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Teaching Immigrant Children: Terms And Issues

January 13, 1987

As the debate unfolds in the coming months over the fate of bilingual education in California, here are some of the terms and programs that will be discussed:

FEDERAL vs. STATE LAW: The U.S. Supreme Court has established the general principle that students who are not fluent in English are entitled to educational opportunity equal to that of native English-speakers--including instruction in their native language, if necessary. California's 1980 bilingual education law is more specific: Whenever a school has 10 or more children at a grade level who speak the same non-English language, the school must provide them with a credentialed bilingual teacher who is fluent in both English and their native language. The state law is scheduled to expire in June, however, at which point responsibility for bilingual education will revert to local school districts unless a new law is passed. Conservatives generally favor allowing the law to expire, contending that local districts should have flexibility to make their own policies. Supporters of the bilingual law express concern that many districts will try to phase out bilingual instruction unless the state

retains control. In any case, a key question is how the state's schools should implement Proposition 63, the initiative approved by voters in November that makes English the state's official language.

HOW BILINGUAL EDUCATION WORKS: Typically, students enrolled in a bilingual program receive a substantial part of their initial instruction, including reading, in their native language. At the same time, they start studying English, usually during daily periods of intensive instruction in English as a second language (ESL). Classes in subjects such as art, music and physical education that require minimal verbal comprehension are usually taught in English or "sheltered English."

Experts say that students who follow this pattern usually become proficient in English in about three years and have the best opportunity to keep pace academically with their English-speaking peers.

During 1985-86, the vast majority of bilingual classrooms in California--10,912, or 92%--were for children whose primary language is Spanish. Cantonese speakers had the second-largest number of bilingual classrooms--255--followed by Vietnamese (231), Korean (39) and Filipino (34).

The state also identified the need for a number of Cambodian (141), Hmong (104) and Lao (54) bilingual programs but was unable to provide full-fledged programs to these students because teaching materials, staff and training programs in their languages were not available.

A shortage of qualified teachers has complicated the state's bilingual education effort. Last year, fewer than half (49.6%) of the state's Spanish-English bilingual classrooms were taught by certified bilingual teachers. The rest were taught by teachers "on waiver," teachers who have some training in bilingual education but have not yet passed the three-part state exam required for certification. Candidates have six years to pass the exam. Most of those who do not pass are stymied by the test's language-proficiency component (it also assesses the candidate's understanding of the relevant culture and of teaching methods). In classrooms taught by a teacher on waiver, the law requires that an aide who speaks the relevant language assist for a minimum of three hours a day.

ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE (ESL). The term applies to a wide variety of approaches to teaching English to students who speak some other language. Most commonly, ESL involves periods of intensive instruction in English, ideally with an emphasis on communication rather than grammar.

IMMERSION. English-only instruction. Parents of children who are not fluent in English are not required to enroll their children in any of the above programs. Some prefer English-only instruction in a classroom that is predominantly English-speaking. Most experts believe immersion is the approach of choice only when the student has a strong academic background in his primary language and when some sheltering is done to enhance the student's access to subject matter. Some critics refer to immersion in which no allowance is made for the student's lack of English fluency as submersion.

SHELTERED ENGLISH OR SHELTERED CONTENT. Sheltering is a technique for teaching academically demanding courses such as science and social studies in English to students who are not fluent in English. Teachers make the subjects more comprehensible for their students by slowing down their speech, repeating key vocabulary words, using visual aids and other strategies. The technique also appears to facilitate the students' acquisition of English.

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