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Gaby Ingargiola
ENG 555
Dr. Kayi-Aydar
December 11, 2017
The Problem with Arizona’s ESL Immersion Only Model
Every year, a multitude of reports are put out by numerous news outlets and data
collecting agencies in which the 50 states are ranked based on their quality of education. Almost
undoubtedly, Arizona can be found at the bottom of this list each year. While these reports are
intended to research only the quality of education produced, not the state’s attitude toward
education, there is a lot of information to gain about the state’s standpoint on education in
general. In the past, Arizona’s Department of Education has been accused of taking the quick
and easy approach to education. Based on experience, it appears the accusers claim that Arizona
is less concerned with providing its learners with a valuable education, but rather one that just
barely meets standards and gets students by. This easy approach can be seen especially in the
state’s English as a Second Language (ESL), and English Language Learner (ELL) programs
across the board. Since the late 2000’s Arizona has been following an immersion only model that
does not require educators to have an ELL background, segregates ELL students from their
native speaking peers, and denies them a culturally inclusive learning environment.
A sizable portion of ELLs are young learners—meaning they will start their language
journey in a K-12 classroom. Since the quality of education is already low, it makes providing
ESL learners with the information they need even more difficult. Adding to the already
demanding task, the state has seen a fall in ELL trained teachers resulting in ELL students being
taught by people who are not formally educated on the specific techniques and methods used to
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teach ESL students properly and successfully. According to the Arizona Auditor General, from
2008 to 2010, only 27% of schools with ELL programs “did not have qualified ELL teachers”
and 25% (as a result) were unable to properly group students of similar proficiency levels (AZ
Auditor General, 2011). Although this individual study highlighted those without an ESL or
ELL discipline, there are other studies that show this issue goes beyond formal training and into
the advantages of being bilingual in a state where 81% of ELLs are Hispanic (González Canché,
Mall, and Rios-Aguilar, 2012). A group of University professors conducted a study of their own
in which they surveyed ELL teachers about their own performance as it pertained to newly
implemented immersion-only laws. The study’s findings showed that 95% of Hispanic, bilingual
teachers, felt that they were well prepared to teach ELLs compared to the 64% preparedness felt
by non-Hispanic, non-bilingual, teachers (González Canché, Mall, and Rios-Aguilar, 2012).
Additionally, these teachers (despite their ethnicity or bilingual abilities agreed that regardless
of preparedness, the main issue was that the new immersion only model was not given adequate
time for growth or achievement.
English for the Children, more commonly known as Proposition 203, is a plan of action
that ultimately put into motion what is now known as the Structured English Immersion Model,
or the SEI. Prior to the passing of Prop. 203 in late 2000, instructors were able to choose whether
they would base their ESL class on immersion or non-immersion models; but once the
proposition passed, the SEI was created and eventually implemented state-wide in 2007; even if
teachers felt it was not an appropriate fit for their students. ASU professor Eugene Garcia found
in a self-conducted study that the main problem with the SEI is that it is “based on an assumption
that ELLs can achieve proficiency in English very quickly (usually within a year) in an Englishonly instructional environment” (Garcia, 2012). Unfortunately, while it isn’t entirely impossible
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for an ELL to progress to a level of proficiency that matches their grade level, many teachers
find that allotting only a year’s time for such proficiency isn’t realistic for students and teachers
alike, causing the probability of reaching the desired level of proficiency slim to none.
Research has shown that learning a second or foreign language is easier to accomplish at
younger ages. So, even though many ESL students start in an ELL program in elementary
school, this isn’t always the case, and depending on the student’s skill, cognitive abilities, and
motivation, learning English could very well take more than the ideal one year that the SEI
allows for. González Canché, Mall, and Rios-Aguilar found that 90% teachers in their study,
many of whom had been teaching for over five years, believed that English proficiency took
more than a year (in fact, at least three years) to achieve (González Canché, Mall, and RiosAguilar, 2012). What’s more concerning about the foundation of the SEI model is that impact
and effectiveness it provides is not yet concrete. The Arizona Auditor General’s 2010 study
concluded that a whopping “63% [of schools] had not fully implemented all SEI requirements”
(AZ Auditor General, 2011). Another reason the impact of the SEI is unknown is because
students can test out of their ELL status just after a year which limits the data to students who are
actively labeled ELL status. The Arizona English Language Learner Assessment (AZELLA) is
not only used to determine proficiency level, but it is the only way a student can relieve
themselves of their ELL status. While it is important that a student can be moved into
mainstream classes, the AZELLA is faulty in that it only measures proficiency based on the
student’s current grade level, instead of how the student has improved their overall English
speaking ability and comprehension.
