Texas gives English immersion new attention

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Feb 9 17:22:25 UTC 2006

 Posted on Thu, Feb. 09, 2006

State gives English immersion new attention


Mindful of mounting pressure to have all students -- even those who do not
speak English well -- post high marks on federally mandated tests, the
State Board of Education will discuss requiring teachers to primarily
speak English when teaching students who don't speak the language well.
English immersion would be an alternative to bilingual classes, now used
in most Texas districts, in which students are taught in their native
language while learning English. Any statewide change must come through
the Legislature, but a discussion by the 15-person state board, which
oversees public education, is the first step, said board member Gail Lowe,
who suggested that the board explore the issue when it meets today in

The pressure to post high test scores is prompting officials nationwide to
take a second look at language programs, said Nancy Rhodes, director of
foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, a
nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that studies languages and
education. English immersion has drawn support and criticism in Arizona
and California, two states that use the program. Some observers say
immersion students have mastered English faster than students taught in
bilingual classes. But others point to studies indicating that students in
bilingual classes perform better than immersion students over time and in
various subjects.

Local districts, including the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, have studied
options for teaching English-language learners. Recently, H-E-B chose a
50-50 model, in which bilingual students receive half of their instruction
in English and half in their native languages. The program begins in
pre-kindergarten. Lowe stressed that she does not want to dismantle the
state's bilingual program, which has been in place since the 1960s.

"Change is hard, and I don't like change just for the sake of change, but
immersion has shown some research that backs up its success," said Lowe,
whose district includes Denton County. "I believe English fluency ought to
be the goal. I don't know that we ought to do away with something, but I'd
like to offer some choice." H-E-B never seriously considered an English
immersion program, which contradicts H-E-B's philosophy of "bilingualism
and bi-literacy," said Linda Hoste, coordinator of H-E-B's bilingual and
English as a second language programs.

Fluency in English shouldn't be the only goal, Hoste said. Students who
graduate from H-E-B's program should be fluent in English and in their
native language, which would be impossible with an immersion program. "The
primary language is a gift," Hoste said. "We're going to maintain that
gift." Hoste said the debate surrounding English immersion is "heavily
political," often reflecting attitudes about immigration and
second-language learning. Also, the issue can be largely driven by
economics -- bilingual teachers often receive stipends, and separate
bilingual programs cost additional money

More than 2,000 of H-E-B's students, or about 11 percent of the district's
enrollment, are not native English speakers. They speak more than 50
languages. In the Fort Worth school district, any change could have a big
impact.  About 20,000 students -- one-fourth of the district's student
population -- are considered limited English speakers, said Margaret
Balandran, executive director of the district's bilingual and ESL
department. "It's a big debate, and what we're looking for is empirical
evidence," she said.


English in class

Texas classrooms primarily use bilingual and ESL programs to educate
students who do not speak English well. The State Board of Education is
looking into English immersion as an alternative.

Bilingual: Students are taught English while learning in their native

English immersion: Students are taught all subjects primarily in English.

English as a second language: Students are taught primarily in English at
an accelerated pace, typically for part of the day.

Katherine Cromer Brock, (817) 685-3813 kcromer at star-telegram.com Kelly
Melhart, (817) 685-3854 kmelhart at star-telegram.com

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