Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Bilingual education has had a bumpy history, but now educators increasingly see the power of this approach. Educating children in both their native language and the language of their new homes helps them thrive.

Seventeen years ago, the opposition against bilingual programs — now more commonly known as dual language programs — was fierce.

“In 1998, Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and former gubernatorial candidate, set out to abolish bilingual education in California. Fueled by an anti-immigrant climate, Unz spearheaded a statewide campaign for Proposition 227, a highly controversial state initiative that required schools to teach language-minority students almost entirely in English,” an article in the Atlantic says of the recent policy history.

“The ballot measure passed with 61 percent of the vote and made California the first state to prohibit bilingual programs in schools, radically altering the education of hundreds of thousands of children. Now almost 17 years later, while the political tensions remain, a reversal is underway, powered largely by findings that bilingual instruction is what’s best for English language learners.”

As the article explains, research findings show that “two-language instruction is linked to numerous positive and long-term benefits, including stronger literacy skillsnarrowing of achievement gaps, and higher graduation rates.”

Research also shows that “two-language instruction is linked to numerous positive and long-term benefits, including stronger literacy skillsnarrowing of achievement gaps, and higher graduation rates. And the academic advantages of two-language programs even carry over to an unexpected group: children who only speak English at home. A Michigan State University study of Texas elementary students in 2013 found ‘a substantial spillover effect’ — higher math and reading scores — for children from English-only homes who were enrolled in schools with bilingual education programs.”

And despite Unz’s efforts in California, students in that state “are learning the three Rs in their native languages, aided by a provision that allows public schools to bypass Proposition 227 if parents sign a waiver. According to the state Department of Education, some 50,000 California children are receiving dual instruction in English and another language, including Armenian, German, Mandarin, French, and Korean. This is a small but growing segment of California’s 1.4 million English learners.”


Dual Language Learning in Texas and New York

According to a report from Texas Public Radio, “More than 17 percent of Texas’ public school students learned a language other than English first. There are a number of approaches to teaching these English language learners — many researchers consider dual language learning to be one of the most effective. They say it allows students to learn English while simultaneously helping them advance literacy in their native language.”

The report looks at a second grade classroom Passmore Elementary school, a dual language classroom where some students’ native language is English and others’ is Spanish.

“The goal is to help all the students become bi-lingual and bi-literate, by learning from the teacher, and each other.”

“Like today it will be Spanish reading, tomorrow it will be English reading,” second grade teacher Rosa Jonasz says. “So we just continue, so if they didn’t catch it today they will catch it tomorrow, so that’s why we try to make the connections between the two days.”

The story adds: “They also use that pattern with math, and science. It’s not just learning both languages. It’s learning how to learn in both languages.”

Howard Smith, a professor of bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says there are paradoxes in helping English language learners. Sometimes low income families are denied access to bilingual programs and told that they should just learn English.”

“But then you have these same students who are told forget Spanish,” Smith says, “they reach high school, and the high school counselor says you know if you want to get into college you have to have three years of a foreign language. Then you have kids named Gonzalez and Suarez who fail Spanish 1 in high school, because they are successful products of the system.”

“That’s why Smith says there should be more dual language programs, and they should continue through High School – which only one San Antonio district does. But he says there’s a lack of infrastructure – for programs to grow, every district would need way more bilingual teachers, and language materials.”

In New York City efforts are being made to expand bilingual pre-K programs, according to an article that ran in Chalkbeat New York earlier this year.

“For non-English-speaking families with preschoolers, bilingual programs remain few and far between, though the city is moving to rapidly expand both its pre-K offerings and dual-language programs over the next couple of years. Some parents and researchers are hoping the city combines those priorities to expand dual-language programs for its littlest learners. Until this happens, experts say, the city is missing an opportunity to teach bilingualism at an age when students’ brains are most adaptable.”

One of New York’s existing dual language pre-K programs is at P.S. 15 where Giselle Ruiz, a bilingual teacher, “will spend roughly half of the day teaching in Spanish, and half in English. The bookshelves are well-stocked with texts in both languages, and classroom decorations include Spanish and English words side by side. Children are expected to interact and play in both languages over the course of the day, with the goal that everyone will become bilingual over time.”

Look for dual language programs to grow as the research base expands and more and more students come to school speaking languages other than English.