Breaking Language Barriers: Teaching Content in Native Language Shows Promise, Though Translations beyond Spanish Can Be Hard to Find

By Yaffe, Deborah | District Administration, May 2017 | Go to article overview

Breaking Language Barriers: Teaching Content in Native Language Shows Promise, Though Translations beyond Spanish Can Be Hard to Find


Yaffe, Deborah, District Administration


In southern California's Brawley Union High School District, students newly arrived from Mexico study math and science using a university-developed curriculum written in Spanish. In the Omaha Public Schools, bilingual picture books created by district staff supplement the education of students who speak the Karen language of Burma.

Despite research showing that native-language instruction improves the achievement of English learners, such localized efforts seem more exception than rule. Across the country, for reasons both political and practical, even districts with substantial numbers of students who don't yet know English seldom rely on native-language curricular materials. Instead, they encourage teachers to use whatever tools and strategies they can--videos, word games, physical objects, small-group instruction--to help students succeed in classes taught primarily in English.

"Native language is one of the best practices, but there are several best practices that don't necessarily require native language," says Rose Aldubaily, director of EL and compensatory education for Michigan's Dearborn Public Schools, where more than 40 percent of the 20,700 students speak various dialects of Arabic. "There's the visual, the kinesthetic. There's opportunities for differentiating the instruction."

An urgent task

Improving the educational outcomes of the nations 4.5 million English language learners (ELLs) is an urgent task. Less than 63 percent of ELLs graduate from high school in four years, a rate nearly 20 percentage points below the national average, federal data shows. English learners' NAEP scores lag 25 to 45 percentage points below non-ELLs.

How best to educate students who don't yet speak English has long been hotly debated.

Should they get instruction exclusively in English to maximize the time spent learning the new language? Or should they get at least some instruction in their native language to ensure they don't fall behind in other subjects?

For scholars, the debate is largely settled, says liana Umansky, an assistant professor in the University of Oregon's College of Education. Native-language instruction confers a modest but real learning advantage, both in English acquisition and in other subjects, says Umansky, who studies how education policy affects ELLs.

In a 2014 study of ELLs in San Francisco, Umansky and a co-author discovered that students enrolled in programs offering varying amounts of native-language instruction initially lagged behind those students enrolled in English immersion programs.

But by middle school, the students learning in two languages caught up and eventually surpassed their English-only peers--perhaps because literacy skills acquired in one language readily transferred to a second.

Seven years ago, before California's 1,800-student Brawley high school district began using a Spanish-language science and math curriculum developed by scholars at UCLA and in Mexico, immigrant students were spending so many hours studying English that they were missing out on learning rigorous content they needed for college, says Superintendent Simon Canalez.

Now, while their teachers conduct classes in English, students can turn to the Spanish course materials for clarification--and the ELL dropout rate has dropped from 32 percent to 3 percent.

"It's a support mechanism that enhances what they're doing in the traditional course," Canalez says. "Student engagement, graduation rates and opportunities for college have been at an alltime high."

Practical roadblocks

But even districts enrolling large numbers of ELLs often find it difficult to provide native-language curricular materials.

Sometimes the problem is political hostility: California, the state with the most ELLs, largely eliminated bilingual education in 1998, although voters reversed that decision in a November 2016 ballot. …

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