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.

For more information about bilingual education and English language acquisition, check out these online resources:

California Association for Bilingual Education: This site includes information about bilingual education issues in California, as well as related events, organizations and news.

California Department of Education Resources for English Learners: This site contains information about state policies related to English learners, as well as general reference information for bilingual education issues in the state.

The National Association for Bilingual Education: Founded in 1975, NABE is a nonprofit organization that addresses the educational needs of language-minority students in the U.S. and advances the language competencies and multicultural understanding of all Americans. This site provides information about NABE’s work related to bilingual education.

Education Week, Bilingual Education: This useful summary from Education Week includes links to relevant organizations, news articles and features about bilingual education throughout the United States.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition: NCELA, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students, collects, analyzes and disseminates information relating to the effective education of linguistically and culturally diverse learners in the U.S. This site describes the organization’s work and provides links to government resources in English language acquisition.

Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research: The CMMR is a research institution that studies and promotes issues related to bilingual education. This site provides links to papers and studies on the subject.