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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Schooling of English Learners


An increasing number of students entering California’s schools come from non-English speaking backgrounds. Although some of these language minority students enter school already proficient in English, the majority do not. These students are now referred to as English learners.

There are several reasons why Californians need to pay careful attention to the schooling of language minority students in their public schools. First, language minority students now constitute more than one-third of all students in California’s schools—a proportion that will grow even higher in the future. Clearly, the success of California’s students and schools will increasingly depend on the state’s ability to successfully educate language minority students.

Second, English learners require a specialized curriculum and properly trained teachers to support their development of English literacy. Complicating matters is the fact that these students, even as they learn English, must also have access to the rest of the required academic curriculum if they are to keep pace with their English-speaking cohorts.

Third, the education of English learners has been highly politicized. Controversy centers around the use of native language instruction—whether it is better to first develop the native language literacy of English learners and provide initial academic content through bilingual education or, on the other hand, to simply immerse them in English and provide initial academic content through simplified English instruction. While existing evidence generally supports the bilingual approach, the research is hotly debated and far from conclusive regarding which general approach makes more sense for which students and under what conditions. At the same time, there is a growing political movement in many states to mandate, through voter initiatives, English-only instruction. In June 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, an initiative that greatly restricted the use of bilingual education.

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