"Repairable Harm" (Olson, 2010) suggests that the solution to the problem of students who remain classified as English Learners for long periods of time consists, among other things, of more careful preparation on tests of their progress, careful tracking, and "rigorous" instruction that includes explicit and direct teaching of the vocabulary, grammar and text structure of academic language. These proposals are quite similar to those presented by the current US Dept of Education in the form of Race to the Top, and the LEARN Act, now in committee in congress.
There is an alternative. Most long term English Learners live in poverty. Decades of research confirm that poverty has a huge impact on student learning, resulting in lower scores on all measures of school achievement. Poverty means food insecurity, poor health care, higher levels of pollution, and far less access to books, at home, at school and in the community.
The latter is especially important when discussing California, which has among the worst supported school and public libraries in the nation, and by far the lowest number of librarians per student. It is also easy to deal with. Studies in California (Achterman, 2008) and throughout the world (Krashen, Lee, and McQuillan, 2010) show that providing access to quality school libraries can mitigate the impact of poverty on reading achievement and subject matter learning (grade 11 US History in Achterman, 2008).
Increased access to books means more self-selected recreational reading, and more self-selected recreational reading has a powerful effect on the development of just those aspects of language that Repairable Harm is concerned with (Krashen, 2004). Through extensive reading, students acquire (not learn, but acquire) an enormous amount of grammar, vocabulary and text structure, enough so that the academic language of textbooks becomes far more comprehensible. Studies also show that wide reading results in more school knowledge as well as knowledge of the world (Ravitch and Finn, 1987; Krashen, 2004).
There are severe limits to the amount of vocabulary, grammar and text structure that can be explicitly taught and learned: The systems to be acquired are vast, and have not even been fully described. In addition, studies so far strongly suggest that reading is a more effective and efficient means of developing competence in these areas than direct instruction is (Krashen, 2004; 2010).
Repairable Harm makes some very good suggestions. It supports the use of the primary language in school, both early in the students' career to build background knowledge and literacy, and later, for the advantages of full bilingualism. It also calls for more efforts to end the social isolation experienced by many English Learners, a problem carefully described in Repairable Harm author Laurie Olsen's study, Made in America (1997). But the tasks faced by English Learners and their teachers would be greatly facilitated by providing greater access to interesting and comprehensible reading, and the easiest way to do this is to strengthen school library collections and school library staffing, especially in areas of high poverty.
Achterman, D. 2008. PhD dissertation, http://digital.library.unt.edu/permalink/meta-dc-9800:1
Krashen, S., Lee, SY, and McQuillan, J. 2010. An analysis of the PIRLS (2006) data: Can the school library reduce the effect of poverty on reading achievement? CSLA Journal, in press. California School Library Association.
Krashen, S. 2010. Comments on the Learn Act. http://www.sdkrashen.com.
Olsen, L. 1997. Made in America: Immigrant Students in US High Schools. New York: The New Press.
Olson, L. 2010. Reparable Harm: Fulfilling the Unkept Promise of Educational Opportunity for California’s Long Term English Learners. California Tomorrow.
Ravitch, D. and Finn, C. 1987. What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? New York: Harpercollins.