Monday, July 20, 2009

Bilingual Education: Efficacy and Practice

Language and literacy skills form the foundation for all learning in a child’s education. Without a solid basis in literacy, students cannot receive, process, or communicate information with the classroom environment. Many national education reforms have dealt with the unending question of how to raise literacy levels. This is especially relevant to English Language Learners (ELLs) who must balance learning content-area information and second language acquisition, all while adjusting to a new sociocultural environment. Educators argue for and against a variety of strategies that would help ELL students best succeed academically and socioculturally. Perhaps the most controversial method for doing so is bilingual education, during which instruction is conducted in English as well as a student’s native language. Advocates and opponents of bilingual education allege heated arguments, citing a myriad of research studies that support both sides of the debate. These arguments surround the efficacy of bilingual education and whether bilingual education affirms students’ cultural identities.

There are multiple forms of bilingual education, each of which will be discussed in this paper. The first, perhaps original form of bilingual education was transitional bilingual education, which involves content-area instruction in a student’s native language as they are learning English in ESL classes. By the end of the program (designed to last one to three years), students should be fluent in English and ready to join the mainstream population.

Proponents of bilingual education believe that children should transition to English-only instruction as soon as possible. Opponents of bilingual education cite that even though students are receiving instruction in their native language, the favoring of the dominant language (English) over the native language can cause students to lose their native language. This results in negative cognitive effects, one of which is loss of communication with parents and family members (Collier, 1995). The famous Ramirez study (1991) found that students enrolled in late-exit transitional bilingual education end up staying in these programs longer than the original three years. Another study found that while ELL students in transitional bilingual education programs did not hinder students from learning English, but there was no significant difference between academic achievement in transitional bilingual education programs and structured English immersion classes (Hofsetter, 1994).

Other forms of bilingual education can be encompassed within the category of dual language programs. Some programs have students study certain subjects (such as math and science) in their native language, while studying the rest of the subjects (history and humanities) in English. Other programs enroll equal numbers of native and non-native English speakers so that all students are requiring a second language at the same time. Still other programs, called heritage education, enroll students who are more fluent in English than their heritage language. Dual language programs strive for students to become socially and academically literate in both languages; thus they are thought of as the ‘true bilingual education’.

Proponents of dual language programs argue that they create a classroom environment where language instruction is additive, and that both languages are valued equally. They cite the political, economic, and cultural deficit that the United States faces if it remains a monolingual nation (Melendez 1989). Opponents of dual language programs fear that these programs hinder English language acquisition. According to a comprehensive study by Collier and Thomas (2004), dual language bilingual education programs have successfully helped ELL students learn English and content area information. This study concludes that the most successful programs are six or more years in length, combine native and non-native English speakers, have rigorous language instruction in both languages, use the non-English language at least 50 percent of the time, and use interactive teaching practices.

These studies seem to show that bilingual education can result in high academic achievement for both ELL students and native-English speakers, along with reaffirmation of culture and heritage. However, there can be tremendous discrepancies between the implementation of bilingual education programs across the nation. While research in this area is difficult because of the multitude of influences that affect the implementation of these programs; however it seems that there are common themes among programs that are most successful. In order to increase the success of all bilingual education programs and to provide a quality education for all students regardless of their first language, then policy makers, administrators, and teachers need to work together to find a solution that supports English and native language acquisition, reaffirms cultural identity, and models the diverse, multicultural, multilingual global world that students will soon inherit.


Collier, V. P. (1997). Promoting Academic Success for E. S. L. Students: Understanding Second Language Acquisition for School. Woodside, NY: Bastos Book Company.

Collier, V., & Wayne, T. (2004). The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All . NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 2(1), 1-20.

Hofstetter, C. (1994). Effects of a Transitional Bilingual Education Program: Findings, Issues, and Next Steps. Bilingual Research Journal, 28(3), 1-16.

Melendez, S. (1989). A Nation of Monolinguals, A Multilingual World. . National Education Association Journal. , 7(6), 70-74.

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