Educating Students With Limited English Proficiency
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
English as a second language instruction, or ESL as it is commonly known, is provided to children who have limited proficiency in English. Students may receive as much as one to two hours a day of ESL instruction. The remainder of the day they attend regular English-speaking classes. The goal is to help students become proficient in speaking, reading, and writing English as quickly as possible by immersing them in classes taught in English.
The underlying assumption of ESL instruction is that students can benefit most if they spend the majority of their day in English-speaking classes and they are encouraged to speak English as much as possible. Children of Hispanic background make up the largest share of those receiving ESL instruction although children of Asian background are being placed in this program in increasing numbers.
Students for whom English is a second language– often referred to as English Language Learners of ELLs– may be placed in a bilingual education program rather than an ESL program. Bilingual education provides students with instruction in both languages. Basic skills — reading, writing, and math — are taught in their native language to ensure students master these skills on a par with their English-speaking peers. As students become more proficient in English, they should receive increasing amounts of instruction in English-speaking classes. The ultimate goal is for students to attend a full-time English-speaking program.
Bilingual education aims to help students learn to speak English while preserving their native language skills as well as their own cultural heritage. In an effort to help children whose language might be a barrier to learning, the Bilingual Education Act of 1974 provided federal funds to local school districts to develop bilingual education programs. The 1984 amendment to this law expanded the scope of the law and gave parents the right to decline a bilingual placement.
While the law does not mandate that states provide bilingual education, it encourages school districts to offer transitional programs for non-English speaking students until they are prepared to enter English-speaking classes. By law, students can participate in transitional bilingual education programs for a maximum of three years unless an exception is granted allowing them to participate for up to two more years. Bilingual education programs are most common in urban districts. In suburban or rural districts, students whose first language is not English are usually taught in ESL programs. Some school districts with a large number of Spanish-speaking students have begun truly bilingual programs in which English-speaking students learn to speak Spanish and Spanish-speaking students learn to speak English.
Bilingual education has stirred heated controversy. Some say that bilingual education eases students’ entry into the mainstream of American life; others say it postpones it. Supporters claim that bilingual education is essential for students to master basic academic skills and develop the foundation for more advanced academic work. They also contend that bilingual education promotes cultural parity by conveying respect for the customs and culture of people from other countries. Critics of bilingual education argue that students remain in bilingual education too long and thus do not develop fluency in English. They claim that as a result bilingual education keeps students from participating in the mainstream of American society and serves to divide students rather than unite them.
If your child is placed in a bilingual education program, make sure that he is actually proficient in another language and not just deficient in English. If the latter is the case, then a remedial English class is called for rather than bilingual or ESL instruction. Monitor your child’s bilingual education program to ensure that he is increasingly mainstreamed into English-speaking classes and is making visible progress in his ability to speak English. If not, make an appointment with your child’s school to discuss your concerns. The school should provide an interpreter if necessary. A child who is kept out of the mainstream of school will likely be kept out of the mainstream of society. Parents should also bear in mind that their child’s progress will be hastened if they also make an effort to learn to speak English. In addition, their facility with English will enhance their ability to participate in their child’s school life.