Three Views On English Immersion


June 17, 2011

This week, WGBH's Andrea Smardon has been looking at how the 2002 law that required public schools to educate their students mostly in English has impacted classrooms over the past nine years. We visited a Framingham school that's found a way to implement English Immersion across the curriculum; and stopped by a Dorchester school that immerses whole classes in both English and Spanish.

We've also solicited more opinions on English Immersion from experts, students and teachers. Below, you can read more from the expert featured in our first Total Immersion story, Rosalie Porter, who fought hard for English Immersion and says it's working. You can also read two listener-submitted views. Then, add your own view.

These pieces express the opinions of their authors, not the opinions of WGBH.

by  Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Ed.D, author, American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages 

What is the best kind of help for children who start school without a full command of the English language? A new experiment called “bilingual education” began in the late 1960s. When that idea turned out not to work at all well for the children, I became an activist for a better educational opportunity for these students.

To make this happen, we had to change the Massachusetts law that had forced bilingual education on all schools with non-English speaking children since 1971. I was one of the leaders of the Question 2 campaign, a referendum question that won 68% of the vote in the 2002 election. The failed bilingual method was replaced with English Immersion and put the state – finally–on the right track to help these children.

A Little Background

My work as educator and advocate for immigrant children is both personal and professional. As an immigrant child knowing not a word of English, my early months in the classroom with no special help were a painful experience. Eventually I become a teacher, researcher, writer and education reformer.

As a Spanish-English bilingual teacher in the Springfield Public Schools, I soon discovered serious problems with our bilingual programs:  

  • Teaching in Spanish most of the school day for three or more years did not get the students fluent in English and did not prepare them to do regular classroom work in English—the stated goals of the law.
  • Segregating non-English speakers by language and ethnicity did not lead to better academic progress or to higher self-esteem

These problems were well documented in national studies, but in the 30 years of forced bilingual education, Massachusetts never published one report showing the benefits of bilingual programs—nada.

A New Way—English Immersion—and Why It Succeeds

Two basic facts are agreed on by linguists the world over about language learning:

  • The earlier a person starts learning a second language, best to start around age 4 or 5, the better and faster that language will be learned
  • The more time spent in being taught and in actually using the language, the better and faster the person will learn to speak, understand, read, and write it.

These are exactly the methods used in English Immersion classes from the first day of school. A trained teacher begins with basic English words, then moves the students along to learn grammar, the vocabulary of arithmetic, science, etc. There are well-developed techniques for teaching language to young children, and to middle and high school students. Giving students several hours of intensive language teaching produces results in one to two years, not the long years of segregation in bilingual classes. Providing students the skills they need to do their best in mainstream classrooms with English-speaking peers is a valuable motivator for self-esteem.

How Do We Know English Immersion Works Better?

Today there is abundant published data on the higher degree of student success in English Immersion classes compared to previous years of bilingual education. (A brief research review I compiled is available at Just a few examples:

  • California changed its law in 1998 and reports steady improvements yearly. It is now well-established that Hispanic test scores on a range of subjects have risen since that change (Manhattan Institute study, 2009).
  • Arizona voted in the change to English Immersion in 2000. In 2009 the state reported that students who started school without English are now, two years after graduating from the English program, scoring as high or higher than English speakers on the state tests in reading, writing and math.
  • Massachusetts has yet to give us a factual report since the 2002 change.      

Even the Supremes Know What’s Best

In June 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Flores vs. Arizona. Justice Stephen Breyer declared the new method (of English Immersion teaching) to be the most effective way to teach English. He went on to affirm, “…the rights of Spanish-speaking students attending public school…to learn the English language in order to live their lives in a country where English is the predominant language.”  A big cheer for that!

Submitted by Anne Herzberg, guidance counselor

Grade: B-

As a guidance counselor that works with LEP students, I think that the Massachusetts law gives districts adequate flexibility to serve a number of students with varying educational histories and academic abilities. Some of the information provided in your story (at least about Somerville High School) is incorrect. I believe that some students are well served by English immersion programs while others need native language support to help ensure a smooth and successful transition into their new education environment.

A one-size-fits-all model for education makes as much sense as a one-size-fits-all clothing concept would. Gabriel Maldonado (from your story) is a star student and would probably tell you, if asked, that many of his peers would not have stayed in school if they had not received native language support as part of their education. I am proud to work for a district that allows students and families choices and I will continue to fight for these rights for our LEP students. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to weigh in on this matter.

Submitted by Steven Belec, former student in a bilingual program

Grade: F

As a young student, I benefitted from a bilingual education in Spanish and English. As a native English speaker; that experience not only taught me tolerance form a young age...but gave me the basic skills to communicate in today's diverse communities of Boston.

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