Bilingual Education Works

Bilingual education is generally misunderstood - even though people appear to understand many of its underlying principles.

By Stephen Krashen

Arizona’s passage of Proposition 203 aimed at dismantling bilingual education confirms, once again, that a substantial percentage of voters is unaware of the facts about bilingual education. Specifically, much of the public is unaware that bilingual education is very good for English language development.

In my book Condemned Without A Trial: Bogus Arguments Against Bilingual Education, I analyze five myths surrounding bilingual education. Below I address two myths that played a particularly important role in the Arizona vote, and look at some of the confusion over recent media reports on bilingual education, especially in California.

Myth #1: Bilingual Education Keeps Students from Learning English.

Saying that educating children in their primary language will help them learn English seems to defy common sense for many people. But providing education in the first language can greatly help second language development. It does this in two ways.

First, when teachers provide students with solid subject matter in the first language, it gives the students knowledge. This knowledge helps make the English children hear and read much more comprehensible.

A child who speaks little English (referred to as “a limited English proficient student”) who is knowledgeable about history, thanks to education in the first language, will understand more in a history class taught in English than a limited English proficient child without this knowledge. The child with a background in history will learn more history, and will acquire more English, because the English heard in class will be more comprehensible.

Second, developing literacy in the first language is a short-cut to literacy in the second language. It is easier to learn to read in a language you understand; once you can read in one language, this knowledge transfers rapidly to any other language you learn to read. Once you can read, you can read.

In my interpretation of the research, programs that are set up correctly, that is, that supply background information in the primary language and that provide literacy in the primary language, and, of course, also provide instruction in the second language, typically succeed in teaching the second language.

English in these programs is introduced at the very beginning, in the form of English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) classes. As children acquire more English, and learn some academics through the first language, subject matter is introduced in English gradually, but as soon as it can be made comprehensible.

Controlled studies consistently show that children in such properly organized bilingual classes acquire at least as much English as those in all-English classes and usually acquire more (Willig, 1985; Krashen, 1996). The most recent review of this research was done by Prof. Jay Greene of the University of Texas at Austin, using statistical tools far more precise than those used in previous reviews. Greene concluded that the use of the native language in instructing limited English proficient children has “moderate beneficial effects” and that “efforts to eliminate the use of the native language in instruction … harm children by denying them access to beneficial approaches” (Greene, 1997).

Myth #2: Bilingual education failed in California.

A great deal of confusion was caused by newspaper articles that reported that after Proposition 227 passed in California, severely restricting bilingual education, test scores went up. This was widely interpreted as a victory for all-English immersion and a defeat for bilingual education. But this conclusion is incorrect.

First, test scores always go up when a new test is introduced (Linn, Graue, and Sanders, 1990). In California, the new SAT9 was introduced at the same time Proposition 227 passed. Linn et. al. note that scores increase about 1.5 to 2 points per year after a new test is introduced. Thus, test score inflation accounts for about half of the increase in grades two and three in the SAT9 reading test since 1998, and all of the increase in grades four through seven. It also suggests that SAT9 reading scores in California have actually declined slightly in grades eight through eleven.

Test scores increase for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are related to increased learning. Among the bogus means of increasing test scores are extensive training in test-taking skills and selective testing, i.e. excluding low scoring children from taking the test. Asimov (2000) suggests that selective testing may have occurred in California. She reported that for some schools in the San Francisco area SAT9 test scores increased in those schools in which the number of students taking the test declined. According to Asimov, “questionable pairings” appeared in 22 Bay Area school districts. Such bogus means are especially likely to be used when strong carrots (financial rewards for teachers if test scores go up) and sticks (threats of school closure if scores go down) are instituted by the state, as they are in California.

Second, there is no evidence linking test score increases to dropping bilingual education. Stanford professor Kenji Hakuta and his associates found, in fact, that test scores rose in districts in California that kept bilingual education, as well as in districts that never had bilingual education (Orr, Butler, Bousquet, and Hakuta, 2000; Hakuta, 2000). Ironically, in the same state that voted to dismantle bilingual education, Arizona, limited English proficient students in bilingual education have outscored those in all-English programs on tests of English reading for the last three years (Crawford, 2000).

