Bush’s Bad Idea for Bilingual Ed

The President proposes a three-year time limit for non-English speakers to attain 'English fluency'?

By Stephen Krashen

The most significant feature of President Bush’s new plan for bilingual education is the requirement that there be a three-year limit on bilingual education. As outlined in Bush’s education blueprint “No Child Left Behind,” after three years students must attain “English fluency” and schools “will be required to teach children in English after three consecutive years of being in school.”

Why would anybody think this is a good idea?

One obvious reason is the feeling of some people that children stay in bilingual classes too long. The media has certainly given the public this impression. On National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” on Dec. 18, reporter Claudio Sánchez said: “Too many [English learners], some say half, languish in bilingual programs for six years or more and never learn how to read or write in English.” This was followed immediately by two articles in The New York Times. Reporter Lynette Holloway wrote on Dec. 20 that in New York, “many students remain in bilingual education programs nine years or more.” Jacques Steinberg reported on Dec. 24 that “many students [take] six years or more to exit bilingual programs.”

The New York Times also announced in its Dec. 20 article that in New York City, “just 45 percent of the students who entered the bilingual programs in middle school and 15 percent of those who entered in high school achieved sufficient English proficiency to leave those classes during their school career.” This accusation was repeated in Newsweek on March 12.


These accusations are not true. There is no evidence that significant numbers of children are “languishing” in bilingual programs.

The New York City Board of Education recently issued a report on the progress of English learners in the New York City schools. The report shows that for children entering the New York school system in kindergarten and grade one (86 percent of the children studied in the report), only 14 percent were still in bilingual education after six years and only 10 percent remained in bilingual education after nine years. For children who spoke Korean, Chinese, and Russian, all were exited from bilingual education within five years. In Texas, according to my estimates (Krashen, in press), only about 7 percent of students who started early are still in bilingual education after grade five, and after grade eight practically no early starters are in bilingual programs.

Acquiring enough English to do grade-level classwork in a monolingual classroom is quite an accomplishment. It means knowing enough English to understand story problems, read textbooks, and write compositions and reports. This kind of knowledge of language is called “academic language,” and takes considerably longer to acquire than “conversational” language (Cummins, 1981).

But, one might ask, what about non-English speaking students who enter in high school?

The New York Times and Newsweek accusation — that only 15 percent of those who entered bilingual education in high school achieved English proficiency — is wrong. The New York Board of Education did indeed report that after four years of high school, only 15 percent of those entering at grade nine had acquired enough English to do classwork in the mainstream. But this figure included those in all-English programs as well as those in bilingual education. There is no evidence in the board report that bilingual education is less successful than all-English education in dealing with late-arriving students.

Late-comers face a daunting task: Many come with inadequate preparation in their country of origin and need to acquire English as well as assimilate years of subject matter knowledge. Many studies, including the Board of Education report, have confirmed that those who come with better preparation in their first language do much better in acquiring academic English. (For a review, see Krashen, 1999.)


Even if policy makers and the media were aware that “languishing” is not a problem, there still might be support for a time limit on bilingual education. There are several possible reasons for this and all, except one, are invalid. The one valid reason has a solution.

1. They may feel that bilingual programs are effective but that after three years children have already acquired English to do well in the mainstream. In other words, the children are being unnecessarily held back. One view is that they are held back by teachers and administrators who regard bilingual education as a cash cow and want more students in order to maintain their programs and their power. There is absolutely no evidence supporting this outrageous claim, which amounts to an insulting accusation of unprofessionalism. Moreover, bilingual educators have no need to increase the number of students in their programs: The number of new students arriving is enormous and constantly increasing. If anything, bilingual educators are suffering from having far too many students to deal with.

It could also be maintained that the students themselves are holding back. Here again there are several possibilities. One is that they have acquired a considerable amount of English but don’t want to leave the comfort of the bilingual education program, where things are easy (or more accurately, where instruction is comprehensible). Another is that they simply don’t want to acquire English and are resisting it. The first possibility is plausible; the jump from bilingual education into the mainstream can be difficult. The solution to this problem is programs that make the transition more comfortable and comprehensible (e.g., the gradual exit program, Krashen, 1996), not an arbitrary time limit. The second possibility, that children are resisting English, is simply false. The drive to acquire English is very strong and often results in a preference for English over the heritage language (Tse, 1998).

2. Politicians might feel that bilingual programs are simply not effective and that children, especially after the first three years, are much better off in all-English mainstream classes. This is not true. Nearly every published review of the effectiveness of bilingual education has concluded that bilingual education is at least as effective for the development of academic English as English-only alternatives, and is usually more effective (see especially Willig, 1985; Greene, 1999).

Nor is there any evidence that less bilingual education is more effective than more bilingual education. One study found that three years of bilingual education was more effective than two years (Saldate, Mishra, and Medina, 1985) while others have found that five years was just as effective as four years (Bacon, Kidd, and Seaberg, 1982) and three years was just as effective as two years (de la Garza and Medina, 1985). One study reported that students in a “late-exit” program that continued substantial instruction in the first language until grade six continued to show clear gains in English language development well after grade three. It concluded that “providing LEP [limited-English-proficient] students with substantial amounts of instruction in their primary language does not impede their acquisition of English language skills, but that it is as effective as being provided with large amounts of English” (Ramirez, 1992).

