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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 2, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 20
Bilingual Methods Improve Reading Achievement

Findings stand in direct contrast to actions taken by U.S. and some states

Calling for an end to ideological debates on teaching English language learners to read, a new report analyzing more than three decades of research finds that bilingual education programs produce higher levels of student achievement in reading than English-only approaches for this rapidly growing population. Today, about 20 percent of students in the United States come from homes in which English is not the primary language spoken.

The report's findings stand in direct contrast to actions taken by the federal government and states such as Arizona, California and Massachusetts that have limited the amount of instruction ELL students may receive in their native language.

The analysis, conducted by Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins and Alan Cheung of the Success for All Foundation, also found that students participating in paired bilingual programs — those offering ongoing instruction in a native language and English at different times of the day — made the most dramatic gains in reading performance compared to their English-only peers.

The report, "Effective Reading Programs for English Language Learners: A Best-Evidence Synthesis," found that among 17 studies on elementary reading that met the report's criteria for scientifically based research, most found significant positive effects of bilingual education on reading performance, and others found no difference. "In no case did results from an English-only strategy exceed those from a bilingual strategy," the report says.

Of these studies, nine were conducted over multiple years. Five of these found greater gains through bilingual education, four found no difference, and none favored English-only.

To be included in the analysis, studies had to compare bilingual instruction to English-only instruction with English language learners, and there had to be evidence that the two groups were comparable in reading performance before the treatments began. The treatments had to be in place for at least one year, and a quantitative, objective measure of reading had to be used.

The report's findings offer important insight to the politically charged debate over ELL students who are among the groups most at-risk of not achieving new federal and state goals for Adequate Yearly Progress now required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Thousands of schools cannot meet their AYP goals unless their English language learners are doing well in reading," states the report. "More importantly, American society cannot achieve equal opportunity for all if its schools do not succeed with the children of immigrants."

Today, most non-English-speaking immigrants in the United States are Hispanic, part of the fastest-growing sector of the population and one that has chronically underperformed academically. Only 44 percent of Latino fourth-graders scored at or above the "basic" level on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam, compared to 75 percent of white students.

The report also found the quality of literacy instruction for English language learners to be at least as important a determining factor in student performance as the degree of native language instruction that these programs provide. The researchers examined a number of specific, replicable programs that have been evaluated with ELL students, using the same general criteria for inclusion used to analyze the bilingual and English-only programs.

The researchers found "consistent positive effects" from beginning reading programs using systematic phonics and one-to-one and small-group tutoring models, methods central to Success for All and Direct Instruction, two literacy programs that were featured in much of the research. The report also notes that all but one of the programs found to be successful with English language learners were adapted from programs found to be successful with English-dominant students.

"While the number of high-quality studies is sufficient to draw some conclusions about the most effective methods and strategies for educating language learners," Slavin said, "the field desperately needs more studies that conform to the highest standards of scientifically based research."

Slavin is co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins and the chairman of the Success for All Foundation, a nonprofit organization linked to Hopkins that develops, evaluates and disseminates programs for disadvantaged students. Alan Cheung is a research scientist at the Success for All Foundation.

CRESPAR is a collaborative effort between Howard and Johns Hopkins universities. The research and development center is funded by the Institute for Education Sciences and has launched an important comprehensive school initiative designed to enhance the achievement, academic environment and quality of life for students, teachers and parents.

Other reports on educational approaches for English language learners are available at CRESPAR's Web site,


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