The Benefits of Transitionary Learning
English Language Learners are the fastest growing population in U.S. public schools, and educating them is becoming a significant challenge for K12 administrators. Josie Tinajero, a leading Spanish-language and reading expert and a senior author of Macmillan/McGraw- Hill's new K6 Spanish reading program, "Tesoros de lectura" (Spanish for "reading treasures"), offers her expertise and thoughts on the matter.
DA: What are the best ways for school districts to work with ELLs today?
JT: Substantial research shows that developing proficiency in one's native language is important for developing literacy in a second language. Students who develop strong literacy skills in their native language-the language they speak and understand-can develop those skills at a high level of proficiency and then transfer those skills as they acquire English. Moreover, the level of success students acquire in their second language is predicted by the level of success they have acquired in their own native language.
DA: How do educators know when to stop teaching the native language and transition fully to English?
JT: There are different models. Some districts decide not to stop, and teach both throughout because they feel that being bilingual is an asset. However, for the majority of students in the United States, what we have is a transitional program in which at some point the native language instruction is going to stop. Some schools stop at the third-grade level, some at the sixth-grade level. If school districts applied the research findings, they would not stop until at least the sixth grade. I think the reason why we have so many ELLs not doing well in school is because we're moving them too quickly into English when they don't have enough profi ciency in their own language.
DA: What is the biggest challenge of teaching English to ELLs?
JT: Educators, administrators and school board members need to know the research and adopt practices that are researchbased. People say, "We're against bilingual ed," or "This is America and all children should learn English." Well, of course they need to learn English, but what is the best way of getting there? We have too many programs in our schools that by design are not helping children achieve.
DA: What sorts of programs?
JT: We have a model in the schools that phases out native language support, which is a tremendous tool for helping children learn. If we have a model that takes away that tool very early on, then we have a model for failure. Right now the most common programs for ELLs are the least effective.
DA: Can administrators prevent referrals to special education by adopting sound ELL pedagogies?
JT: If students don't speak the language, they can't perform well in the classroom. That does not mean they have special needs or aren't able to learn. So it's about understanding the difference between children who do not yet have the proficiency in their language to perform, and those children who do in fact have learning disabilities and need special education support. There is an overrepresentation of ELLs in special education classes, and they don't belong there. I am a great supporter of native language instruction, because then we know if children are really understanding and learning the many concepts of language.
School-Tied ELL Test Scores
If bringing students with limited English-speaking skills to high levels of achievement is a challenge, it might have more to do with what the school is like than the students themselves, says a new study released by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The findings, culled from testing data for public schools in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida and New York, show that ELLs performed better on standardized tests when they were not concentrated in low-performing schools. The study points out that most schools with large ELL populations have high student-teacher ratios, large enrollments, and large quantities of students eligible for reduced lunches.
Dallas school board trustee Edwin Flores was not surprised by the report's findings. "We knew that," he told the Dallas Morning News. "Urban school systems have a very, very long history of putting our less-experienced teachers with the kids that are hardest to teach." The Pew study is available at www.pewhispanic.org.