The Pros of Bilingual Education
Bilingual education continues to receive criticism in the national media. This Digest examines some of the criticism, and its effect on public opinion, which often is based on misconceptions about bilingual education's goals and practice. The Digest explains the rationale underlying good bilingual education programs and summarizes research findings about their effectiveness.
When schools provide children quality education in their primary language, they give them two things: knowledge and literacy. The knowledge that children get through their first language helps make the English they hear and read more comprehensible. Literacy developed in the primary language transfers to the second language. The reason is simple: Because we learn to read by reading--that is, by making sense of what is on the page (Smith, 1994)--it is easier to learn to read in a language we understand. Once we can read in one language, we can read in general.
The combination of first language subject matter teaching and literacy development that characterizes good bilingual programs indirectly but powerfully aids students as they strive for a third factor essential to their success: English proficiency. Of course, we also want to teach in English directly, via high quality English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) classes, and through sheltered subject matter teaching, where intermediate-level English language acquirers learn subject matter taught in English.
The best bilingual education programs include all of these characteristics: ESL instruction, sheltered subject matter teaching, and instruction in the first language. Non-English-speaking children initially receive core instruction in the primary language along with ESL instruction. As children grow more proficient in English, they learn subjects using more contextualized language (e.g., math and science) in sheltered classes taught in English, and eventually in mainstream classes. In this way, the sheltered classes function as a bridge between instruction in the first language and in the mainstream. In advanced levels, the only subjects done in the first language are those demanding the most abstract use of language (social studies and language arts). Once full mainstreaming is complete, advanced first language development is available as an option. Gradual exit plans, such as these, avoid problems associated with exiting children too early (before the English they encounter is comprehensible) and provide instruction in the first language where it is most needed. These plans also allow children to have the advantages of advanced first language development.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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