(In 1998, California students in bilingual classes switched to English. Proponents reported two-year gains. What does this mean for bilingual reading?)

How should bilinguals, who tend to lag behind monolingual peers in English reading, be taught to read? Beginning in 1998, with proposition 227, California mandated that students be instructed in English, with about18% of LEP students switching from bilingual programs to instruction in English.

Two years later, in 2000, California reported improvements in English test scores for students enrolled in English instruction, as well as improved scores in other subjects according to Jacques Steinberg of the New York Times. Nevertheless, Dr. Jill Mora of San Diego State University, who compared the 1998 - 2001 scores, cautions that improvements may be attributable to a "practice effect" for taking English language tests, as well as to improvements in the elementary curriculum, where most of the score gains have occurred. James Grissom (2004), who compared three cohorts of students, tracking progress across grades two through five, argues that the rate at which students from non-English-speaking homes is reclassified has changed little since proposition 227.

Mora cited Dr. Kenji Hakutu of Stanford, who argued as well that increasing familiarity with the exams may have been a factor in score gains; with increasing emphasis on testing, schools were teaching more to the exams. Little or no improvements in scores were seen for the upper grades. Because class sizes were reduced at the same time, particularly for the lower grades, and because the new law also mandated instruction for parents and other community members who tutor children, it's difficult to get a fair assessment.

Post-2000 Score Increases

California's STAR results show a rise across subjects between 2002 and 2010, although this varies some according to subject and grade level, with large jumps in elementary scores continuing, and with lesser jumps for the upper grades. Grade five science scores* for Los Angeles County have risen dramatically. Some mathematics scores have actually fallen, although this seems to be the result of the movement of some students out of basic math classes and into algebra, Grade eleven Los Angeles County U.S. history scores have increased slightly, but this may be because students classified as students with disabilities, who may have earned lower scores, started to take a different test beginning in 2009.

(*STAR scores are criterion-referenced rather than percentile ranks – that is student scores are ranked as meeting criteria for advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, and well below basic. California also assesses students with the Stanford Achievement test.)

Test Scores and Demographics: Compton and Claremont

Compton Unified Schools is a low-income district in Los Angeles County, famous for its rap singers and infamous for its street gangs. Grade eight social sciences scores for Compton Unified Schools have actually risen, with more scores rated as "proficient" or "advanced" and fewer rated as "below basic" or "far below basic" than in previous years. And Compton mathematics scores for grades two-through-seven, like elementary mathematics scores throughout the state, have risen.

However, Compton students' scores for general mathematics in grades 8-9 (general mathematics targets lower-scoring students not ready for algebra) have dropped dramatically, perhaps because better math students have been moved to algebra I per a 2008 initiative by then Governor Schwarzenegger requiring more students to enroll in algebra in grades 8/9. However, Los Angeles County's overall scores for general mathematics rose slightly during the same period, and the low Compton scores may be indicative of lower-scoring students' increasing feelings of alienation.

Math scores for students enrolled in algebra I in Compton increased dramatically for eighth graders choosing algebra I and slightly for ninth graders taking algebra I in Compton, but fell for tenth and eleventh graders enrolling in algebra I, with an increasing percentage of "far below basic" scores, perhaps again because only the lowest-scoring students now enroll in algebra in these grades.

About half as many Compton tenth and eleventh graders enroll in Algebra I today as did pre-2008, with more taking algebra by grade 9. However, again, another possible explanation is feeling of "disenfranchisement" on the part low-scoring students. Algebra I scores for Los Angeles County overall followed the same trend as for Compton, but with less of a drop for the upper grades. Both Hispanics and Blacks, who account for much of Compton's population, lag behind in math achievement statewide.

The achievement gap may be a factor for the low upper grade scores in some districts. NPR's Steve Drummond (2007, "Achievement Gap 101") reports that, for Hispanic students, "the [reading] achievement gap is narrowest in the fourth grade, then gradually widens as students progress through the system."

Test scores for a Los Angeles County district with few Hispanics – Claremont Unified (just west of Pomona) – like scores for the rest of Los Angeles County, and like scores for the state, have risen. The rise in Claremont scores however is probably not attributable to improvements in students' language proficiency.

