"You only learn to read once. ..." (bilingual ed. in US)
- Many readers of this list will be aware that bilingual education in
the US is a controversial political topic, largely as a result of
debates over illegal immigration and many would argue also xenophobia
about Spanish-speaking people. The following column may be of interest
for its discussion of some recent issues from a viewpoint favorable to
One of the reasons I repost it here is the statement attributed to a
school principal in the US-Mexico border region: "You only learn to
read once. After that, it's a matter of learning to pronounce it in
English." This kind of dictum fits perfectly with the concepts of
teaching reading in a child's first language and the transferrability
of reading skills to other languages. In another way, however, it
seems to be an oversimplification of the process of learning to read
(as opposed to having the skills to sound out) text in another language.
(This item is reposted from MultiEd-L.)
Dallas Morning News: Opinion
Bilingual education works - and not just for English
February 10, 2006
Let's be honest. Most of us know squat about bilingual
education, but we all seem to have an opinion, colored
by what we read or hear around election time.
Who loses from what we don't know? The kids with the
highest odds against them the children of
immigrants, most of them living in poverty and
attending schools that don't know what to do with
them. What's surprising is that the merits of
bilingual education are so passionately debated when,
across the board, the program has never been
Right here in Dallas, school board member Joe May
proposed hiring qualified, college-educated
undocumented immigrants to fill the 400 bilingual
education teaching slots for next year.
I know, I know, that would violate federal law. But
lost in all the shoot-from-the-hip criticism of
"hiring criminals" for "a flawed program" is the
bigger picture: our national and chronic shortage of
"When I first heard about bilingual education in
1980, I didn't get it," said Stephen Krashen,
professor emeritus at the University of Southern
California and now a bilingual education guru.
"Bilingual education has one of the most consistent
results in all of educational research."
He's right. Of the numerous studies out there, the
overwhelming majority is favorable toward bilingual
education, when staffed with qualified teachers.
But, hijole, it's political. How else do you explain
the U.S. Education Department's refusal last fall to
release a long-awaited study examining existing data
to determine whether bilingual education actually
works? The department deemed the study flawed and
never made it public. Could the reason be that the
study's researchers concluded that bilingual education
does help students pick up English?
Among Mexican immigrants, who come to the U.S. with
some of the lowest educational levels of all groups,
some children can't even read in their own language.
How can we expect them to pick up English in a year
as immersion programs like those in California call
for and start testing soon after?
Along the border, where a huge chunk of us were
Spanish-dominant, bilingual education was the norm. My
elementary school principal, Benito Saenz, still says,
"You only learn to read once. After that, it's a
matter of learning to pronounce it in English."
Consider Texas, where last year more than 14 percent
of students were in bilingual education or English as
a Second Language programs. It's not such a stretch to
conclude that these kids' future earning power will
determine how comfortably tomorrow's retirees rest.
So isn't it in everyone's best interest that these
By now, the bilingual education debate should have
progressed from whether it works to how we can make
sure it works for all of our kids. Haven't we learned
anything from Ricky Martin? These days, it's all about
crossover. It's about marketability. English may be
the language of opportunity, but speaking a second one
often determines who gets the job.
In New York, educators are trying to figure out how
they can tap into the Arab and Chinese immigrant
populations to teach those much-in-demand languages in
school. (The CIA and FBI could use the help, since
they don't have enough folks to translate Arabic
At South Knoll Elementary in the College Station
school district, students can enroll in a two-way dual
language program where Spanish and English speakers
teach each other. Programs like this are popping up
across the country, and most have waiting lists.
Texas students especially could benefit from two-way
dual programs, which in effect open up the Western
Hemisphere, where half of the population speaks
Spanish among almost 400 million people worldwide.
With our biggest trading partner just south of the Rio
Grande and Texas the highest exporting state, we would
be shortsighted not to prepare our children to work
with countries like Mexico, where Wal-Mart,
McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft and IBM have
Or, as 8-year-old Chloe McEntarffer, a participant in
a dual program, recently told The Oregonian newspaper,
"When you don't know how to speak Spanish, it isn't
cool. We know two languages. We can have friends that
speak Spanish only or English only, because we can
speak to everyone."
Macarena Hernández is a Dallas Morning News editorial
columnist. Her e-mail address is