Two Languages, Many Approaches external image cartoon.jpg

Imagine two children, for the sake of this discussion, called Miguel and Lupe. With Lupe, you can easily interact, expecting that she will reply to you coherently and confidently in English, but Miguel struggles. He responds only in Spanish and requires the translation of his Spanish-speaking friends to decipher your questions. Both native Spanish speakers and middle school students at Madero Junior High School, only one thing sets these individuals apart; Miguel has spent less than a year out of his discontinued bilingual education classroom, while Lupe joined the general education classroom nearly two years ago. With the extra push of an English-only classroom, this one year has made all the difference. Yet Illinois state law defends and actually requires the availability of bilingual education. Though the laws in most states do not demand bilingual education, many schools still find themselves blocked in attempts to try more progressive programs. In unraveling the historically tangled and ambiguous issue of educating English language learners (ELL’s), one sees not only how bilingual education has and does serve an ever more diverse community but also how those same groups might be served better.


For those whose memories are long enough, the trouble did not start with bilingual education but rather the fear of it, the later alone being unprecedented. Though bilingual education advocates tout their efforts as the reincarnation of the civil rights movement NABE, the interplay of English and non-English languages in schools started developing long before the 1960s. Porter notes that during the eighteenth century, American schools taught in a variety of languages, including German, French, Dutch, Greek, and a variety of Native American languages. The notion that a government should mandate the language of instruction, let alone the idea that that language should only ever be English, had not yet occurred. In the wake of WWI, however, nationalism gained value in public view, and patriots spoke English Porter.

external image 1zpn0q1.jpgFrom this point on, schools failed more and more to meet the needs of ELL students, and at the time of the Civil Rights movement, over half of Latino students were dropping out of school Crawford. One very important Texan, Senator Ralph Yarborough, filed a bill intended to help Latino students learn English, a bill which became the Bilingual Education Act of 1968. The act had a good run until 2002, when it was converted into the English Language Acquisition Act. Primarily, Crawford explains the new act as differing from former practices in that it values English language mastery as a priority and does not advocate for native language development as the Bilingual Education Act before it. Also, he points out that it provides for "accountability", measuring the rate at which students progress from ELL to English fluent status. The act includes ominously loaded terms such as "scientifically based research", which must now be the basis for the teaching methods a school chooses to implement Crawford. Still, Big Brother cannot come every day to school with ELL students to ensure he approves of their teacher's educational methods, and many schools continue to organize English and curriculum instruction as they can and see fit, always, it seems, to the liking or disliking of someone.

What is bilingual education?:

In evaluating the bilingual education option, participants in the discussion have sought out an operational definition for the teaching method about which they so heatedly disagree. Admittedly, there is no exact explanation of bilingual education. Technically, bilingual education is the use of two languages in instruction, but the term has historically been associated with preservation of native language and culture. Bilingual instruction is typically dominated by native language instruction, a stereotype confirmed for me during my interview with “Miguel”. "Sus profesores, hablan español?( Your teachers spoke in Spanish?)" I asked in my own inelegant Spanish. "La mayoria (Mostly)," he agreed.

Though no longer claiming a full scale bilingual program, Madero still refers to the three teachers which administer exclusively to English language learners in their school as their "bilingual program." These professionals are trusted to perform what they have termed “push in” or “pull out” services at their own discretion, meaning a professional will either enter a general education classroom as an aid or else pull a student out of general education for a period of time for bilingual instruction. Similar services are often provided by paraprofessionals in schools as well. For example, NABE states enthusiastically that it is not uncommon for a mother of a bilingual student to sit in on general education classrooms as an aid to ELL students of the same native tongue. Yet another, and indeed the most common form, of bilingual education occurs when ELL students of the same native language form a classroom parallel to that of general education.

What is agreed about bilingual education is that it usually takes the form of a separate classroom, where the general education curriculum is taught predominantly in the native language with a certain amount of time devoted to learning English.

ELL Education Styles:

Moreover, one must understand that bilingual education and monolingual English education are not the only options. Variations include:

  • Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE)
  • English as a Second Language (ESL)
  • Structured English Immersion (SEI) Perles

Rather than getting bogged down in the acronyms, especially as similar methods often occur under multiple terms anyways, ELL programs are better understood as schools of thought. It might serve well to see such things as a spectrum. Like an organically occurring rainbow, there is no clear cut boundary between classifications. There is always room for some red-orange and blue-green, but these grouping help communities understand where their schools stand on ELL education.

Transitional Bilingual Education:

TBE closely resembles bilingual education, though with a stronger emphasis on moving students from ELL status to English fluency. Such programs typically attempt to create an English speaker in three years or less and then surrender that student to general education.

English as a Second Language:

In ESL schools, the biggest concern for their ELL students is English language acquisition. Still, they do not want students falling behind in curriculum. Therefore students are spoken to in English for at least most of instruction, but the native language may still be used for clarification purposes and separate time is made for English language instruction.

