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Currently, public schools in the U.S. are experiencing dramatic increases in the number of English learner (EL) students they serve. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2006), between 1979 and 2004, the overall number of school children in U.S. public schools increased 18 percent. In contrast, the number of these children who spoke a language other than English at home increased by 162 percent, and the number who spoke a language other than English at home and who spoke English with difficulty increased by 114 percent. Projections have further indicated that school-aged children who are ELs will constitute an estimated 40 percent of the k-12 population in the US by the year 2030 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).
While an extensive body of research indicates that bilingual education is the most successful type of programming for EL students--with some models being more effective than others (Greene, 1998; Ramirez, 1992; Ramirez, Yen, & Ramey, 1991; Thomas & Collier, 1997, 2002; Willig, 1985), the reality exists that as a result of factors including shortages of bilingual teachers or the representation of multiple native languages within a school district, most EL students spend the majority of the school day in English-dominant contexts with predominantly English-speaking teachers (Berube, 2000).
While our nation has a long history of competing ideologies and political controversies related to English immersion (in which the primary language of instruction is English) programs versus bilingual education, scholars contend that these two educational approaches need not be conceptualized as dichotomous. Rather, when educators consider what approaches and strategies will provide the best opportunities for particular students to learn in particular contexts, they must bear in mind that for EL students, their native languages and cultures are key resources to draw upon for teaching both content and language (Lucas & Katz, 1994). They must also think about how the language and culture a student brings with them is intimately connected to their community, loved ones, and personal identity (Delpit, 1988).
What the Research Says
For students in the school setting, learning is a search for meaning using formal education and one's own experiences. As the brain interacts with the environment, it forms mental structures based on patterns of understanding, or schema (Caine & Caine, 1991). When the brain encounters new information, it interprets the information using existing schema. Because these schema develop through personal experience, they reflect the cultures and experiences of the learner (Quinn & Holland, 1987). Consequently, learners who have experienced different events and cultural contexts interpret the world in unique ways. Moreover, language is the primary tool learners use to symbolize their unique experiences and thoughts and to communicate with others (Vygotsky, 1962).
Educators often expect EL students to succeed in the classroom without considering the ways in which these students' experiences, cultures, and languages shape their schema (Cummins, 1996). Rather than recognizing culture and language as essential to EL students' connections between their schema and key content area concepts, educators frequently view diverse languages and cultures from a deficit perspective as "inadequate preparation for learning" (Jones & Fennimore, p. 16, 1990). In other words, rather than building upon the rich cultural and linguistic capital of EL students, teachers often expect students to adapt to an English-only classroom environment that reflects White, middle class, native English speaking curricula. As a result, EL students may encounter problems in understanding the academic language of instruction, and they may undergo difficulty in making meaningful connections among fundamental concepts in the curriculum to their prior knowledge and experiences.
Currently many teachers take an additive or contributions approach to multilingual/ multicultural education by "adding on" multicultural concepts, themes, and perspectives to the curriculum, without changing the basic structure of the curriculum (Banks, 2003). Yet, culturally responsive teaching requires that students' cultures, …