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Immigration: English Immersion

The issue of immigration has been a hot topic in the United States for much of its history. Recently the point of conflict has risen over the issue of bilingual education in public schools. Many people have become opposed to this form of learning and propose a speedy immersion program. Others cling steadfastly to the norm of bilingual education proclaiming that immigrant children would be lost if thrown into mainstream classrooms. Still, some have found middle ground through what have been termed dual immersion programs. Although it is somewhat difficult and complicated to sort through the different perspectives it is necessary; what is decided on this issue will effect the education of thousands of children for years to come.
English immersion has gotten rave reviews since it was first implemented in California several years ago, and it looks like Arizona is following suit with its passage of Proposition 203 this past November. But, what is English immersion, and why do its proponents claim it is superior to bilingual education or dual immersion programs? Unlike bilingual education programs that teach non-English speaking students mainly in their native tongue or dual immersion programs that teach in two languages for the benefit of all students (immigrant or native), English immersion programs focus on teaching English to immigrants for the majority of the day. The first year English immersion was implemented in California “teachers began teaching entirely in English, using Spanish only if a student had trouble understanding a concept or was emotionally distressed and needed comforting or counseling” (Chavez). Experts said this would not work and that “forcing immigrant children to learn English immediately would damage their self-esteem and make them fall behind their peers in other subject areas, maybe even push them to drop out of school“ (Chavez). By January of 1999, just six months after the program began, immigrant children appeared to be absorbing English at a astonishing pace (Sahagun). Sylvia Harris, a teacher in South Central stated, “’the kids are doing very well….We’re very happy campers’” (Sahagun). At this same time, some teachers worried that their children might simply be imitating them rather than thinking in English or that many were falling behind in their studies. Still other “teachers lament having to water down core subjects such as science and social studies for students who are just beginning to read and write in English” and “regretted having to teach their English learners at a slower pace than they would have liked” (Sahagun). One year after the programs implementation, in August 1999, test scores appeared to have soared for immigrant students; “scores of English learners rose 18 percent in reading, 21 percent in mathematics, 15 percent in language, 21 percent in spelling and 19 percent overall” (Geyer). By August of 2000, even more evidence showed the success of English immersion. Test scores continued to rise dramatically in districts that implemented the program in a speedy fashion, where areas test scores remained stagnant in districts that refused to put the program into practice (Chavez). Suni Fernandez, a second grade teacher in Oceanside, explained that thirteen of her eighteen students were rated fluent by the state LAS test, a feat that two years ago was limited to one (Barone).

It would seem as if the apparent success of English immersion programs would silence proponents of bilingual and dual immersion education, but it has not. Those still in favor of bilingual education wonder if the immersion program was really the cause of immigrant success in English. An economist at the University of California San Diego states, “There have been so many changes in California in the last few years that it’s really hard to know what’s causing what” (Wildavsky). At the same time that English immersion programs were implemented, class sizes decreased and phonics-based reading instruction began (Wildavsky). In addition “test scores for all students were up in California this year as a new state accountability system has given schools a big incentive to boost results” (Wildavsky). Also, the proponents of bilingual education point to a 1991, study conducted by a National Academy of Sciences research team headed by David Ramirez, which followed 2,000 Latino school children. Ramirez stated, “’It is a myth that if you want children to learn English, you give them nothing but English’” (Hornblower). Stephen Krashen explains, “Because we learn to read by reading–that is by making sense of what is on the page–it is easier to learn to read in a language we understand. Once we can read in one language, we can read in general.” However, bilingual education programs will fail if they are taught by unqualified instructors, if they are over-crowded, if they lack appropriate materials, or if they are filled with the wrong grouping of students (Hornblower). A study conducted by George Mason University that spanned thirteen years and ended in 1995, compared the performance of 42,000 non-English speaking students and found that “children who had six years of bilingual education in well-designed programs performed far better on standardized tests in the 11th grade” than those with only three years of bilingual education (Hornblower). Also, “children who are plunged into an English environment before they are fluent ‘are left out of the discussion in their mainstream classes’” (Hornblower). According to Virginia Collier, a professor at George Mason University, shortened teaching in bilingual education “show up in the long term when the academic going gets tough” (Hornblower).
The topic of bilingual education would seem to have only two sides, pro and con, but that is not the case. Recently the idea of dual immersion programs have gained wide-spread recognition causing many schools to implement such programs. Dual immersion programs, which typically begin when a student enters first or second grade, provide balanced instruction in two languages. Classrooms are filled “with approximately 50% native English speakers and 50% native speakers of the non-English language….[and] instruction takes place through both languages, with the non-English language being used at least 50% of the time” (Howard). The goal of dual immersion is to “promote high academic achievement, first and second language development, and cross-cultural understanding for all students” (Howard). These programs seem to be working; the George Mason study previously mentioned has found that the highest achievers are those who are in dual immersion programs (Hornblower). Mary A. Cunningham Elementary School in Milton, Massachusetts implemented a French dual immersion program in the 1980’s (Bennefield). Students at this school begin their education with two years of instruction taught entirely in French (Bennefield). After the second grade, students are taught partly in French and partly in English through high school (Bennefield). This tactic seems to have given these students an academic edge as “the school system now shines in state performance tests in [all] subjects” (Bennefield). Another school, Key Elementary in Virginia, teaches its students in Spanish and English. Students are taught in English for language arts, social studies, and “specials” (i.e. art, music, etc.) and in Spanish for math, science, and Spanish language arts (Balick). One parent believes that this experience will likely help her son “see the world in a much more inclusive way” and provide him with “understanding of multiculturalism and an ability to move in and out of cultures other than [his] own” (Balick). Similarly, a district supervisor in Passaic, Nicolas Calamusa, states, “[o]ur country as a whole is recognizing that it makes good business sense for people to be able to work and speak in multiple languages,” and dual immersion programs help to achieve this (Kraut).

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With so much evidence supporting all three sides, it is hard to know which program produces the most desirable results. Are English immersion programs really the best way to go? Or do they force non-English speaking students into mainstream classes too soon? Do bilingual education programs actually hinder students from learning English? Are dual immersion programs really the happy medium that they might seem? Are students really learning two languages? Or are these programs simply hindering students from learning other academic areas better? There are so many questions, and the evidence would have us believe that the answers are clear-cut. But, the issue is more complicated than that and consensus will be slow in coming.
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