Chapter 2: Options for English Learners
By James Crawford

Addressing Diverse Needs
Mandates vs. Realities
Key Terminology
Program Labeling
ESL Pullout
Structured English Immersion
Transitional Bilingual Education
Developmental Bilingual Education
Two-Way Bilingual Education
Newcomer Models
Making Program Choices

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to educating diverse groups of students. While this is a long-recognized principle of good teaching, in 1998 it became a rallying cry for educators arguing, unsuccessfully, against passage of Proposition 227 in California. As adopted by the voters, this law mandates a single all-English program, “not normally intended to exceed one school year,” for English learners throughout the state – regardless of their individual needs, the desires of their parents, or the advice of professionals. Similar ballot initiatives have passed in Arizona (2000) and Massachusetts (2002).

The popularity of such measures stems from two widespread assumptions: (1) that there is a universally superior way to acquire a second language, “total immersion,” and (2) that any young child, given intensive exposure to a second language, will acquire it in a very short time. Leaving aside for a moment the validity of these notions, the logic here is compelling. If the learning process is more or less identical for all students, then one-size-fits-all would be an efficient policy. Using the correct pedagogy and adequate quality controls, public schools should be able to turn out a uniform product that will satisfy the taxpayers. So why not require them to provide the “best” program for all students?

The problem with this reasoning is its blindness to human variation. No two children start out at the same level, have the same aptitudes, use the same learning strategies, experience the same influences outside of school, and progress at the same rates. Effective education of any kind begins with a recognition of such differences. It builds on what students already know – and on what motivates them to know more. To the extent possible, instruction is adapted to the child rather than vice versa. While none of this is easy, it is especially challenging when children come from diverse socioeconomic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. Schools must address, along with limited English proficiency, the widely varying needs of LEP students.

Recognizing these realities, the National Research Council offered the following advice in a 1997 report on language-minority education: “The key issue is not finding a program that works for all children and all localities, but rather finding a set of program components that works for the children in the community of interest, given that community’s goals, demographics, and resources.” In other words, English learners need a range of pedagogical options.

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