Magazine article Radical Teacher

Unmasking the Myths of Structured English Immersion: Why We Still Need Bilingual Educators, Native Language Instruction, and Incorporation of Home Culture

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Unmasking the Myths of Structured English Immersion: Why We Still Need Bilingual Educators, Native Language Instruction, and Incorporation of Home Culture

Article excerpt

Since November 2002, after a referendum vote referred to as Question 2 or "English for the Children," the education of English language learners (ELLs) (1) in Massachusetts has been caught up in a chaotic whirlwind. Question 2, an initiative led by Californian businessman Ron Unz, mandated Structured English Immersion as the only language program for ELLs and the legislation included a provision for bringing suit against schools and districts willfully refusing to implement its provisions. (2)

Born out of both ignorance and intent, the support that allowed for the passing of Question 2 paved the way for the rapid dismantling of bilingual programs. The referendum replaced the state law requiring Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) in districts with 20 or more limited-English proficient students from the same language group. These programs have used native language materials and instruction to support content knowledge while developing students' English as a second language skills in both oral communication and literacy, and eventually transitioning them into all-English instruction.

It's interesting to note that the school systems' prompt response to the new legislation, in terms of program implementation, professional development, and the acquisition of new materials, in no way resembled the foot dragging and resistance that occurred when bilingual education (native language instruction) became the law in Massachusetts back in 1971.

Structured English Immersion is vaguely defined as "nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language" (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2003, p. 7). It's thus not surprising that many misconceptions of what the law allows and does not allow have arisen and work against the best interests of ELLs. In the political rhetoric of having immigrant children learn English as quickly as possible, general principles of the developmental process of second language acquisition and valuing of diverse backgrounds have disappeared. Furthermore, we believe that one key factor contributing to the confusion is the reality that mainstream, English monolingual educators lack the necessary knowledge base for planning and implementing effective educational programming for ELLs.

As educators of ELLs and providers of professional development, we found ourselves in the dilemma of advocating for quality programming that meets the academic, social, and emotional needs of this population, while implementing a law and the SEI program model that are fundamentally flawed for their lack of understanding of complexities of language learning and the acculturation process of immigrant children. The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the dominant myths and misconceptions held by educators and their impact on linguistically-diverse communities across the state as school districts struggle to implement this new law. Ultimately, our contention is that native language and culture need to be respected in schools and used as the foundation for second language acquisition in order to insure that ELLs receive a quality education. However, putting much of the debate over bilingual education aside for the moment, let's simply look at what has been put into place and what is problematic about its implementation.


The most common implementation of SEI has been to place students in mainstream classrooms where teachers do not modify their instruction to make it more comprehensible for ELLs. This type of instruction does not constitute Structured English Immersion. In fact, a mainstream classroom setting where the teacher instructs only in English without any special linguistic modifications constitutes what is known in the literature as "submersion" or "sink or swim". In this type of classroom, ELLs are left to their own devices to either quickly learn English and "swim" or fail to do so and thus "sink. …

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