Voices Vol 41 No 1

SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS: BILINGUAL/ESL MIDDLE SCHOOL

Separate But Equal

By Tina Kern

*Disclaimer: The author has taken liberties with names, data, and various anecdotal information.

T hey were shy when they entered the room, nervously looking up at me with a crooked smile – or should I say two crooked smiles.  I welcomed all of the children and we introduced ourselves.  Even though they were timid, trying to hide from scrutiny, everyone noticed them because they looked so alike – almost identical.  They were twins, but they were dressed differently, head to toe in complementary colors. 

As I muddled through the obligatory testing for levels of reading, language, etc., I learned more about my students, mentally starting to loosely group them according to proficiency.  My mind kept on returning to the twins during that time. They tested within points of each other in almost every area, even in regular classes and content areas.

I perused their files, getting to know the girls and their background.  The more I got to know facts and data, the more I wanted to understand the decisions made for them in their educational schooling to date. 

First of all, the girls-let’s call them Adriana and Ana- were from another district.  There they were retained in kindergarten.  Then Adriana (the oldest by a few minutes) was put into a bilingual classroom, while Ana had a regular classroom teacher and was pulled out for ESL instruction.  What did that reveal about them? 

They lived with an intact family, the mother speaking mostly Spanish, while the father had a job that required him to speak some English.  As a result, their father spoke to us in English, code-switching with bilingual people.  The girls had a brother that spoke English fluently, and, preferred to speak English entirely.  As a result, his Spanish was limited to a conversational level, with no academic reading and writing skills in what used to be his first language.  As you can guess, he also received instruction in a monolingual setting with ESL pullout/push-in throughout his education.  On the other hand, the girls were approaching oral proficiency in English and were proficient in Spanish, too.  Both of them had basic knowledge of academic Spanish, but were primarily schooled in English as they approached oral proficiency.  Their English academic reading and writing were below grade level, and still retained obvious first language interference.    They remained close in achievement in almost every area.

What haunted me was the question:  Why were the girls put in entirely different placements?  They were both born in this country, but spoke Spanish almost exclusively until entering school. Of course, the researcher in me was curious as to the outcome of this informal and totally unintentional study of two girls that were somehow separate, but so equal in so many ways. The obvious solution to so many questions was to contact the previous school and teachers…and so I did.

I can’t say that I got definitive answers; it  was just “more of the same”. Let me just list some questions and answers I’ve received from various sources at various times:

As for the placement:

In fact, the answers created more questions and so I continued my pursuit in order to understand and, thus, provide the best program for these girls that now were a regular classroom setting with ESL instruction. 

First, I searched for answers as to the separation of the twins in school, a decision which ultimately led to the placement of one girl in ESL and the other in a total bilingual program. This separation was more than an effort to afford more individuality and independent behavior; it fostered two separate and distinct models of education for these twins.

I didn’t know enough about placement of twins and so searched for information. I found various articles and research.  Many alluded to the parents’ role and/or the administration/educational aspect of the determination. Some articles admitted that there were minimal comprehensive studies as to separating twins, but those I read did advocate placing twins together in classes during their early education, and then separating them.  Certainly, if twins were not placed in the same classroom, studies advocated consistent education for them (Clearinghouse for Early Education and Parenting http://ceep.crc.uiuc.edu/poptopics/twins.html.


“When multiple-birth children are enrolled in different classrooms at the same grade level, there is a need for a consistent approach to instruction and classroom management.” (NOMOTC, 2000, pp.29-31).

One of the most complete longitudinal studies was a British study by Lucy Tully of the
Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, UK:

“First, relative to twins not separated, twins who were separated in the
first year of school had more internalizing problems…”  In addition, “there was some evidence that separated twins experienced more academic problems than non-separated twins…” 

This study approaches the effect of separation as a “pattern” in the development of the twins in the educational setting.

As to the second issue in our case, kindergarten retention is a “hot button” for many in the field of ESL, and, indeed, in all of education. A Medical News Today  article (Oct 2005)  touts the title Kindergarten Retention Fails to Help Academic Achievement:

“A new examination of research on this perennially controversial issue indicates that retention does not improve achievement among kindergartners in reading or mathematics, nor does it facilitate instruction by making classrooms more homogeneous academically.” (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/31495.php)

Of course, as ESL educators, retention becomes more complicated.  We don’t want to hold a child back because the student hasn’t mastered his second language.  That would be unconscionable. If one is considering retention for an ELL and the reason is other than a second language problem, dig deeper and attend to the problem.  The answer probably won’t be ameliorated by having the young child repeat the grade.   Consider various options and methods. Reach out to colleagues in other schools and districts.

Finally, though, the futility of this exercise in trying to find answers just emphasized certain aspects of our career choice as ESL/bilingual educators, namely:

What concerned me was revisiting the simplicity of the statement: the decisions made for a child by educators early in his education has far-reaching consequences.  It is such an uncomplicated concept, a “no-brainer”, yet how many of us are alone in a school and/or district as experts in our field, stressed for answers “now”, and still take the time to ascertain that the knowledge of the child, the situation and the law are current?  I hope we all do.  I hope we all check the state bilingual website http://www.state.nj.us/education/bilingual regularly, among others.

What we ultimately decide influences a child’s educational future.  In fact, the beginning of a child’s education could determine the outcome.  We must not make arbitrary decisions.  We must “do no harm” and realize that no one can decide in a vacuum. We should not be afraid to ask or answer.  We must consider our decisions very carefully, based upon best practices, research, and communication with parents, teachers, and administrators.  Test for proficiency in various areas; provide differentiated instruction that is at the child’s level and relevant.  Never assume everything, every mandate, every “given” is the same because rarely is it true.  Your best friend is information. We on the board of NJTESOL/NJBE can be part of your system of support.   Be prepared as you interact with colleagues and give professional advice.  We must be thoughtful, consider the possible outcomes, and reflect upon our determinations.

If you are the only ESL teacher in a school or district, reach out to other ESL teachers, check our NJTESOL/NJBE website, our Face Book page, SIG representatives, contacts you’ve made from attending our chapter meetings and our conference.  It is certainly worthwhile and exhilarating when we come together in May at our Spring Conference and receive current and pertinent information from mentors, authors, leaders in our field and colleagues.  What we share and learn is invaluable.  It is powerful and empowering.  I am looking forward to compelling and exciting workshops.

Also please note that our Special Interest Group has expanded to bilingual and ESL colleagues; please take the time to email me (tskern723@yahoo.com) with your current email address so that you can be included as we continue to educate each other, connect, and share experiences.  As always I am looking forward to meeting all of you in person, but until then we will remain connected through our emails.