Q&A: Stanford researcher on learning English in today's multiethnic classrooms

Education Professor Claude Goldenberg urges scholars to put aside ideological debates about English language learning and seek approaches to help students succeed.

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When teaching English language learners, educators need to layer on supporting practices and materials, education Professor Claude Goldenberg says.

There are more than 5 million children in classrooms across America whose primary language is not English. That's 11 percent of the U.S. school-age population.

The figure is the highest it's ever been, and nearly every state is affected, says Professor Claude Goldenberg of Stanford's Graduate School of Education.

Yet there is surprisingly little research, Goldenberg says, on the best ways to teach these kids. And with new, more difficult standards being implemented at districts countrywide, he says it's more important than ever to find approaches to help these students succeed.

"The numbers are bigger, the issues are broader and mainstream education is finally coming to realize we have a population of kids for whom we don't have a very good set of tools to educate fully and adequately," Goldenberg said.

In a series of recent articles for American Educator, Goldenberg and several co-authors give an overview of existing research, explain the challenges facing teachers and students, address specific concerns related to early childhood education and issue guidelines for instruction.

The Stanford News Service caught up with Goldenberg to talk about the state of English language learning and why it's important to not let this population fail.


Are there strategies that we know to be effective in teaching these English language learners?

We have a very large body of education research about what constitutes effective instruction, in general, for any student. It includes being clear about learning goals and objectives, giving feedback, actively engaging students, among other practices. One of the problems is that we tend to forget this knowledge base when dealing with English learners. We tend to "other" them because they're different – they don't understand the language and are from a different culture so therefore they must learn completely differently. But they are students, too, and it turns out that they learn pretty much the same way lots of kids learn. Effective instructional design and being mindful of these various techniques is important for them and, in some cases, may be more important for them, because they rely on well-structured, clear, definitive instruction.

That said, it's not enough. Because of the language issues, educators do need to layer on supporting practices and materials. Because the kids don't understand the language well, we need to find ways to help compensate so they get the content.


Courtesy of Claude GoldenbergClaude Goldenberg

Education Professor Claude Goldenberg

What are some of these supports or enhancements?

We have little dollops of evidence that specific techniques seem to help in specific situations. They include incorporating visual aids, building on student experiences and familiar content and providing hands-on learning opportunities. The most compelling study I've seen recently had to do with teaching science vocabulary to kids in preschool to second grade. The teachers used short video clips explaining key concepts. The researchers found that the videos significantly helped vocabulary and concept learning of the English learners, but they didn't have the same effect on the non-English learners. They didn't hurt them, but they didn't provide the same boost. This suggests a good way to help boost English learners while not compromising the learning of other students.


What is the typical set-up of a classroom that includes English learners?

The vast majority of English learners are in what's called English immersion programs. Most of the instruction is in English with little or no use of the home language. There are also some kids in bilingual education classes, which typically means teaching academic skills in their home language while also getting English language instruction. The most common form of bilingual education programs is  called "transitional" – the kids are taught in their home language, they become literate, learn math and other subjects while also learning English and over the years transition to full English instruction.  Another form of bilingual education is called "two-way." This is where kids from two different language populations, say English- and Chinese-speakers, are in a program that has as its goal helping both sets of students become bilingual and biliterate. These programs are very promising but also pretty rare; there are maybe 400 in the country.


What's best?

The whole brouhaha surrounding English language learning is the role of the home language in instruction. It's political, ideological and emotional. Most studies have tended to show that if you teach children to read in their home language this actually has a positive effect on their learning to read in English.  It seems counterintuitive, but there does seem to be a payoff when we use students' home language as part of their instructional program.

The most recent study that's been done found that when you have kids in bilingual education versus English immersion that the kids in English immersion initially start off with a very strong advantage in English reading and language outcomes. But over the course of elementary school, after the kids have transitioned to full English instruction, there are no real differences to speak of. So by the end of fourth or fifth grade, the kids in bilingual education are about the same as the kids in English immersion when achievement is measured in English. However, the kids in bilingual education have an advantage that they are also literate in their primary language (in this case, Spanish), because they've also been receiving instruction in it.

So if you see bilingualism as a positive outcome, then clearly the advantage is to kids in bilingual education. If you think the only thing that matters is their outcomes in English, then it's basically a tossup, at least according to this study. But other studies do show an advantage for bilingual education in terms of English achievement.

A lot of it depends on what outcomes you value; this should be part of the debate but often isn't. It's not just a question of comparing one approach to the other. It's about what you think are important educational goals.


What's the most challenging aspect of educating English language learners?

In an English immersion classroom, where most ELLs are, the main challenge is that English learners are supposed to learn academic content that everyone is supposed to learn, while they are also learning the language the content is taught in. It's a double-barreled challenge that English learners and their teachers face.

But language is only one challenge. Usually English learners also face challenges that tend to come from social inequities and the lack of a strong educational foundation at home. Parents are deeply interested in their children's education, so motivation is not the issue.  The issue for many families is the "cultural capital" and economic wherewithal to be able to fully support high levels of educational attainment for their children.


Are there any schools or districts that are getting it right?

The short answer is: not really. I don't think we're doing this well anywhere, and I think this is part of the challenge. If we had a lot of good models and programs that we could go to, maybe we'd be in a better position. But still, even under those circumstances, it's very hard to replicate. These programs and practices tend to not travel well. The demographics of a school, the quality of the teaching, the commitment of the administration – all of that contributes to how well you can implement a program.

I've heard of and seen some more successful programs. St. Paul, Minn., seems to be getting good results. They've made English learning a priority. They're targeting instruction and tracking students' progress. There seems to be focused and committed leadership. Sanger, Calif., also has developed a solid reputation, with a strong academic program, solid leadership, focused curriculum, staff development  and professional support for teachers.

The most important resource is teachers' time and attention. You can have tons of books, videos and other materials, but the most important resource in any educational environment is teachers' time and attention. In districts where they're experiencing some success, there's time and support given to teachers. And there are processes and infrastructure in place that promote academic focus and coherence. Without that, it's hard to imagine how any system-wide improvements can happen.


Why is this so important?

We can't just provide mainstream instruction and hope kids get it. We can't do it ethically, but we also can't do it legally. English learners are a protected class. There's a whole body of case law grounded in a Supreme Court decision that says if kids don't understand the language of instruction then you need to do something to make sure they understand, otherwise you are depriving them of their civil rights. Even if pedagogically or philosophically or theoretically you disagree with doing something special for these kids, we are legally required to.

Beyond that, however, these kids are part of our community. They are a source of economic, cultural and social vitality. And, like I say in the articles, we shouldn't squander that.

For more Stanford experts on bilingual education and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.

Claude Goldenberg, Education: cgoldenberg@stanford.edu

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu