Book Review: “Educating Emergent Bilinguals”

This review was originally published in Linguistics and Education as “Bilingual education for bilingual students.”  It reviews the book Educating Emergent Bilinguals by Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen.

On October 11, 2011, the LA Times reported that the Los Angeles Unified School District had reached a settlement with the federal Office of Civil Rights in which the district agreed to major changes in how it educates English language learners. While the agreement itself is not relevant to this discussion, comments from readers of the article are disturbingly revealing of public perception of the issue of English learner education:


“The kids are dumb because the parents do not care to help with homework, and complain when the school gives it. School and education is not portrayed as important. It is shameful that young parents arenot talking english with their children” – artbrns at 10:37 PM October 30, 2011 

“IF your parents speak no english and do not encourage you to learn english and place value on education the odds are you are going to fail. It all starts at home with the parents not the school. Stupid parents = stupid off spring” – runningman55 at 10:04 PM October 23, 2011

“Why are we focusing all our effort, money and training on teaching the worst performing students academics? Not only do they get very little out of this exercise, but their failure creates such a bad self image at the expense of teaching this student population productive skills they may excel at.” – TheSearcher at 8:31 AM October 13, 2011


As a former teacher of a bilingual classroom, I desperately wanted to respond to the ignorance of these commenters, but lacked sufficient knowledge about English learner education to write a compelling reply. Now, instead, I would like to mail them all copies of Educating Emergent Bilinguals. Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen’s book, Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners, seeks nothing less than a paradigm shift in how educators, researchers, and policymakers view and seek to serve the students traditionally known as “English language learners.” Of course, few working in education would espouse views as blatantly discriminatory as the ones cited above, but the authors use their book to show how this population has been consistently, systematically underserved, and how the educational system can be made more just for language minority students.

Fittingly, García and Kleifgen open their book with a question of language: they argue that students with a home language other than English should no longer be known as Limited English Proficient or English Language Learners, as both terms focus on students’ current linguistic deficiencies. Instead, they advocate for the term emergent bilinguals. This phrase draws attention to the reality that as students acquire English, they are, in fact, adding to and further developing their home language, which itself is a powerful tool for learning. What initially might seem a simple, even unnecessary, change in terminology actually encapsulates the cause that the authors champion throughout the book: the field of education needs to entirely rethink how such students should be taught, focusing on bilingualism as an asset to be nurtured and leveraged.

In the first three chapters, we meet the emergent bilinguals and learn about their problems at school and the programs and policies designed to address their needs. Citing many demographic studies by other researchers, the authors show that in the United States, most emergent bilinguals are Spanish-speaking, urban, and poor, and only a small proportion are enrolled in educational programs that make any use of their home language. Contrary to popular belief, about half of English learners were born in the US. In chapter three, the authors outline the major types of programs designed to serve English learners, which run the gamut from English-only with no support (what they call ‘submersion’ programs) to dual-language maintenance models that extend through all years of schooling. They go on to explain how the policy climate has come to disfavor bilingual education more and more over the last fifty years, with federal funding for home-language programs drastically declining, and some states even outlawing bilingual education.

The authors use the rest of the book to argue from various angles their central point: emergent bilinguals need a rigorous education that meets their cognitive and linguistic needs, and this means programs must make significant, consistent, and deliberate use of the home language. García and Kleifgen’s firmly ground their position in the extensive literature on this topic, both empirical and theoretical, citing dozens of other authors who concur that the most effective instruction for English learners makes use of all the cognitive resources students have, the most central of which is their home language. The theoretical constructs they employ, drawing heavily on the work of seminal researchers like Jim Cummins, are themselves interesting and compelling, but García and Kleifgen go beyond theory to additionally discuss practical implications for the classroom.

García and Kleifgen use chapters 4-8 to demonstrate the unjust and inequitable practices English learners face in school. For example, language often becomes the primary focus of emergent bilinguals’ education, so they may miss out on content instruction to attend English classes. Additionally, due to the exclusion of the home language from so many classrooms, emergent bilinguals often cannot understand content instruction even when they are present for it. But unjust treatment of emergent bilinguals extends beyond issues of language. English learners are often exposed to simplified curricula that do not engage them in cognitively demanding tasks and do not address issues relevant to their lives as cultural and linguistic minority students. They are overidentified as needing remedial and special education services, and are drastically underrepresented in advanced placement and gifted and talented programs. Some of these disparities are due to standardized testing that fails to reflect the capabilities of emergent bilingual students. Many tests are not valid for this population because they conflate language and content mastery. Finally, schools rarely recognize the valuable contributions that families of emergent bilinguals can and do make to their education, and thereby exclude yet more resources that could be drawn on to improve the learning of emergent bilinguals.

At the end of each chapter and in the last section of the book, García and Kleifgen lay out specific alternative practices which, if implemented, could significantly improve the education of emergent bilingual students. They never shy away from their fundamental recommendation, that effective education of emergent bilinguals must be bilingual. They encourage educators to take full advantage of the linguistic and cultural resources students bring to the classroom, even when it is not possible to have an entirely bilingual program (e.g. in schools where emergent bilinguals speak many different languages). For example, they describe classrooms in which students are encouraged to write using multiple languages, or to discuss content with peers using whatever linguistic resources can help the group make meaning.

García and Kleifgen repeatedly emphasize that education for emergent bilinguals should never sacrifice content instruction to language instruction, and argue that, in fact, content and language objectives should mutually support each other and be present in every lesson. They make the case that rigorous content instruction should include an explicit social justice focus with an emphasis on issues relevant to the marginalized communities from which students come, and that schools should look to parents as sources of knowledge and partners in instruction that relates to community context. Finally, García and Kleifgen point out that in the No-Child-Left-Behind era of high-stakes testing, it is vital that assessments of English learners be valid, and not inadvertently test English when they mean to test content knowledge. As a result, they feel that assessment of emergent bilinguals should be flexible: there should be more options to use the home language in assessment, or to assess students using performance-based measures.

Educating Emergent Bilinguals is truly a call to action for all adults who care about the future of emergent bilinguals in the United States. García and Kleifgen make a strong case that current policy and practice does not in any way align with what research says about what is best for these students, beginning with the fundamental question of what to call them. They clearly organize the existing research on best practices for emergent bilinguals and they solidly ground the work in established theories of academic language development. Significantly, they follow up every criticism of the current system with a specific recommendation for change, all the while staying true to their argument that the best instruction embraces bilingualism both as an end in itself and as a means to academic achievement. This book is an excellent resource for policymakers, researchers, and educators who are interested in taking specific action to improve the education of English learners. It is also a book that could address a general lack of awareness in US society about language, and that might help Americans appreciate that bilingualism is not a threat, but something that can enhance the learning of all students.


References

Blue, Howard. “LAUSD agrees to revise how English learners, blacks are taught.” Los Angeles Times. October 11, 2011. Accessed November 4, 2011. <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/education/la-me-1012-lausd-feds-20111011,0,542585.story?track&gt;

García, O., & Kleifgen, J. A. (2010). Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners. Teachers College Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=dRxhAgAAQBAJ

O’Brien, I. (2012). Bilingual education for bilingual students. Linguistics and Education, 23(2), 211–212. doi:10.1016/j.linged.2012.02.002

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Published by

Ingrid O'Brien

I am a literacy consultant, doctoral candidate, and educator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I specialize in the language and literacy development of bilingual children, particularly ELLs in the Common Core. I coach teachers, design & adapt curricula for ELLs, and organize intervention programs.

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