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Bilingual Education: Overview and Online Resources

As the debate continues over how best to teach English language learners, here are resources to help you decide what's best for your child.

By GreatSchools Staff

Bilingual education means instruction in two languages. In general, however, it refers to a range of classroom strategies that include instruction in the student's primary language.

Bilingual education policies vary by state. In some states, students who require help learning English may be called "English language learners" or "limited English proficient"

In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, an initiative that limits non-English language instruction for students who are learning English. It requires that new English learner (EL) students be instructed in English in a special class for one year, after which students are mainstreamed into regular classes and possibly provided with extra support. After the first month of school, parents may petition a school to provide instruction in the students' native language as well as in English.

Bilingual programs are based on research showing that children will learn to read more quickly in English if they are taught to read in their native language first. For example, bilingual proponents believe that a 10-year-old student moving to the U.S. from Mexico who cannot read Spanish will have trouble reading English right away; the first step should be to teach him to read in Spanish, then to help him learn to decode English. While bilingual programs have been around for almost 100 years, recently they have come under fire due to concerns that children are not mastering English sufficiently. Opponents of bilingual education argue that the quickest path to helping students read and speak English is by immersing them in English.

Although educators may continue to debate bilingual education, if current political trends continue, schools and districts will be decreasing the emphasis on teaching students in their native language and focusing instead on teaching in English.

If your child is an English learner, you'll need to make up your own mind about what's right for your child. Since bilingual education policies vary by state, check with your district to find out more about how bilingual education is handled in your school and, if necessary, to advocate for appropriate bilingual policies in your community.

Comments from readers

"English language learner needs are only one side of bilingual ed- What about information for parents of chidren who they want to be immersed in a bi-lingual setting in order to develop facility with both languages and a respect/admiration for two or more cultures? "
"If you've legally moved here from Mexico or other Latin countries you should be learning English. If you are illegally here you and your progeny should be deported. U.S. citizens (those born to U.S. citizens or who've legally applied for and received U.S. citizenship) should be learning a second language beginning in pre-school and fluency in 2-3 languages should be a h.s. graduation requirement, both for analytical development and career competition."
"I came to the U.S. @ the age of 11 (5th grd) & was an english learner.(only knew a few english words). At the time only language spoken in class was PURE ENGLISH...including the playground staffs during lunch & recess. ..Not sure if it was a program at the time(1991) but the type of help I've received was a 30min-1hr/day, once or twice a week during class hours just to learn the basic english words used in a daily life (ex: the diff between a bag & a purse, above & below, etc.. from a sub teacher). This was my main learning tool frm school for everything else needed to compose a basic sentence & to actually speak it, I learned from other kids (as you pick up new words) & from HOME.....Now, I'm 30yrs of age, married w/3 wonderful kids, own a house in a great neighborhood & a dog.. Living the american dream here in this beautiful country which I call home, the USA. .. ...... Regardles of what is being taught at school, without practice at HOME with the help of the PARENTS, it'll be useless. All the tax payer's money, wasted.. & if the parents don't do anything about it, it reflects very, very poorly on the child. Can't really expect to learn how to speak english by speaking spanish @ school & at home do you? English Speaking ONLY environment does the trick. ..."
"my 6 year old started a language academy school in which he is doing science social studies in spanish as well as spanish itself...i am a bit concern because we are english speaking fam and the teacher says in his curriculum they cant do too much translation so we have to help him at home..but spanish is funny because if you type in a sentence and get the translation it is backwords and sometimes you have to make sence out of nonesence.. any suggestions?"
"I believe that too much emphasis is being given to teaching Spanish speaking children the English language and not enough emphasis on teaching English speaking children the Spanish language. I have learned that in the working world, bilingual employees are paid extra for being bilingual. I believe parents of English only speaking children should be given an opportunity to choose a second language the same as non-Spanish speaking parents. "
"Proposition 227 has been the downfall for ELL students in California. I was a bilingual teacher in your state before the passage of this initiative. I am a product of LAUSD and UCLA. I came back to teach a few years ago after the passage of your initiative. What a disgrace. I have 100% pass rate in a school similar to LAUSD school in Fort Worth. With dual language transitional bilingual education at our school, 88% of our ELL kids are passing the Texas TAKS Test in English! At least, 20% commended! Shame on California. It used to be the 'Golden State' in the 1960's and 1970's. I am about to assume an assistant principalship in an inner city school with a 96% poverty level, 71% ELL's 19% African American. Poverty is no excuse for mediocrity. Kids can achieve when instructed with proven pedagogy that works!"
"I moved to Italy with my 3 children when they where 5, 6 and 7 years old. We put in the local school where they did not speack a word of Italian. By the end of the year they where fluent in Italian. 3 years later we moved back to the US and my children had to learn to read and write in English, it took them about 4 month to learn. I happy to say that all 3 of my children graduated from hgh school with honors and are currently in college and doing fabulous! "
"immersion of ell learners in English, will only create students illiterate in two languages. Dual Language programs following 50/50 model with team teaching, have proved to be very successful in creating students literate in two languages."
"Hi, My family and I are moving to Phoenix area in the next months. We are from Mexico. I have two kids, the older is going to be 4 years early october, and the little one is just an almost 5 month old baby, so I don't think the moving will be a problem for him. But I am concerned about the big kid, since he does not speak english. I have been doing some research about english learners and schools but I still don't know for sure if all Arizona schools have the english learners programs (I think it is AZELLA) So it would be great if you help me to clarify this issue. Thanks a lot in advance for your kind help."