Revisioning the Blueprint: Building for the Academic Success of English Learners
Gilbert G. García
Today's Blueprint for English Learners
Most successful projects are successful because they are planned. Success cannot be left to chance. Learning works the same way. It is most successful in a classroom when it is carefully planned and executed in explicit lessons that are responsive to the needs of the student. Even though we know that a second language is best acquired naturally over time when students are meaningfully engaged in academically rigorous tasks in low-anxiety language-learning contexts, creating such contexts within the formal context of school is often extremely difficult. Planning such a curriculum and implementing it within the time constraints allotted for reaching fluency in English for English learners is also very difficult. It can be done, however—but it takes careful planning. It requires a blueprint for success that must be designed with the same rigor that is inherent in the blueprints for any building (see Dutro & Moran, chapter 10, in this volume).
Consider the roof above your own head for a moment. Look around you and consider the essence of the building you are in. The building did not come to be without careful planning. You can be sure that several professionals collaborated to create a blueprint. Engineers surveyed the land and tested the soil. Architects analyzed the surrounding environment and revised their plans according to building codes and recommendations made by structural engineers. Once finalized, the blueprint was taken to a contractor to plan and execute the construction. The blueprint became a building, but only as a result of the careful planning and inspections that preceded it. This same process applies to the creation of instructional blueprints for the academic success of English learners.
Many educators expect that all students will master the designated language arts curriculum with equal success within the same amount of instructional time allocated to teach English speakers literacy. English learners are expected to simultaneously learn English literacy and acquire English as a second language in an English immersion setting. In these settings, the challenge facing both teachers and English learners is that most skills found in the regular language arts program must also be taught to and learned by English learners in the same developmental sequence and under the same time constraints as for English speakers, even though these learners do not begin with the same language base. These are inordinately high expectations; they are equivalent to providing a contractor with a set of blueprints designed to be built on an inadequate foundation. Bilingual programs use the primary language as the foundation for literacy. Foundations must be built on solid ground; they must be deep enough, and sufficiently reinforced for the building to withstand the most violent forces of nature. All blueprints must be designed with such a foundation. The same set of blueprints is certainly not appropriate for all buildings, because of varied mitigating circumstances; yet we presently face a growing movement in education to apply the same set of blueprints to ensure the literacy success of all learners, including English learners.
This “New Literacy,” as Gutiérrez (2001) calls it, is a mandated pedagogy of one-size-fits-all language and literacy learning curriculum that ignores the linguistic differences between English learners and English speakers. Forbidding the use of the primary language is the most important characteristic of this literacy movement. As Gutiérrez observes,
consider this typical scenario in a California classroom. One child is English language dominant, a second is Spanish language dominant with little understanding of Academic English. Both are emergent literates in their primary language. Yet, academic reform in California assumes these two students participate on a level playing field and ostensibly treats them, in pedagogical terms, identically. However, this mandated pedagogy simultaneously limits the Spanish-speaking child from using her complete linguistic and sociocultural repertoire to learn and, once again, privileges the English dominant student in the learning environment. (p. 567)
Alarmingly, this pedagogy is increasingly being embraced as the blueprint for success for English learners across the United States. Owing to a prevailing desire among legislators and the majority of their constituents for a “quick fix” that will create a nation of readers at any cost, English literacy learning curricula for English learners have been constructed on a linguistic foundation of quicksand that imperils their academic development.
Many educational researchers (August & Hakuta, 1997; Cummins, 2000; Fillmore & Snow, 2000; Fitzgerald, Garcia, Jimenez, & Barrera, 2000; Gersten & Baker, 2000; Goldenberg, 2001; Tharp, 1997) agree that the primary language should play a role in the literacy development of English learners (see also Section I of this volume). In spite of this supportive basis for primary language instruction, however, Gutiérrez (2001) points out that advocates of the New Literacy espouse a pedagogy that defies logic and ignores the most precious capacity children bring with them to school—their language: “Language, the most powerful tool for mediating learning, in this case the children's primary language, is excluded from the students' learning toolkit” (p. 565).
García, G.G., & Beltrán, D. (2003).
Revisioning the Blueprint: Building for the Academic Success of English Learners.
In G.G. García (Ed.), English Learners (pp. 197-226). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.