The Truth About Bilingual/Biliterate Education

Barbara Lovejoy and her book: My Years as a Hispanic Youth Advocate and the Lessons I Have Learned.

Barbara Lovejoy and her book: My Years as a Hispanic Youth Advocate and the Lessons I Have Learned.

In the past few years there has been controversy over the effectiveness of English as a Second Language programs. At the Brown Bag presentation in March in the McKay School of Education, Barbara Lovejoy, President of the Utah Association for Bilingual Education, acknowledged a few possible reasons why bilingual education has gotten a bad reputation and gave some suggestions for how to help it.

Lovejoy suggested that the reasons for an ineffective program vary and are dependent upon which ESL program type is implemented in the school. But one irrefutable fact, a point that Lovejoy stressed, is that ESL educators need to understand the pedagogy of teaching a language, and not just the language itself, in order for any program to succeed.

A common problem in bilingual education is the misdiagnosis of ESL students as special education students. The younger students, usually from kindergarten to third grade, can speak English, and so they can get by, Lovejoy explained. However, when the content becomes more advanced and they are "reading to learn and not only learning to read" they fall behind. This is not usually because they need special education, Lovejoy presented, it is more likely that they have only developed conversational English, or "playground English."

"Just because a student can speak English doesn't mean they can succeed academically," Lovejoy said to illustrate the difference between bilingual and biliterate. A bilingual student can speak both languages, while a biliterate student can read, write and comprehend content as well as speak. "In a good bilingual program the children do not solely learn to speak English; they become more literate in both their native language and English," said Lovejoy.

In her years as an ESL teacher, Lovejoy has seen the consequences of an ineffective ESL program on both the student and the student's family. Lovejoy recalled the mother of a sixth grade Latina student approaching her and sadly confessing that her daughter was beginning to be ashamed to speak Spanish. "It broke my heart," Lovejoy said, "and the mother's heart. As a society we have told these people that their language-part of who they are-isn't valuable." Lovejoy asked participants to reflect on the detrimental toll that losing part of oneself has on self-esteem. Lovejoy believes this loss of self-esteem contributes to the social issues of gangs and unemployment in the Hispanic community.

Bilingual education has a long way to go to salvage its reputation. However, Lovejoy believes that there is at least one type of effective program. In a classroom of fourth to sixth graders at Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City, Lovejoy experimented with dual-immersion. This means the class was split with native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. Within three to four months students that were at a pre-primer reading level caught up to the reading level of their grade. Lovejoy would teach one day in Spanish and one day in English. Assignments were given in both languages. This also gave the native Spanish-speaking students a chance to teach native English speakers. The Spanish-speaking students could see the utility of their native language. "Both languages need to be valued equally," Lovejoy said.

Lovejoy acknowledged a dual-immersion program might not be a possibility in every school. She has found dual-immersion can only succeed when the whole school buys into the program. But she suggested that even in schools where dual-immersion is not an option, teachers should try to acquire quality Spanish materials and establish a vision and action plan to build that vision. "The Hispanic population is not going away," Lovejoy concluded. "This is a blessing to us. They are offering strengths to our culture."