To the Editor:
As hard as we try, we fail to provide an adequate public education for our immigrant children. These children and the adults responsible for their education face a problem so significant that only partial success is possible or expected. Because these children speak little or no English, any hope their parents and their teachers might have for their future must be restrained; in addition to the school lessons all beginning students must learn, they must also learn the language for those lessons.
If we are to understand their problem, we must first be aware of the learning difficulties encountered by children who begin school already speaking English. Educators know that the social economic standing of the family is the best predictor of a child’s academic success. This is so prevalent, it is said that a school can be judged, its academic success accurately predicted, just by observing the quality of automobiles in the student parking lot.
Children of professional parents excel when they begin school and continue to excel throughout their school years. Conversely, economically disadvantaged (poor) children, predictably, perform poorly. This continues throughout their school years; many drop out, others graduate high school, but many do so with an inadequate education.
Lest we rush to conclude that professional parents, like thoroughbred race horses, produce through breeding exceptional children, there are numerous examples of professional parents adopting welfare infants, whose later educational performance is similar to their natural children. It should be understood that all normally developing infants are equal. They are capable of learning any language in the world—capable of learning several—they are capable of becoming brilliant scholars. Home environment is the determinant.
This was not well understood until two PhD researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, did a comprehensive vocabulary study of young children and published their findings in their book, “Meaningful Differences.” They discovered that welfare children at age three had only half as large a vocabulary as the children of professional parents. The vocabularies of middle-class children fell in between. The simple consequence of this is that children with larger vocabularies easily understand more of what is being taught. This deficiency is not easily overcome; the following quote from “Meaningful Differences” emphasizes how difficult:
“By the time children are three-years-old, even intensive intervention cannot make up for the differences in the amount of such experience children have received from their parents. If children could be given better parenting, interventions might be unnecessary.”
Since immigrant children have little or no English vocabulary, their academic problems are greatly magnified. In our own community we see this in the test results from Longley School where in the sixth grade, only one in five Black or African Americans scored proficient or higher in reading and only one in nine in mathematics. What then are we to do with our immigrant children?
Because vocabulary for all students and language for immigrant children are the key components for academic success, these should be the focus of any corrective action. It is known that language is most easily acquired between one and seven years of age and young children are so adept at learning language that three-year-old children from multi-cultural backgrounds may speak several.
We must teach English to our immigrant children and we know we should teach it when they are very young. Eighteen to 14 months of age, or even earlier, might be the time to start. Any later, and we will be less successful. A structured day-care environment emphasizing language would be the most desirable.
Because of its importance and especially because there is no compelling reason not to, it should be year-long. If we are to educate our immigrant children, we should commit to doing it right. Our goal at 36 months of age should be English fluency for immigrant children with a vocabulary equal or greater than the children of middle-class parents.
Just as immigrant children face a formidable learning challenge, responsible adults face a formidable decision. Educating children at so young an age requires that adults first divest themselves of their existing paradigm, which prescribes the same schedule for everyone. Students come to our schools with different beginnings and will predictably have different endings. Some should begin their education at kindergarten, others will need an early care environment, some will find the 180-day school year sufficient, and others will benefit from a longer year.
Because it is so difficult to envision changing the way we educate children, we, the responsible adults, should pretend that we are engineers with a problem to solve. We have to educate children, we have to do it well, we have to do it efficiently and we have to do it at minimum cost. Because we will teach our immigrant children their lessons in English, then teaching that spoken language should be our first priority.
Since any language is most efficiently learned as young children, then that is when we should begin.