New & Now

Language and Learning: Is "English only" the best course for limited-proficiency students?

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION statistics indicate that more than 5 million English language learners are enrolled in the nation’s public schools. These students, mostly the sons and daughters of recent immigrants, arrive in classrooms with what federal officials describe as “limited English proficiency.” It’s a situation that must be remedied before pupils can fully participate in their own education. 

Whether non-proficient students progress best in environments that pair English with native language and cultural instruction, or whether immersive, English-only classrooms are superior has long been a point of contention. For now, thanks in part to the English-language-only testing mandated in the No Child Left Behind reforms, the English-immersion camp has the upper hand.

This may not be a good thing, suggests David Aguayo, a doctoral student in MU’s Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology. Aguayo was lead author of a new study based on survey results from 408 Mexican-American college students in Texas. The research sought to determine what effect, if any, students’ continued embrace of their native language and culture might have had on their academic careers.

Aguayo’s results, while not likely to settle the debate, were eye-opening. Students whose home and school experiences allowed them to hold on to their linguistic and cultural heritage were significantly more successful in college, earning higher grade point averages than those who spoke only English in school and at home.

“It’s a simple correlation,” Aguayo says, “but living and learning within your cultural heritage is a benefit… The stress level of being in a new culture will decrease if these students have a support system in school while they are adjusting to other cultures.”

The finding has particular resonance given the well-documented challenges related to Hispanic academic achievement. While math and reading scores for Hispanic students have increased over time, according to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the gap between Hispanic students and their white counterparts has not changed since the 1990s.

“A real educational disparity exists. Mexican-Americans, along with other Latinos, are now the largest minority, yet they still have the lowest high school and college graduation rates,” Aguayo says. “I understand the reasons behind English-only efforts, but the research shows that if we don’t accept the cultural identity of these students in our schools, such as tolerating their native language, Mexican-Americans may not succeed.”

Aguayo’s study appeared in the June 2011 edition of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Keith C. Herman and Lisa Y. Flores from MU, and Lizette Ojeda of Texas A&M University also participated in the research.

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