According to Basoff, ESL is any program that is “traditionally specialized Bassoff. These students often have aids such as ELL sensitive instruction in the general education classroom or a professional or paraprofessional aid ensuring they are benefiting from the general education classroom. They are taught English vocabulary, conversation, and grammar at a separate time either outside of or in temporary interruption to the regular school day. While some students may receive one on one tutoring, others will be placed in a class devoted to English language learning, similar to the way in which native English speakers attend French or Spanish classes.

When a school's ELL policy most exemplifies some combination of these practices and the goal of speedy English acquisition without detriment to curriculum instruction, the school will usually claim to follow the ESL model.

Structured English Immersion:

Structured English Immersion, SEI, describes an intensive English language instruction class, normally lasting a year or so. In theory, students master English before returning to the general education classroom to receive curriculum instruction in English. English immersion programs may not always follow this strict, complete departure from curriculum instruction, nor will they always refer to themselves as SEI.

Yet in the youth of the SEI experiment, many schools feel more comfortable with a softer approach, placing students in general education, or else an all English classroom, where they will still receive curriculum instruction. The teachers of such classrooms are often trained in ELL sensitive strategies so that ELL students benefit from the school day as much as possible.

These hardliners of the ELL debate consider total immersion a necessary incentive to push rapid transition into English. Proponents of English immersion programs see English mastery as the key to accessing American education and society, and therefore value it above native language or cultural ties.

Arguments for Bilingual Education:

Compared to the efficiency boasted by other programs, bilingual education may appear lacking, yet a society based on tolerance must accept that bilingual education supporters often have a different view of success. For these individuals, test scores do not take center stage. Even English skills come second to the child’s sense of identity according to sources such as NABE. Rather than leaving children feeling that their native language and culture are somehow incorrect, needing to be replaced as rapidly as possible with language skills in the “right” language, bilingual educators demonstrate an equal value for both languages and help students develop a healthy sense of dual heritage NABE. Their website claims that bilingual classrooms allow these students to leave their minority status behind, even for just six hours a day and feel that their academic community relates to them on a personal level. This self-affirming atmosphere will theoretically motivate students to stay in school and master curriculum even while their English skills are still underdeveloped NABE. Terms that resonate with many bilingual educators are “biliterate” and “bicultural.” The key to both words lies in their equal emphasis on functioning both in the native language and culture as well as the adopted ones. To understand bilingual education, one must forgo the assumption that English is ultimately the more valuable language.
external image bilingualsignarizona1100.jpg
Unlike most ELL programs, bilingual education also considers the cultural knowledge their students will need to learn. For example, Hernandez asserts that people not only speak with different words, but use those words differently. If a teacher in an American classroom asks “Can you please sit down?” her pupils will understand they must sit down. To someone new to the country, however, her request may seem to leave him with options Hernandes. He can choose to sit down as his teacher recommends or continue to walk about the classroom. In misinterpreting the command as a question, the student will all too frequently gain himself a false reputation as defiant or inattentive. The American norm of personal space may communicate dislike to a foreign-born student, and cultural differences can frustrate the student’s efforts to form successful friendships, leading to feelings of isolation and inadequacy Hernandes. Bilingual education readies students to participate not only in mainstream American academics but also mainstream American society before throwing them into a sink or swim situation.

Often times NABE explains, what these programs are truly seeking is to protect ELL students. In the past, many students have been inappropriately placed in special education classrooms or else pushed through the system, exposed to repeated failure until these students chose finally to drop out NABE. Even when students are not intentionally being mistreated, some experts fear rapid English acquisition might come at the cost of mastering vital math or grammar skills. Professionals wonder if a child who has begun learning the structures of one language would not do better left to accumulate a firm understanding of this first language before being introduced to grammatical structures in a second language. Tension over this issue grew with studies of “critical learning ages” and research suggesting that certain basic concepts must be taught while a child is still at a specific point of development. Many bilingual education champions feel these basics, adding, grammar, etc, should be firmly secured in a student’s knowledge base before disrupting the child’s curriculum instruction with English language instruction. In some ways, bilingual education is a vote of no confidence for general education, an attempt to give ELL students a quality education in the only environment some choose to believe possible.

Research Support:

For some years, research seemed to support this belief. In February of 1991, Aguirre International published a study comparing and contrasting three forms of ELL education, structured English immersion and early and late-exit bilingual education. According to the conductors of the study, their observations successfully showed that none of these three programs was more effective than another.

They made the valid point that many early exit bilingual education and structured immersion programs held their students longer than the supposed two to three year expectation. Instead, students typically remained in these programs about five years, comparable to the goal set by late-exit bilingual education all along.

Additionally, late exit-bilingual education teachers tended to assign more appropriately challenging homework and ask students to practice higher-level-thinking more frequently. Parents were also more involved in these late-exit programs. The evidence in support of bilingual education was compelling, and such programs would remain popular for nearly twenty more years.

Arguments Against Bilingual Education:

As in all situations, however, the facts often change when someone else does the research. In recent years, many schools are rejecting bilingual education, supporting their decision with their own set of hard-hitting statistics, many of which can be found on the ProEnglish website.