Bilingual Reading and the STAR Results: Diverse Views

Would California's scores have improved at about the same rate had instruction continued in Spanish? It's difficult to decide from the data. However, researchers for a John Hopkins University study (2010/05/19) "[a]fter five years studying Spanish-dominant children" in six schools in six states, reported that quality of instruction, rather than language of instruction, had the greater impact on children's learning.

TESOL's Tapestry argues that children who discuss academic subjects in their first language achieve more academically. California's bilingual students still score 1-2 years behind grade level in English reading according to Jill Mora, while they continue to score at grade level when tested in Spanish.

Nevertheless, up to a quarter of California students with a home language other than English who are not reclassified as English-fluent by grade five may, based on academic performance, be eligibile for reclassification, according to Grissom's report. Around two-thirds of students in the cohorts Grissom studied were still classified as English learners after grade five. Grissom suggests that more careful tracking of students might ensure needs are met, with more students reclassified when possible.

Future Options for Bilinguals' Learning

There are a number of advantages to bilingualism, not the least of which is the importance of having people who can interact in two languages. For bilinguals, language maintenance programs are one option. In these programs, bilinguals are offered studies in their native language (often in the upper grades) which are similar to foreign language study options for English speakers, but which build on bilinguals' existing language skills. However, California and other U.S. states may not have adequate resources for fostering these programs. Language exchange activities – where speakers of one language exchange vocabulary and phrases with speakers of another – if well-organized, may be another option for working with bilinguals

According to some (including Michael D. Guerrero, 1999, "Spanish Academic Language Proficiency of Bilingual Education Teachers: Is There Equity?"), there are few opportunities in the United States for bilingual teachers to develop the kind of advanced proficiency needed to provide students with advanced comprehensible input in Spanish. Thus, in some schools, teacher aids, some of whom have completed high school in Spanish-speaking countries although they have not been trained as teachers, help facilitate learning for bilingual students..

Both parent and student motivation are factors in learning for bilinguals as well as for monolinguals. Ricento and Hornberger (1996, "Unpeeling the Onion: Language Planning and Policy and the ELT Profession") reported that bilingual students whose first language was Spanish in California were recent immigrants whereas in Texas they were often second- or third-generation learners. Ricento and Hornberger argued that parent attitudes to bilingual instruction were different in each case, and might be considered in planning school language policy.

Further study of bilingual reading strategies might include individually examining the reading strategies of bilingual and monolingual children participating in diverse reading programs, perhaps using "miscue analysis" (as developed by Goodman and Goodman; miscues/errors in oral reading are examined to see whether error showed awareness of sentence structure and also awareness of story). In addition, summer jobs and internships might help motivate middle- and high school students in Compton and other low-income multilingual communities.

For Now: Family Literacy and Encouraging Young Readers

Besides mandating English-only instruction, proposition 227 created a family literacy program. California's family literacy program provides funds for tutoring parents and community members who pledge in turn "to provide . . . English language tutoring" to LEP school children.

For parents who want to encourage their child's reading, California provides a reading list. To locate books, the student or parent selects the reader's approximate grade level and then a proficiency-level from one (low) to thirteen (high). All books are in English. The list includes a number of traditional high school texts (such as Hamlet) on the list for high-school-aged readers, and thus is suitable for college-bound students. No Spanish list is available.

Parents might also guide their children to other well-known contemporary English-language books for youngsters. Favorites include Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (for early grades), Mildred Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Graham Salisbury, Blue Skin of the Sea (grades five and up).

A list of books with a focus on Jewish children's experiences is offered at "My Jewish Learning," while "Literacy Connections" provides information on several picture storybooks in Spanish. Parents can also find Spanish-language books for students learning to read in Spanish as a first- or second-language at tappeques.com's website (however, this is apparently not a non-profit site). A "Pacific Rim" reading list at Papertigers.org, lists books, plus links to other lists.


California Department of Education. Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Results. (Retrieved 2010.)

James Grissom. "Reclassification of English Learners." Education Policy Analysis Archives 12(36). Ed. Gene Glass. (2004/07/30; retrieved 2011.)