There is no evidence that children are “languishing” for excessive periods of time in bilingual education, no evidence that teachers and administrators are holding them back, no evidence that English immersion is faster, and no evidence that continued instruction in the primary language hurts English language development.

One must conclude that there is no evidence supporting the three-year limit on bilingual education. In fact, there is plenty of reason to drop all time limits. Instruction in the first language, at worst, causes no harm, and there is evidence that it accelerates English language development. Moreover, continued development of the first language has clear advantages. Numerous studies show that those who develop both languages to a high degree have cognitive advantages. Also, it is in the national interest to encourage bilingualism; we need, after all, interpreters, sales personnel, and diplomats (Krashen, 1998).


Bilingual education has done well, but it can do better. If the Bush administration is serious about improving English language development, here are some suggestions.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the absence of books, in both the first and second language, in the lives of students in these programs. Many limited-English-proficient children have little access to books in any language.

Following are data on Spanish-speaking children. The average Hispanic family with limited-English- proficient children has about 26 books in their home (Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, and Pasta, 1991). This refers to the total number of books in the home, including the Bible, cookbooks, and dictionaries. This is about one-sixth the U.S. average (Purves and Elley, 1992). School is not helping. In fact, school is making things worse. An investigation of school libraries in schools with strong bilingual programs in Southern California found that books in Spanish were very scarce (Pucci, 1994). Those that were available, while often of high quality, were usually short and for younger children.

The access problem is also present with respect to books in English; children from low-income families have little access to books in school libraries, public libraries, and their communities (Neuman and Celano, 2001).

Simply providing access to books does not guarantee reading, but there is no question that those with more access to books read more. And those who read more also read better, write better, spell better, and have larger vocabularies. In fact, it is now firmly established that reading for meaning, especially free voluntary reading, is the major source of our literacy competence (Krashen, 1993). Reading is also an important source of knowledge; those who read more usually know more.

When children read a lot in their first language, they build first language literacy quickly. It is much easier to learn to read in a language you understand, and once you can read, this ability transfers rapidly to other languages. Thus, developing reading ability in the first language is a shortcut to English literacy (Krashen, 1996). Once children can understand texts in English, free reading in English is a powerful tool for accelerating progress. Also, continuing to read in the primary language helps provide the advantages of bilingualism, mentioned earlier. In addition, more reading means more knowledge of the world and subject matter knowledge; more knowledge means better comprehension of English and faster acquisition of English.

My suggestion is a massive book flood in the child’s home language as well as in English, a suggestion that is relatively inexpensive to implement. Enriching the print environment is not the only recommendation one can make in discussing improvement of bilingual education, but it is a great place to begin.


Bacon, H., Kidd, G., and Seaborg, J. 1982. “The effectiveness of bilingual instruction with Cherokee Indian students.” Journal of American Indian Education. 21(2): 34-43.

Cummins, J. 1981. “The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students.” In C. F. Leyba (Ed.), Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, California State University Los Angeles. 3-49.

de la Garza, J. and Medina, M. 1985. “Academic achievement as influenced by bilingual instruction for Spanish-dominant Mexican-American children.” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. 7(3): 247-259.

Greene, J. 1997. “A Meta-Analysis of the Russell and Baker review of bilingual education research.” Bilingual Research Journal 21(2,3): 103-122.

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

Krashen, S. 1998. “Heritage language development: Some practical arguments.” In S. Krashen, L. Tse, and J. McQuillan (Eds.), Heritage Language Development. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates. pp. 3-13.

Krashen, S. 1999. Condemned without a Trial: Bogus Arguments Against Bilingual Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company.

Krashen, S. “How many children remain in bilingual education ‘too long?’ Some recent data.” NABE News. In Press.

Krashen, S., Tse, L., and McQuillan, J. 1999. Heritage Language Development. Century City, CA: Language Education Associates.

Neuman, S. and Celano, D. 2001. “Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities.” Reading Research Quarterly 36(1): 8-26.

New York City Board of Education. 2000. Chancellor’s ELL Education Report. Division of Assessment and Accountability. http://www.nycenet.edu.

Pucci, S. 1994. “Supporting Spanish language literacy: Latino children and free reading resources in the schools.” Bilingual Research Journal 18: 67-82.

Purves, A. and Elley, W. 1994. “The role of the home and student differences in reading performance.” In W. Elley (Ed.), The IEA Study of Reading Achievement and Instruction in Thirty-Two School Systems. Oxford: Pergamon. pp. 89-121.

Ramirez, D. 1992. “Executive summary (Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language-minority children).” Bilingual Research Journal 16 (1-2): 1-62.

Ramirez, D., Yuen, S., Ramey, D. and Pasta, D. 1991. Final Report: Longitudinal Study of Structured English Immersion Strategy, Early-Exit and Late-Exit Bilingual Education Programs for Language Minority Students, Vol. I. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

Saldate, M., Mishra, S., and Medina, M. 1985. “Bilingual instruction and academic achievement: A longitudinal study.” Journal of Instructional Psychology 12(1): 24-30.

US Government, 2001. Transforming the Federal Role in Education So That No Child is Left Behind. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/reports/no-child-left-behind.html#6

Tse, L. 1998. “Ethnic identity formation and its implications for heritage language development.” In S. Krashen, L. Tse, and J. McQuillan (Eds.), Heritage Language Development. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.

Willig, A. 1985. “A meta-analysis of selected studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education.” Review of Educational Research 55: 269-316.

Stephen Krashen is a professor of education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.