A major problem is that nearly all the media focus has been on one district in California-Oceanside. After Prop-osition 227 passed in 1998, Oceanside dropped bilingual education, enthusiastically embraced English immersion, and test scores went up. But Hakuta and his associates have shown that gains for Oceanside’s English learners were similar to gains made in many California schools that retained bilingual education.

In addition, the bilingual program that Oceanside dropped was a poor one. In an article in the Sept. 2, 2000 Washington Post, Oceanside superintendent Ken Noonan confirmed that Oceanside’s “bilingual” program taught only in Spanish until grades five or six. It was therefore not a bilingual program, but a monolingual Spanish program. As noted above, properly organized bilingual programs introduce English the first day, and teach subject matter in English as soon as it can be made comprehensible. An article Oct. 5, 2000 in the San Diego Union Tribune confirmed suspicions that Oceanside’s pre-Proposition 227 efforts were dismal. Before 227, “a lot of students (at Laurel Elementary School) didn’t even have books,” the article noted (Parnet, 2000).


Similar controversy has arisen over recent reports from New York City. The New York Board of Education recently issued a report on the progress of English language learners that has been interpreted by many as evidence against bilingual education. A casual look appears to show that English-only has the edge: According to the report, for those entering in kindergarten, 84% of those in English-only “exited” (acquired enough English to enter the mainstream) within three years, while 73% of those in bilingual education did so.

One cannot conclude from these results that bilingual education did worse than English-only. As the authors of the study repeatedly note, there was no control for confounding factors. Most important is the effect of poverty. Students in bilingual education are more likely to be of lower socio-economic status than students in English-only programs (NCES, 1993). This tendency has been confirmed for New York City by Luis Reyes, a former member of the board of education in New York.

In commenting on a 1994 report from New York City, Reyes noted that “there were a number of middle class students in the ESL program who came from countries that were more developed …. kids in the bilingual program came from where they hadn’t had full schooling (in Hennelly, 1995).

Children who come to the United States with more education in their home country have several important advantages. In addition to having basic food, housing, and health needs adequately met, they live in a more print rich environment, which has a tremendous impact on school success (Krashen, 1993; McQuillan, 1998). Also, many older children from privileged backgrounds have actually had “de facto” bilingual education, that is, substantial literacy development and subject matter learning in their own language before arriving in the United States. Interestingly, the Board of Education also found that those who entered with greater competence in their first language exited more quickly than those with less. This is strong evidence for the positive impact of first language development.

It is also interesting to compare the results of the 1994 study and the recent report: For those entering at kindergarten in 1994, 79% of all English-only students were exited after three years. In the recent report, it is 84%. In 1994, for bilingual education, 42% were exited after three years. In the recent report, it is 73%. This is an amazing improvement, and is counter to claims that children typically “languish” in bilingual programs for years.


Surveys consistently reveal strong support for the use of the primary language in school (Krashen, 1996,1999). The research by Fay Shin of California State University at Stanislaus is particularly informative. Shin did not ask people if they supported bilingual education; instead, she asked about the underlying principles. For instance, she asked whether people thought “developing literacy through the first language facilitates literacy development in English” and whether ‘learning subject matter through the first language helps make subject matter study in English more comprehensible.” Results were encouraging; these principles apparently make good sense. Following are some of the results of Shin’s surveys:

Developing literacy through the first language facilitates literacy development in English.

Percent agreement:

Hispanic parents = 53% (Shin and Gribbons, 1996);

Korean parents = 88% (Shin and Kim, 1996);

Hmong parents = 52% (Shin and Lee, 1996);

Administrators = 74% (Shin, Anton and Krashen, 1999);

Teachers = 74% (Shin and Krashen, 1996).

Learning subject matter through the first language makes subject matter study in English more comprehensible.

