What is Bilingual Education?
 Why Bilingual Education?
 Is it Effective?
 Politics of Bilingual Education?

What Is Bilingual Education?

Bilingual education has been practiced in many forms, in many countries, for thousands of years. Defined broadly, it can mean any use of two languages in school – by teachers or students or both – for a variety of social and pedagogical purposes.

In today’s context, a period of demographic transformation in United States, bilingual education means something more specific. It refers to approaches in the classroom that use the native languages of English language learners (ELLs) for instruction.

Goals include any combination of the following:


How does bilingual education work?

In different ways, because numerous program models are used. These are often classified as transitional, developmental, or two-way bilingual education, depending on the program’s methods and goals. But within these short-hand categories there are significant variations:

Sometimes the transition to the all-English mainstream is rapid (one to three years), sometimes gradual (five to six years).

Classrooms may be composed entirely of ELLs, or they may include native English speakers who are learning Spanish, Chinese, Navajo, or some other language.

Students are sometimes taught a full curriculum in their native language and in English. Elsewhere ELLs may receive only native-language support – periodic translations or tutoring – with lessons conducted primarily in English.

  Why Bilingual Education?
       ERIC Digest by Stephen Krashen

Stephen Krashen is professor of education (emeritus) at the University of Southern California and author of  Condemned Without a Trial: Bogus Arguments Against Bilingual Education (1999). He wrote this Digest for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools in Charleston, WV, in 1997. The publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

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.

Putting It All Together

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.

What About Languages Other Than Spanish?

Porter (1990) states that "even if there were a demonstrable advantage for Spanish-speakers learning to read first in their home language, it does not follow that the same holds true for speakers of languages that do not use the Roman alphabet" (p. 65). But it does. The ability to read transfers across languages, even when the writing systems are different. There is evidence that reading ability transfers from Chinese to English (Hoover, 1982), from Vietnamese to English (Cummins, Swain, Nakajima, Handscombe, Green, & Tran, 1984), from Japanese to English (Cummins et al.), and from Turkish to Dutch (Verhoeven, 1991). In other words, those who read well in one language, read well in the second language (as long as length of residence in the country is taken into account because of the first language loss that is common).

Bilingual Education and Public Opinion

Opponents of bilingual education tell us that the public is against bilingual education. This impression is a result of the way the question is asked. One can easily get a near-100-percent rejection of bilingual education when the question is biased. Porter (1990), for example, states that "Many parents are not committed to having the schools maintain the mother tongue if it is at the expense of gaining a sound education and the English-language skills needed for obtaining jobs or pursuing higher education" (p. 8). Who would support mother tongue education at such a price?

However, when respondents are simply asked whether or not they support bilingual education, the degree of support is quite strong: From 60-99 percent of samples of parents and teachers say they support bilingual education (Krashen, 1996). In a series of studies, Shin (Shin, 1994; Shin & Gribbons, 1996) examined attitudes toward the principles underlying bilingual education. Shin found that many respondents agree with the idea that the first language can be helpful in providing background knowledge, most agree that literacy transfers across languages, and most support the principles underlying continuing bilingual education (economic and cognitive advantages).

The number of people opposed to bilingual education is probably even less than these results suggest; many people who say they are opposed to bilingual education are actually opposed to certain practices (e.g., inappropriate placement of children) or are opposed to regulations connected to bilingual education (e.g., forcing teachers to acquire another language to keep their jobs).

Despite what is presented to the public in the national media, research has revealed much support for bilingual education. McQuillan and Tse (1996) reviewed publications appearing between 1984 and 1994, and reported that 87 percent of academic publications supported bilingual education, but newspaper and magazine opinion articles tended to be antibilingual education, with only 45 percent supporting bilingual education. One wonders what public support would look like if bilingual education were more clearly defined in such articles and editorials.

The Research Debate

It is sometimes claimed that research does not support the efficacy of bilingual education. Its harshest critics, however (e.g., Rossell & Baker, 1996), do not claim that bilingual education does not work; instead, they claim there is little evidence that it is superior to all-English programs. Nevertheless, the evidence used against bilingual education is not convincing.

One major problem is in labeling. Several critics, for example, have claimed that English immersion programs in El Paso and McAllen, Texas, were shown to be superior to bilingual education. In each case, however, programs labeled immersion were really bilingual education, with a substantial part of the day taught in the primary language. In another study, Gersten (1985) claimed that all-English immersion was better than bilingual education.

