As a bilingual educator, I often find myself fighting an uphill battle in regards to bilingual education. Many people, including fellow teachers, do not see the need for bilingual education and advocate for English-only programs for speakers of other languages. Some states have even gone so far as to outlaw bilingual education, and as such, bilingual education has been pulled into the political realm. Most of the political debates are regarding immigration and link education in Spanish to illegal immigration, but the fact remains that students ultimately achieve greater rates of academic success when they are initially taught in their native language. Many skills (such as comprehension strategies) can be generalized and transferred from the native language to English. Bilingual education is necessary if we want our English Language Learners to succeed.
I have chosen to give a brief overview of some of the more successful models of bilingual education. I should note that bilingual education can, obviously, be applied to any languages, but for my purposes I am choosing to focus on Spanish and English.
Most schools in the U.S. follow the Traditional Bilingual Education (TBE) model. Students enter kindergarten in classrooms that have about 90 percent of instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English. As the years go by, the English instruction increases while the Spanish instruction decreases and students are “transitioned” into English-only classrooms (usually by the end of elementary school). This type of program has its drawbacks, but when there are no other options available, it is better than nothing.
One of the most successful bilingual programs is the dual-language model. In a two-way dual-language program, English and Spanish-speakers learn both languages. While the ratio of Spanish to English is similar to that of a TBE program in the lower grades, by third grade half the day is taught in English and half the day in Spanish. This continues in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade (and beyond, if possible). Students are never transitioned into all English classrooms.
The advantages of a dual-language program are numerous. English-speakers are taught Spanish from a young age, which is a huge benefit in the U.S. Additionally, both Spanish- and English-speakers are exposed to the “other”; dual-language programs emphasize cultural understanding and multiculturalism. One of the drawbacks of the TBE model is the fact that Spanish-speaking students are separated for many years which adds to racial and cultural divisions.
Perhaps most important is the fact that in a two-way dual-language program students become fully bi-literate. Students are learning to read and write in two languages and to maintain those academic skills in both. Another drawback of the TBE program is the fact that academic Spanish stops around second or third grade, so while students may continue to speak Spanish, they are not actively reading and writing it.
In the end, the research speaks for itself. Thomas and Collier’s seminal long-term study of various ESL and bilingual programs shows that the only program to successfully help students reach the 50th percentile mark were the dual-language models. I am asking you, fellow Persephoneers, to keep these facts in mind when listening to debates regarding the pros and cons of educating students in their native language.