In the United States, the term bilingual education generally refers to programs that provide support to students with limited English proficiency. Some of these programs teach academic subjects in the students’ home language (usually Spanish) while also requiring language-minority students to take classes in English as a second language (ESL). Other programs aim to teach English to language-minority students by immersing them in English-only classes. Still others are two-way, or dual-language, programs that aim for fluency in two languages—for example, such a program might simultaneously teach Spanish to English-speaking students and English to Spanish-speaking students. These major approaches have several variations, and districts and schools may use a combination of them.
Thus, when people argue over bilingual education’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness, they could be discussing different forms of bilingual education. In public debate, however, bilingual education usually refers to transitional bilingual education (TBE), which provides native-language instruction to non-English-speaking students in preparation for their eventual learning of English in mainstream classes. The goal of these programs is to help students become fluent in English.
In the United States, bilingual education in its modern form began in 1968 with Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funding to schools to help them meet the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability. Title VII, also called the Bilingual Education Act, was born out of the civil rights movement, which, among other things, sought to strengthen economic, political, and social opportunities for minorities. The Bilingual Education Act, together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was expected to help change attitudes toward immigrant groups and ease resistance to ethnic languages.
The Bilingual Education Act resulted in the implementation of TBE programs in more than half the states, particularly in districts and schools that had large immigrant (most often Hispanic) populations. TBE programs, in which students are instructed in their native language before being taught English, revived a trend from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when bilingual education thrived among the early European settlers who sought to have children instructed in their mother tongue. In 1968, however, bilingual education was envisioned as a way to help Spanish-speaking children who had limited or no skills in English and were doing poorly in school.
Support for bilingual education
Advocates of bilingual education marshal a variety of arguments in its defense. Key supporters of bilingual education—among them academics like Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University, Colin Baker of the University of Wales, Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, and Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto—emphasize the effectiveness of using students’ native language as a resource in learning a second language. They maintain that the use of the students’ home language helps keep them from falling behind their fellow students while learning English. They claim that the first language serves as a bridge on learning, and that knowledge acquired in one language transfers to the other language. This means that a child who is not fluent in English but is fluent in Spanish will learn English easily because he has already learned the foundational processes in the first language. The “knowledge-transfer” hypothesis rests on the premise that the process of reading is similar across languages, even though the languages and writing systems are different. As professor of education Stephen Krashen, author of Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education, explains,
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 by reading, that is, by making sense of what is on the page, it is easier to learn to read in a language we understand. Once we can read in one language, we can read in general.
Notice that Krashen uses the word quality; it is a word that practitioners of bilingual education often emphasize. They maintain that the most effective bilingual education programs are two-way bilingual programs. Such programs aim to teach both native speakers of Spanish and native speakers of English, attending the same classes, academic subjects in both languages. The students initially receive 90 percent of instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English, and then the amount of English increases with each grade. Supporters of these programs point to studies, such as the one by researchers Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia Collier at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, that document the effectiveness of two-way bilingual programs. Thomas and Collier reviewed student records from 1982 to 2000 and found that English-language learners do better academically over the long term if English is introduced slowly instead of being submerged in intensive English instruction in a regular classroom. They conclude that two-way bilingual programs are “the only kinds of programs that fully close the achievement gap between Englishlanguage learners and native English-speakers over the long term.”
Most advocates of transitional bilingual education also believe that quality entails a long transition period, which is defined as the period during which a student is taught academics in his or her native or home language before being transferred to mainstream English-only classes. Colin Baker of the University of Wales, who has done an extensive review of studies that measure the effectiveness of bilingual education, calls such programs “stronger forms of bilingual education.”
To advocates, quality bilingual education further requires welltrained, accredited bilingual teachers who effectively take charge of their classes. Finally, supporters of bilingual education maintain that effective native-language instruction requires parents’ consent and participation, low teacher-student ratios, adequate school facilities, administrative support, and other enabling factors.
The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), a major advocacy organization, admits there are existing bilingual education programs that do not meet the above requirements. James J. Lyons, former NABE executive director, mentions a few of them:
Some are bilingual in name only, staffed by monolingual English-speaking teachers with no professional preparation. . . . In a few instances, students have been assigned to bilingual education on the basis of an educationally irrelevant criterion such as surname. . . . In some localities, LEP [limited English proficient] students have been assigned to bilingual-education programs without the informed consent and choice of their parents.
Lyons argues that the existence of such malpractices does not warrant the elimination of a whole range of effective programs and the wholesale dismissal of the bilingual education policy.
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