However, the sample size was small and the duration of the study was short; also, no description of "bilingual education" was provided. For a detailed discussion, see Krashen (1996). On the other hand, a vast number of other studies have shown that bilingual education is effective, with children in well-designed programs acquiring academic English at least as well and often better than children in all-English programs (Cummins, 1989; Krashen, 1996; Willig, 1985). Willig concluded that the better the experimental design of the study, the more positive were the effects of bilingual education.

Improving Bilingual Education

Bilingual education has done well, but it can do much better. The biggest problem, in this author's view, is the absence of books – in both the first and second languages – in the lives of students in these programs. Free voluntary reading can help all components of bilingual education: It can be a source of comprehensible input in English or a means for developing knowledge and literacy through the first language, and for continuing first language development.

Limited-English-proficient Spanish-speaking children have little access to books at home (about 22 books per home for the entire family according to Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, & Pasta, 1991) or at school (an average of one book in Spanish per Spanish-speaking child in some school libraries in schools with bilingual programs, according to Pucci, 1994). A book flood in both languages is clearly called for.

Good bilingual programs have brought students to the 50th percentile on standardized tests of English reading by grade five (Burnham-Massey & Pina, 1990). But with a good supply of books in both first and second languages, students can go far beyond the 50th percentile. It is possible that we might then have the Lake Wobegon effect, where all of the children are above average, and we can finally do away with the tests (and put the money saved to much better use).



Burnham-Massey, L., & Pina, M. (1990). Effects of bilingual instruction on English academic achievement of LEP students. Reading Improvement, 27(2), 129-132.

Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering minority students. Sacramento, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.Cummins, J., Swain, M., Nakajima, K., Handscombe, J., Green, D., & Tran, C. (1984). Linguistic interdependence among Japanese and Vietnamese immigrant students. In C. Rivera (Ed.), Communicative competence approaches to language proficiency assessment: Research and application, pp. 60-81. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.De la Pena, F. (1991). Democracy or Babel? The case for official English in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. English.Gersten, R. (1985). Structured immersion for language-minority students: Results of a longitudinal evaluation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 7(3), 187-196.

Hoover, W. (1982). Language and literacy learning in bilingual education: Preliminary report. Cantonese site analytic study. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

Krashen, S. (1996). Under attack: The case against bilingual education. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.McQuillan, J., & Tse, L. (1996). Does research matter? An analysis of media opinion on bilingual education, 1984-1994. Bilingual Research Journal, 20(1), 1-27.

Porter, R. P. (1990). Forked tongue: The politics of bilingual education. New York: Basic Books

Pucci, S. L. (1994). Supporting Spanish language literacy: Latino children and free reading resources in schools. Bilingual Research Journal, 18(1-2), 67-82.Ramirez, J. D., Yuen, S., Ramey, D., & Pasta, D. (1991). Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit bilingual education programs for language-minority children (Final Report, Vols. 1 & 2). San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.Rodriguez, R. (1982). Hunger of memory: The education of Richard Rodriguez. An autobiography. Boston: D. R. Godine.

Rossell, C., & Baker, R. (1996). The educational effectiveness of bilingual education. Research in the Teaching of English, 30(1), 7-74.Shin, F. (1994). Attitudes of Korean parents toward bilingual education. BEOutreach Newsletter, California State Department of Education, 5(2), pp. 47-48.

Shin, F., & Gribbons, B. (1996). Hispanic parents' perceptions and attitudes of bilingual education. Journal of Mexican-American Educators, 16-22.

Smith, F. (1994). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read (5th ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawence Erlbaum.Verhoeven, L. (1991). Acquisition of literacy. Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquee (AILA) Review, 8, 61-74.Willig, A. (1985). A meta-analysis of selected studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education. Review of Educational Research, 55, 269-316.

Does Bilingual Education Really Work?

Literally hundreds of scientific studies over the past half century have shown that bilingual education – when well designed and well implemented – is an effective approach for teaching second language learners. These findings have been consistent across numerous national borders and languages of instruction, all pointing to the conclusion that bilingual education "works."

To cite just one example, a major longitudinal study released in 1991 by the U.S. Department of Education found that the more schools developed children's native-language skills, the higher they scored academically over the long term in English. Students also benefited from acquiring fluency and literacy in two languages.

Of course, simply using two languages in the classroom is no panacea. Bad teaching is bad teaching in any language. What matters is how the languages are used – simply to provide translations or to stimulate students' cognitive and academic growth. What are the program's goals – a "quick exit" to the mainstream or the development of fluent bilingualism and biliteracy? Are teachers well trained to meet the needs of English language learners (ELLs)? Does the school provide adequate resources, materials, and support services? Are parents involved in their children's education? Is the program supported by the local school board and district administrators?

