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Breaking school language barriers

Teaching K12 students content in native language shows promise, though translations beyond Spanish can be hard to find
  • SURFING IN SEATTLE—In Seattle Public Schools, which offers dual-language immersion in Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin, teachers mine the internet for content that aligns with state standards. Sometimes, teachers have to create their own materials.
  • TRANSLATION PAYOFF—An Omaha Public Schools student from Burma works on a math program in his first language, Karen, to more quickly learn content.
  • MATES AND CIENCIA—Brawley Union High School District students, above, have access to study math and science using a curriculum written in Spanish, if need be. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Archer).

In southern California’s Brawley Union High School District, students newly arrived from Mexico study math and science using a university-developed curriculum written in Spanish.

In the Omaha Public Schools, bilingual picture books created by district staff supplement the education of students who speak the Karen language of Burma.

Despite research showing that native-language instruction improves the achievement of English learners, such localized efforts seem more exception than rule.

Across the country, for reasons both political and practical, even districts with substantial numbers of students who don’t yet know English seldom rely on native-language curricular materials.

Instead, they encourage teachers to use whatever tools and strategies they can—videos, word games, physical objects, small-group instruction—to help students succeed in classes taught primarily in English.

“Native language is one of the best practices, but there are several best practices that don’t necessarily require native language,” says Rose Aldubaily, director of EL and compensatory education for Michigan’s Dearborn Public Schools, where more than 40 percent of the 20,700 students speak various dialects of Arabic.

“There’s the visual, the kinesthetic. There’s opportunities for differentiating the instruction.”

A range of programs to teach ELLS:

  • English immersion: Enrolls both ELLs and native English speakers. Instruction is delivered in English, with varying levels of extra support and direct English instruction for ELLs.
  • Transitional bilingual: Enrolls only ELLs. In kindergarten, instruction starts mostly in the native language, but the proportion of English instruction increases over time, with the goal of moving students into English immersion by second or third grade.

An urgent task

Improving the educational outcomes of the nation’s 4.5 million English language learners (ELLs) is an urgent task. Less than 63 percent of ELLs graduate from high school in four years, a rate nearly 20 percentage points below the national average, federal data shows.

English learners’ NAEP scores lag 25 to 45 percentage points below non-ELLs.

How best to educate students who don’t yet speak English has long been hotly debated.

Should they get instruction exclusively in English to maximize the time spent learning the new language? Or should they get at least some instruction in their native language to ensure they don’t fall behind in other subjects?

For scholars, the debate is largely settled, says Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor in the University of Oregon’s College of Education. Native-language instruction confers a modest but real learning advantage, both in English acquisition and in other subjects, says Umansky, who studies how education policy affects ELLs.

In a 2014 study of ELLs in San Francisco, Umansky and a co-author discovered that students enrolled in programs offering varying amounts of native-language instruction initially lagged behind those students enrolled in English immersion programs.

But by middle school, the students learning in two languages caught up and eventually surpassed their English-only peers—perhaps because literacy skills acquired in one language readily transferred to a second.

Seven years ago, before California’s 1,800-student Brawley high school district began using a Spanish-language science and math curriculum developed by scholars at UCLA and in Mexico, immigrant students were spending so many hours studying English that they were missing out on learning rigorous content they needed for college, says Superintendent Simon Canalez.

Now, while their teachers conduct classes in English, students can turn to the Spanish course materials for clarification—and the ELL dropout rate has dropped from 32 percent to 3 percent.

“It’s a support mechanism that enhances what they’re doing in the traditional course,” Canalez says. “Student engagement, graduation rates and opportunities for college have been at an all-time high.”

A range of programs to teach ELLS (cont.):

  • Developmental bilingual: Similar to transitional bilingual, but longer-term, with the goal of helping students develop literacy in both English and their native language.
  • Dual-language immersion: Enrolls both ELLs and native English speakers. Some subjects are taught in English and others are taught in a target world language, with the goal of making all students bilingual.

