Debatable topic #2: Foreign Language Materials Philosophy

Now for the second “debatable” topic of interest…

“Should all materials in a foreign language be shelved together based on the language (such as all Spanish), and should funds be budgeted to purchase materials in that language for students who are in the school speaking only that language? Or, should students be able to access materials written in English only in an effort to have them adapt to English more quickly and be less dependent upon their native language?”

My guess is that the number of non-English speaking students (particularly Spanish speaking) in your schools has grown tremendously over the past 5 years, possibly even exponentially. Likewise, as a result, the number of materials written in their foreign language has probably increased. There are various schools of thought on how this growing number of foreign language materials should be housed and if, in fact, that number should even be growing at all. Let’s consider this question from both vantage points.

First, the idea that materials in a foreign language should be inter-shelved with other materials makes perfect sense to those media specialists who feel that foreign language speakers need more exposure to the English language materials. When items are pulled out into a separate section there is no opportunity to browse shelves of combined language materials. This makes it more difficult for the foreign language speaking student to make progress in speaking English. When research projects are required, the student should focus on gathering data in English when using print materials in the media center. Likewise, if curriculum materials in the foreign language continue to be purchased, there will be little incentive for foreign language speakers to master English when they find an ample supply of sources in their native language. (Of course, materials for foreign language courses should be purchased to support the curriculum.) But are we enabling the student to remain dependent upon their first language if we cater to their needs by grouping materials in a language section and providing materials that do not lead to English language mastery?

On the contrary, the argument for foreign language materials to be housed separately from English language materials is the preferred arrangement by many media specialists. They argue that inter-shelving materials can be intimidating to the student. Patrons need quick access to information they can understand and use. Also, students are able to share materials more easily with family members if it can be easily located in a separate section. Separating the collection brings more attention to the area and creates a more internationally diverse environment. Regarding purchasing additional materials to support non-English speakers, are we denying students opportunities to reach their educational potential by using a collection development plan that limits the library’s holdings only to English materials? Shouldn’t we serve students, no matter the language they speak, in a way so they can locate, evaluate, and apply the information they need? Are we improving literacy skills if no resources are provided that can be understood by the patron?

This issue is one that bears discussion within our profession. Your building and system media committees might consider this issue and make a recommendation that addresses your media center’s philosophy on how to deal with this collection development and functional question. The professional faculty, particularly the teachers who teach English language learners, should definitely be involved in determining how this issue should be addressed. And, as always, knowledge of our students should drive policy-setting!

Phyllis Snipes, Assistant Professor
University of West Georgia


Posted on June 25, 2008, in Debate, Program administration and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m new to the SLM game, so I won’t comment on where to shelve (though the public libraries around here have their own sections with a mix of foreign language and bilingual books). I just want to say that as an ELL teacher, I’ve been pushing for more foreign-language/bilingual books for my students. The research clearly shows that literacy transfers. If they can read well in their own language, this will transfer to their language learning and make them stronger in both languages. It also helps them not to lose their first languages. Our mission is not to create English-only students but to create strong bilingual students.

  2. I am in a middle school that serves a Latino population and recently some Haitian as well. Any foreign language materials we have are shelved according to the book’s classification, not language. I do mark those books in a foreign language with a sticker on the spine so that they can be easily accessed. I am of the thought mentioned in the post that students should learn how to navigate a library and if the materials are separate, the students lose that opportunity to learn the skill (As an aside, I also shelve graphic novels according to Dewey unless it is manga or purely a comic book in nature, which I shelve in 741.5).

    I have made a concerted effort to add high interest/low level books that are aligned to the curriculum for not only the ELL students but also our special education students. I make a point of talking to the ESOL teachers as I receive these books so that they are aware of them. I also have worked on a curriculum aligned collection of picture books to give ELL students contextual clues from pictures as they learn the language. I am fortunate in having a foreign language background, so I give my orientation in Spanish to those ELL students who are at the entrance level. This creates a supportive relationship for them with me. They know they can come to me to help them find books they can manage and have the availability of Spanish should they become overly frustrated.

    Rather than many foreign language materials, I offer the alternative of 2nd, 3rd, even 1st grade level English books with middle school content to help increase the students’ English comprehension skills.

    Kris Woods

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