  • In February of 1998, the Hispanic Dropout Project found that the dropout rate of Hispanic students had not decreased, despite the implementing of bilingual education programs in public schools ProEnglish. T
  • The National Center on Educational Statistics identified poor English skills as the strongest indicator of a student’s likelihood of dropping out in 1995 ProEnglish.
  • The transition into English often lasts five years or more NABE, a significant enough amount of time to call into question the effectiveness of the bilingual education model.
  • Arguably, bilingual education even functions as a method of segregation, keeping ELL students away from the general education classrooms Porter.

The “well, nothing is working much better” argument no longer flies as well as it once did, and communities have lost their patience with the slow progress and limited results of bilingual education.

In large part, Porter reveals that bilingual education actually defies the express wishes of ELL parents. In 1995, 150 parents filed a lawsuit against Brooklyn public schools, feeling that prolonged bilingual education programs were actually denying their children the opportunity to develop English proficiency. Though parents were legally free to enroll their children in general education classrooms, schools overwhelmingly designed against them, insisting the students would fail in English-speaking classrooms and strong-arming parents Porter.

Similarly, Ninth Street School in Los Angeles upset many Latino parents by requiring American-born Latino students to be fully literate in Spanish before receiving English language instruction. About seventy parents protested, arguing that English should be taught sooner, while children were at a prime age to learn a new language. Ironically, the school ignored their concerns and served their students with or without parents’ blessings. School policy bent only in 1996 after a boycott during which students were absent for nearly two weeks Porter.

While no opinion is unanimous, a survey conducted in 1988 by the Educational Testing Service demonstrated that a majority of households whose dominant language was something other than English still held English acquisition for their children as of higher importance than other skills such as native language development. Many expressed the view that the family bore the responsibility of native language and cultural education, not the schools. If schools want to address the specific needs of ELL students, it does not make sense for these accommodations to directly oppose the desires of their parents.

In further challenge to bilingual education, evidence now suggests that another education model does yield results after all.

  • Test reports in Arizona and California showed students in SEI programs gaining English fluency within an average of two years and achieving passing scores in math and reading ProEnglish.
  • The Lexington Institute published a study in 2008, declaring some of their highest performing students to be students whose native language was a language other than English.
  • Massachusetts reported in June of 2009 that seventeen of its forty-two past valedictorians had come from another country with no initial English skills.
  • District 76 of Diamond Lake, Illinois reported improved ELL academic performance after switching from bilingual education to SEI in 2008 ProEnglish.

In SEI, districts have found the hope they have long been searching for that an effective program does in fact exist to achieve swift, solid English language acquisition in a way that does not hurt students’ learning in other important areas such as writing, reading, or mathematics.


So, perhaps as policy makers shuffle bilingual education off its throne, structured English immersion will lead the charge as heir apparent. Even then, American schools remain phenomenally autonomous, and support for any one program in particular will always be mixed. Some schools will attempt to keep native languages out, while others will permit or even encourage them in varying degrees. Juggling always the value of native language and cultural pride with the goal of language acquisition, a district or community will always select a program which emphasizes the one they feel most important. In so many ways, Americans live lives of uniformity. A vending machine customer can trust his Snickers will be the same exact length and shape as his previous, and buying size four jeans at American Eagle means they will always fit perfectly. Unfortunately, children do not come in sizes, communities do not come in wrappers, and even the label a school chooses for their ELL education does not guarantee exactly what families can expect. Like politics, philosophy, or any other complicated issue, the wise man will decide his own values, try to understand those of others, and avoid generalizations.


Bassoff, Tobey Cho. "So What’s the Difference Between ESL and ELL?" Teachers Network. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
Crawford, James. "Obituary: Bilingual Ed Act, 1968-2002." Rethinking Schools Online. Rethinking, 8 Jan. 2002. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
Hernandez, Berthalina. "ELL/ESL: Notes from the National Association of Bilingual Education Conference." Teachers Network. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
Kansas State Department of Education. "LAU Remedies." Welcome to KSDE. KSDE, 19 June 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
Malone, Tara. "Illinois First State to Require Bilingual Program in Public Preschools." Washington Post., 3 Oct. 2010. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
National Association for BIlingual Education. "Is Bilingual Education Effective?" NABE - HOME., 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
National Association for BIlingual Education. "NABE - BilingualEd." What Is Bilingual Education?, 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
National Association for Bilingual Education. "Why Is Bilingual Education Controversial?" NABE - HOME., 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
Perles, Karen. "ESL vs Bilingual Education: The Arguments." Bright Hub Rebecca Scudder, 17 July 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
Porter, Rosalie Pedalino. "The Case Against Biligual Education - 98.05." The Atlantic News and Analysis on Politics, Business, Culture, Technology, National, International, and Life –, May 1998. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
ProEnglish. "Bilingual Education." ProEnglish | The Nation's Leading Advocates of Official English. ProEnglish. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.
Rethinking Schools. "Bilingual Education Is a Human and Civil Right." Rethinking Schools Online., 2002/2003. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.