Practical roadblocks

But even districts enrolling large numbers of ELLs often find it difficult to provide native-language curricular materials. Sometimes the problem is political hostility: California, the state with the most ELLs, largely eliminated bilingual education in 1998, although voters reversed that decision in a November 2016 ballot.

Just as often, however, the roadblocks are practical, district officials say. Sometimes a district enrolls too few students who speak a particular language to support native-language instruction. Sometimes students whose educations have been disrupted by war or migration are not literate in their first language.

And hiring certified teachers proficient in less widely spoken Asian or African languages can be difficult. It’s also challenging to find community members to serve as teacher aides or to translate notes sent home to parents.

“I will meet somebody, and they’ll say something to me, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, my gosh! Do you speak Tigrinya?’” says Laura Feichtinger McGrath, the coordinator for English language services in Virginia’s 5,500-student Harrisonburg City Public Schools, whose 2,000 ELLs speak 50 languages, including that North African language.

“I am trying to figure out, ‘How can I get them to work for us?’”

Although published materials in Spanish are often accessible—and nationally, more than three-quarters of ELLs are native Spanish speakers—the pickings are slim in many other languages, especially because curricular resources must be aligned with state standards and appropriate to students’ age, vocabulary and intellectual development.

Even finding native-language library books can be hard—unless districts create their own. Omaha teachers, working with students and their parents, have created 15 bilingual Karen-English and Nepali-English picture books, telling stories about their homeland cultures and family experiences.

English language teachers use them in class and students can take them home to read aloud, says Susan Mayberger, who coordinates Omaha’s ESL, migrant and refugee education program.

“Whenever we get new language groups, we try to buy books for our classroom libraries or our school libraries in those languages, so that the students feel like that language is valued,” says Feichtinger McGrath, of Harrisonburg. “I tried super-hard with Swahili, and there’s very limited materials in Swahili.”

Alternative strategies

Commissioning translations of English language curricula or using translation software might seem like a solution, but school officials say it’s not that easy. Human-generated translations are expensive—as much as $25 per page, says Feichtinger McGrath—and computer-generated versions can be clunky and inaccurate.

When no one in a district reads the target language, quality control is difficult. “You’re at risk of having very bad translations,” adds Mayberger, of Omaha schools.

Nor can everything be translated. Omaha used to provide Karen-speaking students with interpreters for the state’s high-stakes math test, but concepts like “differential equation” lacked Karen equivalents. “My interpreter would be crying, just because it was so difficult,” Mayberger says.

Instead of translating curriculum, districts encourage teachers to master a range of techniques and strategies for helping students thrive in classes taught primarily in English—sometimes by gaining additional certification in the teaching of ELLs.

Well-trained teachers might use pictures or videos to jump-start conversations that promote oral language development. They can link language to motor development by asking students to write new words in sand.

They could also divide the class into small groups and provide simplified texts to the students with lower levels of English proficiency. They can offer fill-in-the-blank sentences—rather than open-ended writing prompts—to help ELLs compose essays.

And a lesson on going to the zoo could follow three days of scene-setting and vocabulary development for students unfamiliar with the concept of zoos: reading zoo-related stories, talking about which animals might be found there, and contrasting zoos with farms.

For especially unfamiliar or abstract concepts, students might turn to foreign language dictionaries or get occasional translation help from aides or classroom teachers who speak their language, if they are available.

“You do have to chime in with that native language for clarification when you’re discussing world history or U.S. history that they may not have had exposure to,” says Aldubaily, of the Dearborn schools. “Some of that understanding is built for them in the native language.”

But while exotic languages spoken by new refugees draw public attention, most ELs are who they have been for generations: the children, often American-born, of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

And providing those students with native-language instruction and curriculum materials is far better than shunting them into low-level coursework while they struggle to master English, says Patricia Gándara, a research professor at UCLA who helped develop the Spanish-language curriculum used in Brawley.

“We would like to be able to do that for every child,” she says. “That’s not realistic. But it is realistic for 90 percent of our kids, and we would salvage them from what ends up being most often a very weak education.”


Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.