"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, August 31, 2014

How Should One Teach English-Language Learners?

Most Filipinos do not speak English in their homes. Thus, it is safe to assume that a great majority of students in Philippine public schools are English language learners. There should be no argument why it is necessary to learn English. Becoming fluent in English has become a requirement since most human disciplines have embraced English as the global language. Much of academic success now hinges on how well a student comprehends in English as textbooks, learning materials, as well as research papers are now almost exclusively written and published in English. Hence, there is no longer any doubt regarding the importance of learning English. Unfortunately, what program works best for English language learners is still very much debatable. Any claim otherwise only means dismissing or choosing selectively research studies that have attempted to answer this question. It should also be pointed out that this area is marked with poorly done research. The experiments are very difficult to perform and the studies are usually inadequately designed and sample sizes are often very small to be meaningful or transferable. Research is continuing however, as this is not only relevant to developing countries, but also to the United States because of its growing immigrant population. Although there is no final word yet as to what works best, there have been a few excellent studies that now offer some sort of direction. These studies may not yet give the final answer, but it sure raises the bar in terms of what studies should be worth at least our attention. One example is from Valentino and Reardon of Stanford University:

Effectiveness of four instructional programs designed to serve English language 
learners: Variation by ethnicity and initial English proficiency


In this paper we provide a descriptive and quasi-experimental analysis of the relationship between four elementary school instructional programs designed to serve English learners (ELs) and EL students’ longitudinal academic outcomes in English language arts and math through middle school. We also consider differential program effectiveness by child ethnicity and initial English proficiency. Although bilingual education has been well studied, little research has examined the effectiveness of programs longitudinally, most has focused on academic outcomes only in literacy, and most research from the U.S. has exclusively focused on Spanish-speaking ELs. In this paper we find considerable differences in program effects between programs (i.e. transitional bilingual, developmental bilingual, dual immersion, and English immersion), between students of different ethnicities (i.e. Chinese and Latino), and across academic subjects. 
One obvious characteristic that this study does not share with others is its longitudinal nature. The English programs here have not been evaluated by just running the program for one year and assessing at the end. Instead, the academic performance of the students have been monitored through eight grade. Furthermore, the sample size of this study is huge:
...The data used in the current study comes from a large urban district that serves a sizable EL population. Our analytic sample follows 13,750 EL students who entered the district in kindergarten sometime between the 2001-2002 and 2009-2010 academic years.... 
The four programs examined in this study are as follows:

Above table copied from Valentino and Reardon (2014)

English immersion is perhaps the program that is familiar to most. Here, all instruction is in English even to students whose mother tongue is not English. The transitional bilingual starts at Kindergarten with the language spoken at home by the child but transitions quickly to English such that at grade 3, English becomes the medium of instruction. Developmental bilingual is the program that is probably most similar to what Mother Tongue - Multilingual Education advocates in the Philippines prefer. Here, transitioning out of the program only occurs at 5th grade. Dual immersion is impossible to implement in the Philippines since this requires half of the class as English speakers and the other half English learners. Seeing that these four programs are implemented in San Francisco provides a rare opportunity to compare and contrast their academic outcomes. Here is the first comparison (Models 2 and 3 here refer to controls or preferences being incorporated in the data to remove biases):

Above figure copied from Valentino and Reardon (2014)
The assessment above measures proficiency in English. Among the four programs, Transitional Bilingual seems to have a head start. At 2nd grade, it has the highest score suggesting perhaps that the rapid change to English may have helped pupils early on. Both English Immersion and Developmental Bilingual start low, but rise such that at 8th grade, these students perform as well as those in Transitional Bilingual. The program that registers the highest growth rate is Dual Immersion. And in either model (Model 3 takes into account some parents' characteristics), students in this program outperform everyone at 8th grade. Apparently, this trend is not true only for English but also for Math:

Above figure copied from Valentino and Reardon (2014)
As in English, Dual Immersion starts modestly, but grows much faster than the others that at the end of elementary school, its students are now among the top math scorers. It is unfortunate that Dual Immersion is not a possibility in the Philippines. However, this trend may not be just specific to language learning. It may just be a consequence of the nature of these classrooms. Since these classrooms are composed of English speakers who are trying to learn a native tongue spoken by the other half while the other half is trying to learn English, these are classrooms where pupils obviously need to learn from each other. The growth seen here may just be a result of a collaborative learning environment.

Since the sample size of this study is large enough, Valentino and Reardon have also been able to look at the ethnicity factor. There are equally large numbers of Latino and Chinese students in the study so the above graphs can be made for each of these groups:

Above figure copied from Valentino and Reardon (2014)

Above figure copied from Valentino and Reardon (2014)

What is surprising here is that ethnicity apparently matters and for the Chinese students, English Immersion appears to work best.

Similar to other research works in this area, the above is not the final word. There are obvious limitations to this study. One important thing is a lack of control with regard to quality instruction. Teachers matter as well as learning resources. In addition, the differences between ethnic groups is especially striking, which raises significant doubts regarding transferability of the findings.

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