In addition to the SEI, a similar, yet more intense model was designed to be used in
unison with the SEI. The 4-Hour Block is a model that requires ELLs to undergo 4 hours of
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immersed English Language Development a day. Just like with the SEI, the 4-Hour Block was
created with the belief that ELLs would be able to rapidly become proficient in the English
language within the first year of their ELL status. As draining as the 4-Hour Block is on students,
research showed that it is also difficult for teachers to enforce as 45% of schools were
completely disregarding it (AZ Auditor General). One district (studied by González Canché,
Mall, and Rios-Aguilar) revealed that 60% of its teachers believed that only 50%, or less, of their
ELL students were meeting grade level standards (González Canché, Mall, and Rios-Aguilar,
2012). The real issue with the 4-Hour Block is that it constrains ELLs opportunity to learn by
removing them from the classroom completely; making it that much harder for instructors to
provide them with the language development that they need in addition to state required content
knowledge in other subject areas. As a result, this left 87% of teachers with varrying levels of
concern about the probability of student success (González Canché, Mall, and Rios-Aguilar).
Moreover, this sequestering of ELLs kept them from the necessary “interact[ion] with those
beyond their own level of proficiency”, and from “participating in language and cognitive
activities that involve academic content” (Garcia, 2012). More simply put, like the SEI, the 4Hour Block holds ELLs back from opportunities that are vital to their language development,
comprehension, and use.
The last, and perhaps the most damaging, issue related to Arizona’s immersion only
approach is that it does not allow for students to bring their own culture into their education.
Arizona has a huge Hispanic population and because Hispanic students also make up a vast
majority of the student population it is important that they feel their cultural identity is respected.
The Tucson Unified School District created the Mexican-American Studies Program in 1998 to
provide students of Mexican heritage with an opportunity to learn in an environment where their
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culture was both highlighted and explored. The importance of cultural identity may not be
apparent to everyone, but when the district threatened to end the program, students who took part
in it were furious. In 2012, roughly 175 students participated in a district wide walk-out in
support of Mexican-American studies (Huicochea, 2012). This walk-out was started to
demonstrate the students’ desire for their education to be inclusive of their culture; something
that was not typically considered until the Mexican-American Studies Program was created.
Prior to this protest, 120 students from Cholla High school staged a walk-out of their own when
it was decided that a Mexican-American Studies course would no longer be offered at the school
(Huicochea, 2012). Rather than hearing the students out and trying to understand what impact
this program had on them, the school district chose to punish those who participated in the walkout and when the program was ended, made their students feel unwanted and irrelevant.
Although the ending of the program was eventually deemed unconstitutional, the Tucson Unified
School District was never able to repair the relationship it had tarnished with its students of
Mexican-American descent.
Without a doubt, there are many ways to go about teaching from methods, approaches,
and techniques; to personal style and beliefs surrounding education. One thing that can be agreed
upon, however, is that whatever approach is taken, it is important to reflect and evaluate what is
working and what isn’t; no matter what type of class or students one is teaching. Educating ELLs
is by no means a new concept, but it is one that has yet to be mastered. Although Arizona has
chosen to follow immersion only methods, its low rank in education quality proves that there are
some things that need to be improved and reworked in order to promote the necessary teacher
and student satisfactory and accomplishment.
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Garcia, Eugene. (2012, November 30). The Education of English Language Learners in Arizona:
A History of Underachievement. Retrieved December 6, 2017 from Teachers College
Record Volume 114 Number 9.
González Canché, Manuel, Mall, Luis, and Rios-Aguilar, Cecilia. A Study of Arizona’s Teachers
of English Language Learners. Retrieved December 9, 2017 from Teachers College
Record Volume 114 Number 9.
Huicochea, A. (2012, January 24). Students Walk out in Ethnic-studies Protest. Retrieved
December 10, 2017 from http://tucson.com/news/local/education/precollegiate/studentswalk-out-in-ethnic-studies-protest/article_a462c23c-0eb7-57b8-9ad1-486d634371ef.html
(2011, July 07). Arizona English Language Learner Program. Retrieved December 8, 2017,
from https://www.azauditor.gov/sites/default/files/ELL_Highlights.pdf