It is important to know that not all programs labeled "bilingual" are the same. Some feature only limited use of children's native language, often provided by teacher aides with limited training. Others set arbitrary limits on the length of time that children can spend in bilingual classrooms, transferring them to regular, all-English classrooms before they are ready. An increasing number of schools, under pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act, have narrowed the curriculum to focus exclusively on test preparation in language arts and math.

By and large, such programs have fared poorly in research studies as compared with programs that stress children's cognitive growth and bilingual abilities. Nevertheless, all these approaches are often lumped together in research designed to compare the effectiveness of bilingual education with all-English instruction for ELLs. In such cases, when good programs and bad programs are averaged together, the results are typically mediocre.

By contrast, when research is designed to test the theories underlying bilingual education, the programs have shown to be quite effective. Here are three recent examples:

Ramirez et al. (1991). This federally funded study traced the progress of more than 2,000 Spanish-speaking ELLs in nine school districts in five states over a four-year period. It found that students in developmental bilingual programs – which featured a gradual transition to English – significantly outperformed their counterparts in quick-exit, transitional bilingual programs and in all-English immersion programs when all three groups were tested in English.

Oller and Eilers (2000). The researchers compared 952 students in Dade County, Florida, enrolled in bilingual and English immersion programs. It reported that bilingual children scored higher in English literacy by 2nd grade – a gap that widened significantly by 5th grade.

Thomas and Collier (2002). Another federally funded study, this research confirmed the patterns reported by Ramirez et al. ELLs in Houston did better academically in programs that stressed native-language development. They fared best in two-way – a.k.a. dual immersion – programs in which English-speaking children learned Spanish alongside ELLs learning English.

Facts vs. Fallacies

Like many scientific findings, the research supporting bilingual education is often counter intuitive. That is, it contradicts what seems obvious to laypersons. Using Spanish-language instruction as part of a program to teach English sounds a bit like: "Go West to arrive in the East." These ideas make more sense when one realizes that the world is round, not flat. Or that proficiency in a second language does not develop separately in the brain, but builds on proficiency in the first language.

Why Is Bilingual Education Controversial?

For many Americans, bilingual education seems to defy common sense – not to mention the Melting Pot tradition. They ask:

If non-English-speaking students are isolated in foreign-language classrooms, how are they ever going to learn English, the key to upward mobility?

What was wrong with the old "sink or swim" method that worked for generations of earlier immigrants?

Isn't bilingual education just another example of "political correctness" run amok – the inability to say no to a vociferous ethnic lobby?

Some English Only advocates go further, arguing that even if bilingual education is effective – which they doubt – it's still a bad idea for the country because bilingualism threatens to sap our sense of national identity and divide us along ethnic lines. They fear that any government recognition of minority languages "sends the wrong message" to immigrants, encouraging them to believe they can live in the U.S.A. without learning English or conforming to "American" ways.

Such complaints have made bilingual education a target of political attacks. Among the most serious to date are ballot initiatives in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts mandating all-English instruction for most children until they become fully proficient in English. These arbitrary restrictions on bilingual education have dismantled effective programs and made it harder for educators to serve English language learners.

No doubt many of the objections to bilingual education are lodged in good faith. Others reflect ethnic stereotypes or class biases. Sad to say, they all reflect a pervasive ignorance about how bilingual education works, how second languages are acquired, and how the nation has responded to non-English-speaking groups in the past.


         Here are a few facts that everyone should know about bilingual education:

  • Teaching English is among the chief goals of every bilingual program in the United States, along with promoting long-term academic achievement in English and – in some cases – enabling children to develop fluent bilingualism and biliteracy.
  • The effectiveness of bilingual education in meeting these goals has been well established by research over the past three decades – not only for English language learners but also for native-English speakers acquiring another language.
  • The English-only, "sink or swim" method was a cruel failure for generations of immigrant and Native American children, leading to low academic achievement and high dropout rates. That's why the Bilingual Education Act was passed – with overwhelming bipartisan support – in 1968.
  • Bilingual education is closely associated with the civil-rights movement of that period. But it has a long history in this country dating back to the Colonial Period. During the 19th and early 20th centuries native-language instruction was at least as widespread as it is today – except that German, not Spanish, was most commonly used.
  • English was not "threatened" then or now. In two or three generations immigrants and indigenous minorities learned English and often lost their native languages.
  • Linguistic assimilation is, if anything, more rapid today than at any time in U.S. history. The trend is evident in the latest Census reports, and it's nothing to be applauded. Today, more than ever, we need multilingual skills to enhance national security and prosper in a global economy.


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