Does Bilingual Ed Work?

It seems logical: if a student needs to learn English, put them in an English-language classroom. But research and experience underscore the importance of bilingual education.

By James Crawford

Bilingual education is counterintuitive. Most people wonder: How could teaching students in their native tongue help them learn English?

Many assume the idea of bilingual education is to go easy on limited-English- proficient (LEP) children, to postpone the pain and confusion of acquiring a new language. They wonder if it wouldn’t be better to teach the students English quickly— through “total immersion” — so they can get on with their schooling. Won’t it lessen their motivation to learn by prolonging reliance on the first language?

Such attitudes sustained generations of “sink or swim” schooling. LEP students were placed in English-only classrooms, with no special help in learning the language and no access to the curriculum until they did so. Inevitably they fell behind English-speaking peers. Some caught up, but many failed and dropped out.

By the 1960s, a critical mass of educators and policymakers recognized the English-only approach was failing. Bi- lingual education seemed like a promising, if untested, alternative.

Three decades later, research has confirmed the wisdom of this view. Over the long term, programs that develop children’s native-language skills show beneficial effects on their English-language development and overall academic achievement.

Yet skepticism persists. During the Proposition 227 campaign, journalists repeatedly asked: “If bilingual education is effective, why are language-minority students — Latinos in particular — con- tinuing to fail and drop out at alarming rates?” There are several answers.

First, the shortage of trained staff has grown increasingly acute in states like California, where LEP enrollments have risen rapidly. As a result, well-designed bilingual programs have been provided to only a tiny minority of English learners.1

Second, research shows that students drop out for many reasons. Those who received bilingual education are more likely to stay in school.2

Finally, native-language instruction is hardly a panacea for the academic problems of Latino or Asian students — any more than it is for Anglo students. It is merely one variable among many that determines the success or failure of an educational program.

Nevertheless, bilingual education can be a crucial variable for many students learning English. Stephen Krashen, a linguist at the University of Southern California, explains how it works:

We acquire language by understanding messages, by obtaining comprehensible input. When we give children quality education in their primary language, we give them two things:

  1. Knowledge, both general knowledge of the world and subject-matter knowledge, [which] helps make the English they hear more comprehensible. This results in more English acquisition….
  2. Literacy, which transfers across languages. Here is a simple, three- step argument: (1) We learn to read by reading, by making sense of what we see on the page. (2) If we learn to read by reading, it will be much easier to learn to read in a language we already understand. (3) Once you can read, you can read. The ability to read transfers across languages.3 [Emphasis added.]

Thus, time spent studying in the native language is not time wasted in learning English. To the contrary, it supports English acquisition.

Like other researchers in the field, Krashen advocates English instruction from day one in bilingual programs, but at a level students can understand. Beginners acquire conversational English from hearing it used in simple, real-life contexts, such as music, art, and physical education.

Intermediate learners can benefit from “sheltered instruction” in English, lessons in science or social studies that are tailored to their level of second-language proficiency. Gradually, they acquire the complex English skills required to make a successful transition to the mainstream — typically by the fourth or fifth grade. The key point is that language acquisition is a natural, developmental process that cannot be rushed. Indeed, placing children in incomprehensible classrooms and drilling them in meaningless exercises is likely to slow them down.

Still, hopes for a shortcut to English die hard — as shown by Californians’ vote to mandate a one-year “English immersion” approach that has no support in educational research.

Critics say bilingual education has no support either, citing mixed results in program evaluation studies. It is true that such findings are less clear-cut than conclusions from basic research on second- language acquisition.

Scientific comparisons of program effectiveness, which must track student outcomes over several years and control for differences among experimental groups, are difficult to design and costly to execute. Relatively few such studies exist. The best examples, however, confirm hypotheses about the benefits of bilingual instruction.

Last year, using a sophisticated technique known as meta-analysis, a University of Texas study reviewed the scientific literature and found a small but significant edge for programs that used students’ native language over those that did not. Researcher Jay Greene determined that the more rigorous the evaluation, the more support it provided for bilingual education.4 This was true even though many of the comparisons were short- term and little was known about program design.

The last large-scale evaluation, released by the U.S. Department of Education in 1991, took a more controlled approach. It compared the outcomes of three distinct program types: English-only immersion, quick-exit (transitional) bilingual education, and late-exit (developmental) bilingual education. Students’ academic progress, charted in nine school districts over a four-year period, was most dramatic in the program that stressed fluent bilingualism. In the late-exit model, their achievement accelerated over time — almost catching up with that of English- speaking peers. In the other models, it leveled off well below national norms.5

Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, of George Mason University, recently reported similar patterns in a larger group of school districts. They found that LEP children fared best in “two-way” bilingual programs, learning alongside English-speakers acquiring Spanish.6 Thus far, however, the researchers have released limited data to support their conclusions — an issue that critics have been quick to seize upon.

In 1997, the National Research Council condemned the “politicized” debate over language of instruction. It recommended greater emphasis on “finding a set of program components that works for the children in the community of interest, given the community’s goals, demographics, and resources.”7

Nevertheless, the “what works” controversy is unlikely to subside anytime soon — at least not before policymakers support more extensive and rigorous studies comparing the range of program alter- natives for LEP students ■


1 California Language Census, summarized in James Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice, 4th ed. (Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services, 1998).

2 Stephen Krashen, “The Dropout Argu- ment” (1998), available online at: http:// krashen_dropouts.html.

3 Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education (Culver City, Calif.: Language Education Associates, 1996), pp. 3-4.

4 A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education(Claremont, Calif.: Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 1998). Greene’s results confirmed those of a similar study by Ann Willig in 1985, “A Meta-Analysis of Selected Studies on the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education,” Review of Educational Research 55: 269-317.

5 J. David Ramírez, Sandra D. Yuen, and Dena R. Ramey, Final Report: Longitu- dinal Study of Structured Immersion Strategy, Early-Exit, and Late-Exit Transitional Bilingual Education Programs for Language-Minority Children. Executive Summary (San Mateo, Calif.: Aguirre International, 1991).

6 School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students(Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1997) available online at: resource/effectiveness/index.htm.

7 Improving Schooling for Language- Minority Children: A Research Agenda (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997), p. 138.