Should your child enroll in a dual language program?

Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development? And why has this question become part of a national and local policy debate?

My son was five years old when we moved to a community piloting a dual language immersion program in the local public school district. The option was for first graders to voluntarily enroll in the French or Spanish program (programs in Japanese and Chinese would be added in subsequent years). Students would be learning in both English and a second language throughout the school day; the curriculum would be the same as in other classrooms, but students would have the opportunity to learn how to read, write, listen, and speak in two languages.

I liked the idea that my son could begin Spanish in the first grade, and stay with it through elementary, middle and high school (International High School was on the drawing board). When families signed up, the school let us know it might be confusing in the early years for our children to be learning in a second language, but we should not pull out of the program if this occurred. So we signed up for Spanish and my son stayed with it throughout the International High School. By third grade, the teachers told us if our children were dropped into a Spanish-speaking country, they would understand the local language even though they might not be able to speak it well. Over the years, as more native Spanish-speaking children (English Language Learners or ELLs[1]) moved to our town, the school district put them in the dual language program so they could further develop their Spanish skills and learn English. This is how my son learned a lot of his “street” Spanish —the kids happily taught one another the slang and swear words they were not learning in class from the teachers.

I have long wondered if my view that my son’s education was greatly enhanced because he participated in the 12 year language program is supported by research. So it was with great interest that I recently read several papers[2] produced by Ed Central at the New America Foundation on research, policies, and practices of dual language programs in U.S. public schools —and learned about efforts underway to inform a growing national and local debate— should school districts (and communities) continue dual language learning programs and grow more of them—or close them down?

Like so many public policy debates, there’s typically a “good” and “bad news” story. In this debate, the good news is that dual language programs are increasingly prevalent in school districts throughout the U.S. The bad news is, despite the trend toward expansion based on research showing significant, multiple benefits of these programs, many school districts are looking at these programs as “luxuries” that can be eliminated as schools face budget shortfalls.

Who wins and who loses in this situation? Consider the following three points.

First, the context. Dual language learners[3] are the fastest-growing group of U.S. school children—an estimated 7- 9 million are now under the age of eight. The 2015 Census data projections tell us that these numbers nearly double the most recent count of K-12 English language learners in the 2011-2012 school year (4.4 million). About 90 percent of the dual language learners are U.S. citizens who will be entering the nation’s workforce in the coming decade. School systems, therefore, play the key role in providing the educational supports for this group, and their literacy development and biculturalism is both a local and national priority. “Overall, 40 percent of immigrant families in the U.S. come from Mexico, but the remaining 60 percent come from all over the globe—including the Caribbean (7 percent), Latin America (13 percent), and Asia (19 percent).” While nearly three-fourths of the English language learners speak Spanish, another 149 languages are spoken among these groups. This tremendous diversity creates significant challenges for schools whose role is to instruct and assess dual language learners in languages other than English. And while schools in many states (e.g., California, New York, Texas) have long been supporting these students’ development, multilingual students have been arriving in large numbers to many more schools throughout the U.S. For example, the number of English language learners grew by over 600 percent in South Carolina and 306 percent in Kentucky during the first decade of the century.[4]

The demographic facts are compelling.

It’s not a choice ─ whether to educate dual language learners;

rather, the choice is how best to educate this diverse group of learners.

That said, do dual language programs in fact help children learn? There is substantial research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. The Springfield Public Schools (Oregon)[5] describes the following seven benefits as the district institutes a new dual language immersion program in Spanish:

  1. Children more easily learn a foreign language than adults and typically end up with a better understanding of their native language.
  2. English learners have an opportunity to make more progress on grade-level instruction — reducing the number who fall behind.
  3. Early foreign language learning increases achievement as measured by standardized testing.
  4. Young bilingual children show more critical thinking skills, greater sensitivity to language, and stronger communication and listening skills.
  5. Children develop a sense of appreciation for other cultures.
  6. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start in language requirements for college.
  7. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start for many jobs.

Ed Central’s summary of the research[6] informs us that “the benefits of bilingualism are countless and lifelong. Students who speak two languages have a longer attention span and stronger executive functioning. Increasing evidence suggests that bilingualism permanently alters neurological structures and slows down the decline in cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning as we age. Dual immersion programs also offer a host of non-academic benefits to all students. Finally, learning another language can increase tolerance, respect, and appreciation for other people and cultures.”

