Translating language-based schools

Understanding what a language-based school is all about can seem as hard as learning a new language itself. In plain English, here's what you should know.

By David McKay Wilson

There’s Spanish, French, Mandarin, and then there’s the language that parents need to understand to assess that language-based school down the street.

Call it bilingual-ish.

In the past few decades, language-based education has blossomed in communities across the country. Now most major cities have at least a few language-based public or private schools offering one of any number of languages such as Spanish, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, even Haitian Creole. Not only do language-based schools represent diverse cultures, but diverse educational models, targeting very different kinds of students.

This has been a boon for parents eager to raise 21st-century global citizens, but the diversity of language-based programs has also led to a fair amount of, well, linguistic confusion.

Language-enriched schools

Some schools that advertise a special language focus may lie in districts where learning a foreign language in elementary school is not standard. But this special language focus could mean students get as little as 20 minutes of second language instruction per day. Children in these programs, which may be referred to as FLES, or Foreign Language in the Elementary School, are not expected to become fluent in the second language. Still, districts argue these programs promote an appreciation for diversity and other cultures.

The rigor of second language programs varies mightily: some schools treat the second language more as an enrichment class like PE or art — a fun way to get exposure to a second language. Other view the second language as integral to the core curriculum — with expectations that children do regular homework in the language, take tests, and make progress towards fluency.

In districts that have adopted second-language study as part of the curriculum for all elementary, middle, and high schools, schools may not identify themselves as language-based schools. Thus, you might find a STEM school that has more intensive language instruction than a language-themed school in a nearby district that doesn’t even offer second language opportunities to all its students.

Bilingualism for English-Language Learners

Bilingual schools are hardly new. For centuries, bilingual schools have been created in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the country. Today, the U.S. Department of Education characterizes the “bilingual education program” as "an educational program for limited English proficient students" that may include English-proficient students if the program aims to get all students proficient in both English and a second language.

The most common bilingual education program is Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE). Also called early-exit bilingual education, TBE students study other academic subjects — such as math or science — in their native language while over the course of about three years, they learn to speak and read in English. As the name suggests, the purpose of this program is to gradually facilitate an English-Language Learner (ELL)’s transition to a completely English taught curriculum.

Structured English Immersion (SEI) is another program that aims to prepare an ELL student for an English-only classroom. SEI places a greater emphasis on English instruction and teachers of such programs teach other subjects in English.

A less common form of bilingual education is Maintenance Bilingual Education (MBE), which doesn’t simply teach in the native language as a temporary bridge to English fluency, but to achieve proficiency in both languages. The goals of Maintenance Bilingualism, or late-exit bilingual education, are to preserve children’s long-term bilingual and bicultural identity. Whatever the case, these programs are not designed for native English speakers.

The rise of dual-language schools

Have you heard about an English-speaking kid who became fluent in a second language just by attending a certain school? Most likely, he or she attended a dual-language program, in which students are taught in two languages. First established in the 1960s, there are now more than 2,000 dual-language schools across the U.S., including 300 in New York State. Several types of programs fall under the dual-language umbrella: two-way immersion, foreign language immersion, heritage language immersion, and maintenance bilingual programs (even though these are not for native English speakers).

A large subset of these programs is two-way immersion programs, which are designed to foster bilingualism and biliteracy in both English-speaking children as well as non-English speakers. In these programs, teachers speak a portion of the day in one language and another part of the day in the other. With the 90/10 model of two-way immersion, for instance, 90 percent of instruction is in the second language and 10 percent is in English. Two-way programs require balanced student populations, meaning about one-half of the students are fluent in the second language, with the other half being native English speakers.

Foreign language or one-way immersion schools are designed to teach English-speaking children to speak, read, and write in a second language. In the U.S., if a public school is say, a French or Italian immersion school, chances are it’s one-way immersion, because there isn’t a big enough French or Italian population to make it dual-immersion.

In such schools, teachers switch between languages in a variety of ways depending on the program. For instance, some schools split each day — one language in the morning and one language in the afternoon — while others spend weeks in one language and then switch to another. So if you are looking at an immersion program, ask about the details and think about whether this model will work well for your child.

Finally, heritage immersion programs allow English-speaking students to develop literacy and maintain fluency in the language of their parents or grandparents.

Want your child to learn second language, but no schools in sight? Community/Saturday schools run by minority communities (Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, Greek) offer classes on the weekends to teach children proficiency in their family language.

Again, while other dual-language options are available, two-way immersion schools are gaining in popularity and have become one of the most popular models of dual-immersion programs.

What you might find in a two-way immersion school

  • Strict separation of languages: Classroom instruction — beginning in PreK or kindergarten — alternates between English and the foreign language (often Spanish). The instruction can be in English one day and Spanish the next. Other schools switch during the middle of the school day or in two-week language blocks. Yet others alternate the language by subject matter. But only one language is used during each period of instruction.
  • Good relations between English-dominant speakers and those learning English: Dual-language schools break down the cultural — and language — barriers between these two groups. Children feel at ease with each other because they can communicate in each other’s languages. Expect stronger parental involvement from the parents of both groups.
  • Biliterate children: Students can become biliterate — able to speak, read, and write in both languages. The brain is so open to language in the elementary school years, and learning two languages together encourages higher-order thinking to take hold at an earlier age.
  • Strong community support: Bilingual programs came under attack in the 1990s for failing to adequately teach English to immigrant children. Dual-language programs, however, were exempted from laws banning bilingual education in states like Massachusetts. In California, parents sign waivers allowing their children to participate in such programs. These schools found strong political support because they provide benefits for both English-speaking students and English language learners.

What supporters say

Dual-language schools create biliterate students at a time when their brains are very receptive to language acquisition. Language comes easy to children in elementary school. Dual-language schools develop strong multi-cultural ties within the student body and strengthen those ties in the community. Biliterate children have the language skills that are in high-demand in our increasingly globalized society.

What critics say

Studies have found that dual-language students in second grade who are learning English lag slightly behind their peers who were taught in English-only classes. Other critics say English-speaking students benefit more from dual-language schools than those learning English — arguing that the Spanish-speaking students are acting like tutors for the English-speaking ones.

Is a dual-language school right for my child?

Dual-language schools seem to work for a broad range of students — from new immigrants whose families want them to retain their mother tongue, to kids who come from bilingual households, to children whose English-speaking parents want them to have the biliteracy they could never provide at home.

These schools may not be the best for students with language-processing disabilities, although this is by no means a given. It’s also important for parents to feel comfortable with the dual-language concept and realize they may have trouble helping their child with homework in a language they don’t know.

A final word of advice

Research the options in your area and visit some of the programs from which your child can benefit. To get an even better sense if a given program will work for your child, talk to school officials and parents of children at the school. Finally, because immersion schools' scores tend to lag behind in earlier grades, check to see if fourth grade and fifth grade reading scores are catching up with English-only classrooms.