ELL Instruction: Politics and Performance
Virtually any teacher preparation program at any university in the United States will subscribe to the pragmatic ethos of John Dewey, who nearly seventy-five years after his death remains America’s foremost educational philosopher. Dewey’s work is replete with earnest calls to make the educative process relevant to the young minds that enter it, to impart knowledge that will serve children in the actual world they live in. Dewey’s entire body of work is also premised on democracy being the great common denominator for all Americans. With respect to ELL students in Arizona and California, neither of these ideals has yet created an optimally successful program, despite intense political focus on the matter.
There is intense political polarization over immigration in border states like Arizona and California, and public schools are a major battleground in the cultural war. Most elected officials and the pressure groups that court them piously claim that their particular agenda has no motive beyond doing what is best for the children, and likewise share the goal of teaching English to students who have little or no faculty with it. The crux of the debate concerns whether an additive or subtractive approach is better, and each side has fierce partisans in its favor. Though California and, in particular, Arizona are epicenters of this debate, the issue has national implications: According to a 2007 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, fully 20% of children in the United Sates live in a household that lacks a native speaker of English. (O’Neal 2010)
In Arizona, the current method of English language immersion for non-native speaking students dates back to the 2000 passage of Proposition 203, an English-only initiative based on Proposition 227, which had passed in neighboring California two years earlier and with financing from the same organization. Both propositions drew better than 60% of the vote, and contained expectations that sounded wonderful, such as teaching children to speak English fluently in a single school year, but had never before been achieved. In this instance, a small minority of language researchers gave the subtractive theory a new spin with their ardent hypothesis that language acquisition is a zero-sum proposition: that whatever energy students expended on their native language detracted from their acquisition of the new language: hence, deleting Spanish (or any other non-English language) entirely from the curriculum would result in dramatic gains in English proficiency. More than a decade later, experts continue to stress that while ELL students can pick up basic interpersonal communication skills or ‘survival English’ rather quickly, it takes the average non-native speaker five to seven school years in a quality ELL program to achieve something approaching parity with a native speaker in English, and real world conditions continue to support this tenet. (Estrada 2009)
Oddly enough, prior to the 1960s, schools with non-native English speakers put the ELL students in regular classrooms, perhaps with children several grades younger than they were, and left them to more or less adapt or fail on their own. Rather than follow this draconian strategy, when the Dade County, Florida schools were inundated by refugees from Castro’s Cuba in the early 1960s, progressive educators, backed by pro-refugee/anti-Castro politicians, created a lavishly funded bilingual program that achieved stellar results. The program became a model for the bilingual programs to come later in the decade and in the 1970s, albeit rarely with the same financial support and political goodwill.(Faltis 2006)
Even excluding all of the other social and developmental struggles of childhood, the student who is learning a new language in school has a difficult task ahead of him or her. A young child is probably not yet proficient in their native language, particularly if they hail from an impoverished home, and now is expected to master wholly different phonological rules and structures in the production of the new language while also comprehending it spoken by others or in writing. Like many other experts in language instruction, St. John’s University Professor Audrey Murphy encourages ELL instructors to explicitly compare and contrast the native language and second language as part of standard language instruction. (Murphy 2009) It would be fruitless, for example, to teach a native Spanish speaker the difference between the /ch/ and /sh/ sound without using Spanish. It is also clear to researchers that students who have familiarity with the conventions of their native language, especially with respect to literacy, have an easier time acquiring a new language than their peers who have been deprived of this critical facet of early childhood development. According to Ramirez and Shapiro, “languages develop interdependently, which means that the level of proficiency in one language has an effect on the level of proficiency in the other language. Thus, proficiency in the native language is a valuable resource in learning English.” (Ramirez 2006) As such, ELL students must be given differentiated instruction after the same fashion found in a successful classroom of native-speaking students. In this same vein, ELL instructors and research underscores that traditional assessment and high-stakes standardized tests are extremely inappropriate for language learners. Not only is there a continuing cultural bias evident in standardized test questions (i.e. a writing prompt that expects recent immigrant students to write three paragraphs in English about traversing the Oregon Trail in a Conestoga Wagon), but the medium itself is not conducive to discerning acquisition as well as authentic assessments such as student portfolios and journals. (Ariza 2010) Further, Ramirez and Shapiro state that standardized testing is unable to detect the minor, but valuable short-term effects of things like specialized intervention. (Ramirez 2009) Thus, the goal of testing in ELL situations should be to measure progress over time, not a whether or not the student has reached an arbitrary standard level of proficiency. Despite ample evidence of the negligible benefit of standardized testing for any student, the public education systems of both states continue to give what many researchers feel is excessive credence to the current regimen of testing, as well as DIBELS testing, which perversely claims to instruct children in English by testing their faculty with nonsense words.