The research further informs us that “dual immersion programs, when designed and implemented correctly, are also the most effective way to teach English language learners. Multiple studies have confirmed . . . that dual immersion programs were most effective at closing the achievement gap between native English speakers and non-native speakers by eighth grade. Building home language proficiency in the early grades while simultaneously learning English can lead to higher academic success, especially when it comes to literacy. In immersion programs, English language learners’ native language is treated as a strength, not a deficit to overcome, which can positively affect student confidence and long-term socioemotional well-being.”[7]

“In Portland, Oregon, where dual immersion programs now reach almost ten percent of the student population, a new study just found that students enrolled in dual immersion outscored their peers in reading by an entire school year in eighth grade. In California, where Proposition 227 eliminated bilingual instruction options for most schools, there is continuing growth in dual immersion programs under a waiver program. Cities like San Francisco are now educating over 5,000 students in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, and Korean, and demand exceeds the number of seats in the programs. In New York City, council members . . . are teaming up to rapidly expand dual immersion programs, with 39 new programs this school year. They hope to eventually provide second-language instruction to all NYC students, and use dual immersion programs as an integration tool.”[8]

Research shows that dual language immersion programs serve children for whom English

is their native language + children whose native language is not English, 

giving both groups the opportunity to become fluent in a second language.

It also helps students better understand their native language and strengthens literacy,

communication and critical thinking — key skills for their academic and lifelong success.

Who wouldn’t want this for all our children?

What then is the public debate about? Communities throughout the U.S. are expanding their dual language immersion programs in response to the research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. Yet the case for starting and continuing these programs bolstered by this compelling research is not “always enough to sustain them in tough budget fights.”[9] There is still the widespread perception that dual language immersion programs are “luxuries” schools can afford to cut.

Ed Central offers us a case in point — the public debate in the Fairfax County Schools (Virginia) where a budget task force has recommended that all the dual immersion programs be eliminated next year in order to save an estimated $1.9 million. The debate is pitting needed budget cuts against preferred educational services needed by many students.

The Fairfax County School’s English language learner population is now the eighth-largest among school districts in the nation; and there are large numbers of students speaking various languages at home (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Urdu, Amharic, Telugu, and Farsi or Persian). The County Schools has addressed this diversity by implementing 16 dual language immersion programs at the elementary school level, where students spend half of their day learning science and math in one of five target languages: Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, and German.[10]

“With its growing ethnic and linguistic diversity — and considerable local resources — Fairfax County should be a model for dual immersion education. These programs provide the best education possible for ELLs, can attract upper- and middle-class parents in order to support socioeconomic diversity in the schools, and provide all students the cognitive and socioemotional benefits inherent in the ‘bilingual advantage’. Instead, there is a very real possibility that students will see their access to multilingualism cut short in June 2016.” Advocates for dual language programs can only conclude that “As districts across the country embrace dual immersion to promote academic achievement and equity, it’s an embarrassment that a county as diverse as Fairfax would even consider eliminating them. Dual immersion programs should not be considered luxury programs we can afford to lose, but the ideal way to educate children for the challenges of the twenty-first century.”[11]

The policy debate is both a local and national issue:

competing demands for scarce educational resources — 

who gets the preferred educational programs and why/why not?  

With these three factors in mind — our nation’s rapidly changing demography, findings from research, and policy considerations — let me return to the original question. Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development?

Answer this question for your own child and perhaps in doing so you will help to answer the questions of the national and local policy debate.

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[1]As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, English Language Learners (ELLs) are individuals who, due to any of the following reasons has sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language to be denied the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in the larger U.S. society: (a) was not born in the U.S. or has a native language other than English; (b) comes from environments where a language other than English is dominant; or (c) is an American Indian or Alaska Native and comes from environments where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency.

[2] See Ed Central, New America Foundation at < http://www.edcentral.org/dlls/>. New America Foundation is a public policy institute that addresses the next generation of challenges facing the U.S. Ed Central is written by staffers on New America’s Education Policy Program. DLL (dual language learners) is one area of focus.

[3] See https://www.desiredresults.us/dll/dual.html: The Office of Head Start defines dual language learners (DLL) as children who acquire two or more languages simultaneously, and learn a second language while continuing to develop their first language. The term “dual language learners” encompasses other terms frequently used, such as Limited English Proficient (LEP), bilingual, English language learners (ELL), English learners, and children who speak a Language Other Than English (LOTE)” (OHS 2009).

[4] Data from Dual Language Learners Reader Post #2: Who are Dual Language Learners? at  http://www.edcentral.org/dllreader2/ and Investing in What Works: San Antonio’s Success With English Language Learners at http://educationpost.org/investing-in-what-works-san-antonios-success-with-english-language-learners/

[5] http://www.springfield.k12.or.us/dualimmersion

[6] Dual Immersion Programs: Expanding and Endangered at http://www.edcentral.org/ffxdual/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Ibid.

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