, Salem, MA


October 19, 2012

Column: The challenge of teaching English Language Learners


What happened to

bilingual education?

After Lau, Transitional Bilingual Education became the most common model to instruct ELLs. In this model, students are taught content material in their native languages until they have the academic English skills to study math, history and science in English. The premise behind this model is that students will continue to learn content area material in their first languages for two to three years so as not to fall behind, while simultaneously studying ESL until they were able to understand, read and write at grade level in English. TBE is still the most common instructional model across the United States, but it is no longer legal in Massachusetts.

In 2002, Ron Unz, a West Coast millionaire, financed a successful-yet-mean-spirited ballot referendum in Massachusetts as he had also done in Arizona and California. Voters in Massachusetts supported ballot Question 2, which eliminated bilingual education as a way to instruct ELLs in Massachusetts. The result was a new law that has mandated that English be used for classroom instruction, regardless of students’ levels of English proficiency or literacy levels in their first languages. In Salem, bilingual education has disappeared completely.

In Massachusetts, this has led to the widespread use of the Sheltered English Immersion model, where students receive a year of English immersion and then are mainstreamed into classes where teachers “shelter” or adapt English in order to make subject matter meaningful and understandable. Students are expected to master grade-level English skills within two to three years of entering an SEI program.

This makes all classroom teachers ESL teachers, but with little support or coaching and no background in language studies. Only 8 percent of teachers in Massachusetts have an ESL license.

With the goal of improving the situation, all teachers and administrators will have to take a course designed to help them provide effective instruction to ELLs by 2014.

Will this be enough?


Julie Whitlow is a professor in the English Department at Salem State University. She coordinates the graduate programs in teaching English as a Second Language. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools. Part 2 of this column will run next Friday.

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