Learning to read in English and Spanish; NIH launches study on linguistic issues


ROCKVILLE -- Get ready for the next reading wars.

The federal government is about to launch the most ambitious inquiry to date into how Hispanic children in the United States learn to read in English.

The government plans to spend $45 million over five years to explore this complex -- and controversial -- set of linguistic issues.

Betty McCardle, an official of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda who will coordinate the research, explains some of the sweeping questions the study will try to answer:

"They come to kindergarten speaking Spanish. Now they've got to learn English. Do we teach them to speak English first, before the majority of education is presented? Or do we teach them to read Spanish while learning to speak English? In which sequence? Do the teachers have to be native speakers of Spanish? Does it make a difference?"

Also in the research plan is an experiment involving the latest imaging technology to take pictures of children's brains as they switch from Spanish to English.

California voters haven't waited for the findings. Last year they approved Proposition 227, virtually eliminating bilingual education classes with a decree that children in the nation's most populous state be taught "overwhelmingly" in English.

But G. Reid Lyon, who heads reading research at NIH, says "research hasn't been developed or planned or put in place to test the major issues.

"There are people who say, 'Darn it, I grew up speaking and reading English in this country. Why can't everybody just do it my way?'

"What kind of an attitude is that?" he asks.

Bilingual education has been controversial for decades, especially in states like California and Texas that have a lot of Hispanic students. In Maryland, it's a growing issue in such school systems as Montgomery County, which is coping with a relatively large influx of students from all over the world.

The educational and political debate over bilingual education has largely involved the education of Hispanic children: whether students should be taught from the start in English or started in their native Spanish and weaned into using English.

Critics of bilingual education argue that Spanish-language instruction is the chief cause of Hispanics' relatively poor reading performance, while supporters say teaching in English exclusively is an unfair form of cultural imperialism.

The issue has entered the presidential campaign. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, has given qualified support to bilingual programs, angering some conservatives.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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