Best way to teach English skills argued
Sacramento Bee
July 15, 2006

By Laurel Rosenhall -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:01 am PDT Saturday, 

A high-decibel debate among education officials, politicians and advocates of bilingual schooling that led to the recent yanking of funds from the state Board of Education boils down to one difficult question: How should California teach roughly a quarter of the state's public school population -- students who are not native English speakers -- how to read and write?

The persistent issue moved into the spotlight last week when former governors Gray Davis and Pete Wilson urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to resist bilingual activists and stick with California's current approach to teaching English learners how to read and write.

There is no argument that a solid grounding in those skills is essential to success; they open the gate to almost everything else students will learn. And both sides agree that students must learn to read and write in English, as mandated by Proposition 227 in 1998.

But even in English-only public schools, there's controversy over how best to reach students who are typically among the poorest-performing in the state. One side insists students new to English should learn to read and write in a way that's geared toward non-native English speakers. They've yet to develop specifics, but advocates say the approach would incorporate more pictures, written passages with simple syntax, common vocabulary and less academic English.

The other side demands all children learn to read and write the same way, whether English is native to them or they're just learning the language.

 They argue that reading and writing lessons geared for English learners would amount to state-sanctioned segregation.

 "Why would we then give them something different from, less than, what native English speakers get? It's an equity issue," said Dale Webster, a policy consultant with the state Board of Education.

 He helped develop an approach the Board of Education approved in April that calls for first- through fifth-graders to learn reading and writing the same way during 2 to 2 1/2 hours a day. The program includes an extra 30 minutes of instruction, tailored to non-native speakers, to learn English.

But advocates of an approach rejected by the Board of Education say non-native speakers should be taught English while taking lessons on reading and writing. They say dividing the English-learning time from other courses doesn't make sense and takes too much time. Under the method approved by the Board of Education, said Maria Quezada, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education, students new to English must sit through a two-hour reading lesson they don't understand before they get a 30-minute lesson that's comprehensible.

"Why are we using an English-language arts program that's made for English speakers, not English learners?" she asked.

The approach bilingual advocates prefer -- known as Option VI -- was supported by the Legislature's Latino caucus and the Association of California School Administrators, which represents principals and superintendents.

The approach would be used only in classrooms dominated by immigrant children. And it would be a choice for districts, not a requirement. There is no need to worry that the approach would segregate schools, advocates say.

 "This segregation business -- that's baloney," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles. "The only districts that would buy these materials are the ones that are overwhelmingly English learners."

But creating equality among schools was the whole point behind academic standards in the 1990s, said Marion Joseph, a former Board of Education member. She was on the board when it approved standards meant to raise achievement and expectations.

"The commitment that those standards would be for every child, that's the No. 1 piece," Joseph said. "That's a commitment that had never been made before, and taking that very seriously and making sure it's not just hypocrisy took a lot of thought and research."

In her eyes, a reading and writing curriculum that's different in an immigrant community than it is in an affluent white community defeats the whole point of standards.

Others say the state can uphold the same standards for all children but permit them to reach those standards along different paths.

 As an example, they point to an elementary school book that tells the story of a friendship between two girls, Chrysanthemum and Delphinium.

"For a second-language learner, those names are almost impossible to say and the fact that their names are flowers is completely lost on the kids," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

She would prefer a book that tells the friendship story whose characters have easier names. Webster, of the Board of Education,  said it's important to expose children to academic English and sophisticated vocabulary from an early age to prepare them for the upper grades when they are expected to understand history and science texts.

The fight now turns to the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Senate Bill 1769 by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, would require the Board of Education to develop an approach to teaching reading and writing that incorporates English instruction for non-native speakers.

 The bill would restore funding to the state Board of Education. Democrats said they pulled the funding from the state budget in retaliation for the board's rejection of the proposed English learner curriculum.

A Schwarzenegger spokeswoman said he had not yet taken a position on the bill.

About the writer:  The Bee's Laurel Rosenhall can be reached at (916) 321-1083 or lrosenhall@sacbee.com.