Problems in Current Instruction of English Language Learners (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Differing Theories About and Approaches to Second Language Instruction

The goal of building competence in English without unduly frustrating students requires a complex balance between the utilization of the native language and the language to be acquired. In reality, many models of bilingual education exist (Ramírez, 1992; Rossell & Baker, 1996). For the purposes of this discussion, however, we will briefly describe two of the major approaches advocated for educating English language learners and the underlying rationales of each.

Native Language Emphasis.  For Latino students, the most commonly utilized model of bilingual education has a strong native language component (Cummins, 1989; Hakuta & Snow, 1986; Troike, 1981; Wong-Fillmore & Valadez, 1986). We use the term “native language emphasis” to describe this approach.

Troike (1981) cogently presented the conceptual framework for native language emphasis:

  1. People are more likely to learn anything, including English, if they understand what they are being taught.
  2. Students with limited English ability will not fall behind their English-speaking peers if they can keep up with subject matter content through their native language while they are mastering English. (p. 498)

Wong-Fillmore and Valadez (1986) applied Troike’s rationale for a native language emphasis to reading: “It is not possible to read in a language one does not know” (pp. 660–661).

In other words, until students obtain a reasonably good knowledge of English, particularly in conceptually complex areas such as reading/language arts and social studies, instruction should be in the native language. This approach ensures that students are not deprived of the experience of learning core concepts in the school curriculum during the years when their English language vocabulary is limited.

Theorists such as Cummins (1989) assert that once students succeed at comprehending complex academic material in their native language, they will transfer this knowledge to the same subjects taught in English. Although it may seem a belaboring process, it would seem more sensible to teach complex academic content to students in their native language first so that they can understand and discuss challenging material without the added demand of constantly translating or expressing ideas in a second language.

There remains great diversity in opinion and practice as to how rapidly students should be introduced to English language instruction and how long native language instruction should be maintained (August & Hakuta, 1998; Crawford, 1995; Gersten & Woodward, 1994; Ramírez, 1992).

Sheltered English/Structured Immersion: Merging English Language Instruction with Content Learning.
  Contemporary conceptualizations of education for English language learners acknowledge the participation of many monolingual teachers. Newer approaches, often called sheltered instruction (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2000) or structured immersion (Gersten & Woodward, 1985; Genesee, 1984) emphasize the merger of English language instruction with content-area instruction.

The approach is currently used most frequently with Southeast Asian students in the elementary grades, and it is being used increasingly with all types of English language learners, including Latino students, at all grade levels. This is particularly true since the passage of Proposition 227 in California in 1998.

According to contemporary theorists, understanding of English can be obtained through well-designed content area instruction where English is used, but at a level that is constantly modulated—that is, adjusted and adapted so that it is comprehensible (Anderson & Roit, 1996; Chamot & O’Malley, 1989). Teachers attempt to control their classroom vocabulary, avoid use of synonyms and idioms, and use concrete objects, gestures, and visuals such as story maps to enhance student understanding of the essential concepts in academic material.

Teachers using the sheltered English approach do not shy away from teaching age-appropriate concepts such as “migration” to third graders or “peninsula” and “compromise” to sixth or seventh graders. Consciously making instruction highly interactive affords students many opportunities to verbalize their thoughts (even if the grammar or syntax is imperfect), so that they are able to grasp age-appropriate material.

In an articulate plea for the integration of reading with English language development, Anderson and Roit (1996) note: “Spoken language is fleeting and inconsistent over time. Text is stable and does not pass the learner by. It allows one to reread and reconsider that which is to be learned in its original form” (p. 2). Anderson and Roit demonstrate how the “potential reciprocity between learning to read and reading to learn has strong implications for developing oral language in English language learners, even as early as first grade” (p. 1).

Less than a decade ago, there were fierce controversies between proponents of structured immersion/sheltered English (Baker & de Kanter, 1983) and proponents of bilingual approaches that emphasize development in a native language (Wong-Fillmore & Valadez, 1986). In recent years, however, research and thinking has moved away from this dichotomy towards a search for coherent programs that employ an optimal mix of instructional methods. Researchers such as Barrera (1984), Saville-Troike (1982), Anderson and Roit (1996), and Gersten and Jiménez (1994) have stressed consistently that the key problem and issue is not the determination of the exact age or grade level at which to introduce English language instruction, but rather how to merge English language acquisition with academic learning in a fashion that is stimulating and not overly frustrating to students.

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