 2008, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. The author wishes to thank Rhoda Coleman, Ronald Gallimore, Patricia Gándara, Fred Genesee, Michael Graves, Peggy McCardle, Patricia Mathes, Michael Kamil, Bill Saunders, Timothy Shanahan, Jessie Sullivan, Robert Rueda, and Sharon Vaughn for their helpful comments.