Can bilingual classrooms effectively meet language acquisition and other learning goals for all students?
Families with English Language Learners (ELLs) want their children to learn English in school; there’s no question about this. And many English-speaking families also want their kids to learn a second language in school.
A Growing Interest in Bilingual Education
A survey of articles and blogs in recent years underscores an increasing focus on bilingual education. For example, a 2008 collection of articles in Education Week entitled “Preserving the Mother Tongue” discussed various schools, programs, and initiatives that were established at the local and state levels as a way of promoting ELLs’ home languages and learning English. In a 2011 blog post in the same journal, Mary Ann Zehr drew attention to the need to carefully plan the transition from children’s home languages to English.
In 2012, Lesli A. Maxwell highlighted the rise in popularity of dual language programs, explaining that experts believe this growing interest is a result of the positive impacts on academic achievement for both English-learners and students already fluent in English. And Yudhijit Bhattacharjee also made the case for the cognitive advantages that bilingualism offers in his 2012 New York Times article.
How Can Bilingual Education Benefit Students?
While it may seem paradoxical, there is evidence to support using ELLs’ home language(s) as an instructional tool to make cross-linguistic connections that, in turn, lead to more proficient English acquisition. Children who attend programs that foster the use of their home language often experience linguistic and academic gains in both the home language and English proficiency. Moreover, these same students tend to outperform their peers in both languages after fifth grade.
There are multiple studies that have shown higher academic achievement for students who take part in bilingual programs, especially among those who participated in two-way immersion classes. Reading, math, and language test scores for these students were equal to or higher than those of peers who hadn’t taken part in bilingual immersion programs. These studies also demonstrate that bilingual education seems to affect students’ executive function skills, a set of abilities that allow us to plan, focus, and carry out tasks. And finally, research has shown that many high school students who attended such programs throughout their schooling had notably positive attitudes towards school.
Recognizing Bilingual Achievement
Recently, national organizations that advocate for bilingualism or bilingual education have promoted the endorsement of a Seal of Biliteracy at the state level. Such an achievement would be marked prominently on students’ high school diplomas as an indication to future employers of their bilingual proficiency. If adopted, students would need to demonstrate proficiency in a language other than English to receive the seal. The skills developed and formal acknowledgement of such achievement would, undoubtedly, be highly valued as these students go on to enter college and jobs in a more globalized workforce.
Choosing a Bilingual Program
If you’re considering a bilingual program for your child, here are some questions to take into account as you research schools:
What are the characteristics of high-quality bilingual programs?
Programs not only use a language other than English, but they value that language — and any others that students use. Students are assessed in both languages in order to get a complete picture of student progress. Often, students will perform at high academic levels in at least one (but often both) of the instructional languages.
What should parents look for when they evaluate bilingual programs?
Schools and programs that understand bilingual development will allow — and encourage — students to use all of their linguistic resources to make sense of their environments. This means, for example, that even in a class or portion of the day where English is the language of instruction, students may translate some of their work, read in one language and discuss it in another, or listen to the teacher in one language and begin to write about it in another, all the while being supported in learning both English and the second target language.
Families should also look for sufficient resources (e.g., teachers, books, posters, labels, videos) in both languages to support the learning of all children in the class.
How do you know if such a program is a good fit for your child?
First, consider your goals. Do you want your child to be bilingual — that is, to use English and another language? Or do you place a greater value on your child only acquiring English? Although time on task (spending more time with the language that you want to learn) is important, having meaningful and authentic experiences in each language (and bilingually, as well!) is the most important factor for bilingual development.
Your child should feel comfortable with the instruction she is receiving in school. She should be pushed to acquire a new language — and hopefully expressing some excitement, too! At the same time, she should also receive adequate support to learn age-appropriate concepts in both instructional languages.
How do parents who don’t speak the target language support their child’s learning?
Family members should feel comfortable continuing their daily routine in their home language. They should tell stories, read books, make shopping lists, sing songs, watch television, and engage in conversation in the language in which they are most comfortable.
The subjects a student learns in one language have the potential to transfer to another language, with appropriate instructional support. That said, family members can attempt to learn alongside their children, ask to be read to in a new language, watch television shows in a new language, or take classes on their own to learn a new language.
Bhattacharjee, Y. (2012, March 17). Why bilinguals are smarter. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from The New York Times.
Guidelines for implementing the seal of biliteracy. (2015, March 10). Retrieved June 1, 2015, from National Council of State Supervisors for Languages.
Lindholm-Leary, K. (2001). Dual language education. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from Google Books.
Lindholm-Leary, K. (2005). The rich promise of two-way immersion. Retrieved August 1, 2015, from Lindholm-Leary.
Martin-Rhee, M., & Bialystok, E. (2008). The development of two types of inhibitory control in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11(1), 81-93.
Maxwell, L. (2012, March 28). 'Dual' classes see growth in popularity. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from Education Week.
Thomas, W., & Collier, V. (2001, June 1). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students' long-term academic achievement final report. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from University of California-Berkeley.
Zehr, M. (2011, June 14). Teacher: Transfer from first language to English isn't automatic. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from Education Week.