Monday, July 03, 2006

The Failure of Transitional Bilingual Programs

One of the biggest failures of bilingual education is that it is touted as merely a method of teaching English to language minority students. Unfortunately, the truth is that the majority of bilingual programs in California do exactly that. Their goal is to transition language minority students into English only classrooms. Such transitional bilingual classrooms use Spanish exclusively for the majority of the school day with only one half to one hour of English language instruction in the early years. They eventually transfer students into English only classrooms by third or fourth grade. While the structure of such programs is not at fault the goal of transitioning students into English only classrooms prevents students from attaining true bilingualism and reaping all of the advantages that come with it.

The first major problem with transitional bilingual programs is that they do not allow students to attain full literacy in their native language. To be fully bilingual and functional in both languages one must become fully literate. We would certainly not consider an English-speaking student to be fully literate by third or fourth grade. However, that is precisely when students in such programs stop receiving formal language arts instruction in their native language. Extensive amounts of research have proven that the benefits of being bilingual are long term and become most pronounced, especially on test scores, in higher grades. Students who have had the opportunity to become completely bilingual and biliterate consistently outperform their monolingual peers on standardized tests. Transitional bilingual programs do not allow students to gain such benefits as they stop instruction in their native language at such an early age.

Another major problem with transitional bilingual programs is that they isolate language minority students. Language minority students are placed in classes with other students who speak their same language and who are also considered limited English proficient. Such students do not have the opportunity to interact with their English-speaking peers nor do they have access to the cross-cultural experiences that are vital for learning to live in a multicultural society. Transitional bilingual programs basically segregate non-English speaking students from English-speaking students and thus deny students access to the benefits of being among students that might come from other ethnic and language backgrounds.

Lastly, transitional bilingual programs are designed only for language minority students and are not usually open to families of other language backgrounds. This prohibits other families from becoming active participants and supporters of bilingual programs. Such programs prevent more students from being able to receive the cognitive and social benefits of becoming bilingual and create an environment in which bilingual education is seen as remedial education. Students in such programs are seen as having the unfortunate fate of not being able to speak English instead of being praised and admired for the amazing skills they have acquired in developing two languages at the same time.

In conclusion, transitional bilingual programs have given a bad name to bilingual education. This is also perhaps one of the causes of the passage of proposition 227 in California which dismantled the majority of the state's bilingual programs. Hopefully, such programs will phase out and be replaced with dual-immersion bilingual programs which are more inclusive and aim to teach the minority language to students of a variety of language backgrounds.

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