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Bilingual education is the foundation for Boston’s next generation

What does it mean to educate an English learner? It’s not just about teaching them English.

Angel Miguel Salinas Guevara raised his hand in the kindergarten Sheltered English Immersion program at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston, on Oct. 26, 2017.Lane Turner

How public schools should teach English to immigrants and other students learning English as a second language, while also providing academic instruction in other subjects, has been a topic of great debate through the years.

This was particularly true in Massachusetts, where a contentious 2002 referendum — Question 2 — gutted bilingual education, the standard approach of teaching students in two languages, typically academic subjects in their primary language while also having them take English lessons to improve their English proficiency. That English-only law mandated “sheltered” English immersion, where teachers typically deliver math or science classes in English while students also receive English instruction. Finally, in 2017, that law was overturned by the LOOK Act, which reopened the door for districts to engage in bilingual education again. (This left only one state in the country with an English-immersion mandate codified in its laws: Arizona.)


But allowing bilingual education didn’t mean requiring it, and districts are still grappling with how exactly to serve the needs of ELL students. Locally, the controversy is making headlines again after the majority of the members of an English learners task force in Boston resigned unexpectedly last week in protest of an inclusion plan presented by the Boston Public Schools, where 32 percent of students are English learners. The task force members who stepped down said the district’s plan doubles down on an English-immersion approach that has failed English learners. Two of the members, in a Globe Opinion essay, called the proposal “harmful” and “incomprehensible in its ignorance of what constitutes optimal educational practice.”

Meanwhile, BPS officials contend that there seems to be a misunderstanding. “The district is committed to increasing access to native language support for English learners and increasing bilingual education programs,” said Linda Chen, senior deputy superintendent of academics at BPS. That includes transitional bilingual education, an approach that includes using the home language of the English learner temporarily to support the student’s development of English and academic learning; as the student’s English proficiency improves, the home language is then gradually phased out.


Peel away the dueling edu-jargon and this controversy is about a fundamental question: What exactly does it mean to educate an English learner? What does a great program for them look like? And what do language instruction experts say?

For one expert, the evidence is clear: Instruction in academic fields like math and science in the student’s primary language supports the development of the English language and the academic achievement of English learners. “There is no question that bilingual schools are a better form of education, not only for the English language learners but for all kids because they get the benefit of full bilingualism,” said Maria Estela Brisk, professor emerita at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development who specializes in bilingual education. “The cognitive advantages of bilingualism have been proven with a lot of research.”

Brisk and other experts I consulted agree that educating those whose primary language is not English is about more than just teaching them English. It’s about developing the identity of the students as multilingual, multicultural individuals.

The ideal for Brisk is to have bilingual schools for everybody. It’s a noble aspirational goal. But there are only so many bilingual teachers. How should districts educate students then? “There are things that you can do in English-medium schools,” she said. Those are schools where English is used as the primary medium of instruction, particularly where English is not the first language of most students. The idea is for a district to let students use their original language as much as possible “to express their ideas, to share information, etc., because kids learn when that happens,” Brisk said.


In other words, teachers who have English learners in their classrooms whose primary language is, say, Spanish, should allow them to write in Spanish and give them books in Spanish, Brisk said. “While they’re learning English, they can also use their Spanish.” For example, in any given classroom, there would be a bilingual teacher alongside the general education teacher and they would plan the curriculum together, Brisk said. “They can decide what they can do in what language.”

I asked Brisk if it is ever appropriate to teach English immersion and to which type of students. “Sheltered English was a political invention,” Brisk said, using another term for English immersion programs. “It doesn’t have any kind of research background. You want to give English learners a curriculum with more scaffolds and allow bilingualism.” In English learning, scaffolding refers to the practice where teachers use illustrations, graphics, and other supports during lessons to allow students to better access grade-level content.

Of course, to fully embrace bilingualism requires a significant number of bilingual teachers on staff, which immediately represents a challenge because districts across the country are struggling to hire these teachers. One solution is incentives. For instance, the school district in Charlotte, N.C., is offering a $2,500 sign-on bonus for multilingual teachers. But too much is at stake for districts with large populations of English learners to not bet on bilingualism. In Boston, they represent a third of all students. That’s the foundation of the city’s next generation, and Boston can’t afford to leave them behind.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.