Percent agreement:

Hispanic parents = 34% (33% were “not sure”) (Shin and Gribbons, 1996);

Korean parents = 47% (Shin and Kim, 1996);

Hmong parents = 60% (Shin and Lee, 1996);

Vietnamese parents = 64% (Young and Tran, 1999);

Administrators = 78% (Shin, Anton and Krashen, 1999);

Teachers = 70% (Shin and Krashen, 1996).

It is important to note that Shin’s subjects were not recent graduates of language education programs, or bilingual teachers.

What these results show is that people agree with the principles underlying bilingual education; the problem seems to be that they are not aware that bilingual education is based on these principles.

Of course, English language development is not the only goal of bilingual education. A second worthy goal is the continuing development of the first language. Research confirms that continuing development of the first language has a positive influence on cognitive development, has practical advantages, and promotes a healthy sense of biculturalism (see, e.g., Krashen, Tse, and McQuillan, 1998). But many people still think that the bilingual education “debate” is between rational people who think that children should learn English and irrational fanatics who think children should be prevented from learning English.

If the anti-bilingual education movement is to be stopped, this misunderstanding needs to be corrected immediately. We need to better get out the message that bilingual educators are deeply concerned about English language development and that properly organized bilingual education programs are very helpful for English language development.


Asimov, N. 2000. “Test Scores Up, Test-Takers Down: Link between participation, improvement on school exam prompts concern.” San Francisco Chronicle, Saturday, July 22, 2000.

Crawford, J. 2000. Stanford 9 scores show a consistent edge for bilingual education.

Greene, J. 1997. “A meta-analysis of the Rossell and Baker review of bilingual education research.” Bilingual Research Journal 21(3): 103-122.

Hakuta, K. 2000. Points on SAT-9 Performance and Proposition 227.

Hennelly, R. 1995. “NYC bilingual study clarified.” Multicultural Newsletter, People’s Publishing Group International.

Krashen, S. 1993. The Power of Reading. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Krashen, S. 1996. Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.

Krashen, S. 1998. Condemned Without a Trial: Bogus Arugments Against Bilingual Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Krashen, S. and Biber, D. 1988. On Course: California’s Success in Bilingual Education. Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Krashen, S., Tse, L., and McQuillan, J. (Eds.) 1998. Heritage Language Development. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.

Linn, R., Graue, E., and Sanders, N. 1990. “Comparing state and district test results to national norms: The validity of claims that ‘everyone is above average.'” Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 9: 5-13.

McQuillan, J. 1998. The Literacy Crisis: False Claims and Real Solutions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Multicultural Education Association, Maywood, NJ. 2,2:1-2.

New York City Board of Education. 2000. “ELL Subcommittee Research Studies Progress Report.” New York: Board of Education of the City of New York.

Orr, J. Butler, Y. Bousquet, M. and Hakuta, K. 2000. What can we learn about the impact of Proposition 227 from SAT9 scores? SAT9/SAT9_2000/

Parnet, S. 2000. “Test-score gains fill schools with pride.” San Diego Union Tribune, October 6, 2000.

Shin, F. and Kim, S. 1998. “Korean parent perceptions and attitudes of bilingual education.” In R. Endo, C. Park, J. Tsuchida and A. Abbayani (Eds.) Current Issues in Asian and Pacific American Education. Covina, CA: Pacific Asian Press.

Shin, F. and Gribbons, B. 1996. “Hispanic parent perceptions and attitudes of bilingual education.” The Journal of Mexican American Educators, pp. 16-22.

Shin, F. and Lee, B. 1996. “Hmong parents: What do they think about bilingual education?” Pacific Educational Research Journal, 8: 65-71.

Shin, F. Anton, M. and Krashen, S. 1999. “K-12 Administrators’ views on bilingual education.” NABE News 22(8):11-12,29.

Young, R. and Tran, M. 1999. “Vietnamese parent attitudes toward bilingual education.” Bilingual Research Journal 23 (2,3): 225-233.

Stephen Krashen is a professor of Education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. His most recent book on bilingual education, Condemned without a Trial: Bogus Arguments Against Bilingual Education, was published by the Heinemann Publishing Company.