The Pros of Bilingual Education

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

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.

Success Without Bilingual Education?

A common argument against bilingual education is the observation that many people have succeeded without it. This has certainly happened. In these cases, however, the successful person got plenty of comprehensible input in the second language, and in many cases had a de facto bilingual education program. For example, Rodriguez (1982) and de la Pena (1991) are often cited as counter-evidence to bilingual education.

Rodriguez (1982) tells us that he succeeded in school without a special program and acquired a very high level of English literacy. He had two crucial advantages, however, that most limited-English-proficient (LEP) children do not have. First, he grew up in an English-speaking neighborhood in Sacramento, California, and thus got a great deal of informal comprehensible input from classmates. Many LEP children today encounter English only at school; they live in neighborhoods where Spanish prevails. In addition, Rodriguez became a voracious reader, which helped him acquire academic language. Most LEP children have little access to books.

De la Pena (1991) reports that he came to the United States at age nine with no English competence and claims that he succeeded without bilingual education. He reports that he acquired English rapidly, and "by the end of my first school year, I was among the top students." De la Pena, however, had the advantages of bilingual education: In Mexico, he was in the fifth grade, and was thus literate in Spanish and knew subject matter. In addition, when he started school in the United States he was put back two grades. His superior knowledge of subject matter helped make the English input he heard more comprehensible.

Children who arrive with a good education in their primary language have already gained two of the three objectives of a good bilingual education program--literacy and subject matter knowledge. Their success is good evidence for bilingual education.

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