Problems in Current Instruction of English Language Learners
Until recently, much research has documented problems in the instruction of English language learners. There was a clear need for research documenting the need for improvement. When students are presented with conventional curriculum with no modifications, they tend to flounder, become overwhelmed, and mentally tune out or withdraw from active classroom participation (Gersten, 1999; Gersten & Woodward, 1994).
Over 20 years ago, the research of Moll, Estrada, Diaz, and Lopes (1980) poignantly delineated the pain and frustration that English language learners struggling to learn English sometimes feel when taught in all-English settings. Students may fail to understand what the teacher is talking about, and may become frustrated when they have an idea but cannot adequately express their thoughts in English. Moll et al. found that teachers tended to correct pronunciation errors (e.g., seyd for “said”) or interrupt passage reading with attempts to define simple English words (e.g., “surprise”, “guess”), thereby breaking the flow of the story. Moll et al. decried “the deliberate, slow pace of lessons with students in the low reading groups” (p. 305), and the lack of intellectual challenge and conceptual development provided to them.
This focus on the details of accurate English language production makes the students appear less competent than they really are. When Moll et al. (1980) followed the same students into a Spanish reading lesson, they observed that the students, although considered “low ability” by their teacher, were able to answer comprehension questions correctly on grade-level material, to develop and expand on ideas in the stories, and to process more complex text. Further, the students could read texts usually reserved for “high-ability” students.
Yates and Ortiz (1991) found that many teachers view language minority children as simply low-performing native English-speaking children. This tendency has led many to merely adopt a watered-down curriculum, including reading material well below the students’ ability to comprehend. This recurrent problem denies language minority children access to the type of instructional material they need in order to make adequate academic progress. This curriculum mismatch, in all likelihood, is one reason for the extremely low academic performance levels of many English language learners.
According to Fradd (1987), teachers who work with English language learners often tend to use “brief utterances such as ‘What is this?’ or ‘What color is that?’” (p. 146). Students learn to reply in like form, in one- or two-word utterances. Not surprisingly, little curriculum content or social expectation is communicated in this type of verbal exchange. In classroom observations of English language learners, Ramírez (1992) noted the same phenomenon regardless of teachers’ or districts’ philosophy of bilingual education.
For years, program evaluation research attempted to determine which model for educating English language learners produced the highest levels of student academic achievement (Baker & de Kanter, 1983; Danoff, Coles, McLaughlin, & Reynolds, 1977–1978; Gersten & Woodward, 1995; Ramírez, 1992; Willig, 1985). This research, as well as a series of research reviews and meta-analyses (Baker & de Kanter, 1981; Greene, 1998; Rossell & Baker, 1996; Willig, 1985) have often yielded differing conclusions. In a synthesis of almost 20 years of program evaluation research, Cziko (1992) concluded, “it may well be unlikely that this question [of which is the best approach for teaching English-language learners in the United States] will ever be satisfactorily answered regardless of the quantity and quality of additional evaluative research” (p. 15). The report by the National Academy of Sciences (August & Hakuta, 1997) concluded that “for numerous reasons, we see little value in conducting evaluations to determine which type of program is best” (p. 138).
Much of the early educational research on English language learners focused on determining the rate at which English language instruction should be introduced. These evaluation efforts were guided at times by theoretical issues, at other times by political issues involving bilingual education (August & Hakuta, 1998; Crawford, 1995).
The type of bilingual program model and the language of instruction employed, while important, have received far more attention in research and in public debate than the equally critical issue of how ideas and concepts are taught. Recently, however, the research focus has shifted away from searching for the “best” program model toward identifying useful and feasible instructional practices (August, 1999; August & Hakuta, 1998; Berman et al., 1992; Gersten & Baker, 2000; Tikunoff, 1985).
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