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Bilingualism, Biliteracy, and Best Practices in Dual-Language Instruction

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Effective strategies for dual-language instruction
Teacher in class

There’s much talk today in the education world around the value of becoming bilingual, or fluent in two languages. With an estimated twenty to twenty five percent of people in the US able to speak a language in addition to English, this topic seems compelling. Additionally, English learners (ELs) are the fastest growing student population in the country, with almost ten percent of all students (five million) in the United States identifying as an EL. Due to this influx of ELs in schools across the country, many educational programs have shifted to pursue effective English language instruction. 

Historically, bilingualism has not always been viewed as an asset in the United States. Since the late 1800s, events such as legislation restricting public instruction and individuals’ public use of languages other than English rendered bilingualism as a less-than desired trait. Perspectives today are slowly shifting as more companies and individuals view bilingualism as a valuable asset in the workplace and in the world.

Bilingualism vs. Biliteracy

While bilingualism means the ability to fluently speak in two languages, biliteracy denotes an individual’s ability to fluently speak, read, listen, and write proficiently in two languages. Today, many educational programs are focusing on pursuing biliteracy, including the recent creation of a Seal of Biliteracy award that students can earn upon high school graduation. To earn this distinction, students must participate in a five-year, rigorous, standards-based program and demonstrate mastery of listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in both languages on high-stakes assessments. 

Benefits of Bilingualism/Biliteracy

There are measurable benefits for both bilingual and biliterate students. Studies have shown bilingual individuals have stronger brains, better attention and task-switching capacities, adjust better to environmental changes, and experience less cognitive decline associated with aging. Additionally, bilingual individuals tend to be globally-minded citizens who develop multi-cultural understanding and are able to maintain strong familial and cultural ties via communication with native-language speaking family members. Lastly, 66% of employers said they would be more likely to hire a bilingual candidate over a monolingual one. 

Best Practices in Dual-Language Instruction 

student writing

Over the years, educational approaches for teaching ELs has evolved. For decades, educators relied on a strategy of “submersion,” where students were dropped into regular classrooms to fend for themselves. In the best submersion cases, a teacher with a degree in teaching strategies for English learners taught content areas with English as the main classroom language while discouraging first language use. In less-than-ideal situations, students were pulled out of regular instruction to learn English causing them to miss important educational content. 

A newer approach that has gained traction over the last twenty years is immersive EL instruction. Research has found that dual-language immersion, also known as dual-language education, is the most effective instruction model for teaching ELs literacy skills. With dual-language instruction, students are taught literacy and content in two languages—the student’s home language and a second language. The majority of dual-language programs in the US today are taught in English and Spanish.

Dual-language education can be done as one-way transitional immersion, referring to a classroom of students who share a home language, and as two-way immersion where students belong to one of two home language groups. “In one-way immersion, learning English by fifth grade is typically the goal whereas in two-way dual-language immersion the goal is to promote bilingualism, biliteracy, and biculturalism,” explains Stephen Fowler, Field Enablement Manager at Imagine Learning. Fowler, who has a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and speaks regularly about best practices for dual-language instruction at educational conferences around the country, says that two-way, dual-language immersion is a more inclusive approach that honors a student’s home language and culture. “One-way immersion instruction often leads to subtractive bilingualism, where a student loses some or all of their home language at the expense of learning the new language,” explains Fowler. “Two-way immersion programs honor both languages, seeing the home language of a student as an asset.”

Fowler describes one model of effective two-way, dual-language immersion programs as mirror programs. “On one side of a hallway students experience instruction in English from an EL teacher,” he describes. “On the other side of the hallway, they receive instruction in their partner language.” 

For example, on a Monday an EL teacher would instruct ELs in math, science, and social studies while their partner language teacher would teach language arts. Then on Tuesday, the teachers would flip the content they teach; the partner language teacher instructing in math, science, and social studies and the EL teacher teaching in language arts. “This involves a lot of planning and reinforcing of language lessons,” states Fowler. “Teachers must work together to determine what they’re teaching so they can support each other’s instruction.” 

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Implementing a strict separation of languages in a dual-language program helps students build their biliteracy skills. Strategic separation of languages involves the use of a meta-linguistic bridge which is typically structured time to help students identify features of both languages and clarify instruction. Visitors and administrators generally identify which language they will use to communicate with the student and are consistent throughout the student’s education. This way, the student doesn’t have to make a judgment or value call on which language is required or preferred. 

Additionally, a pro-bilingualism culture must be reflected throughout the school. Teachers and staff should participate in professional development that instructs in how to build language equity throughout the school so that there is no stigma directed toward any particular language. For example, bulletin boards, announcements, and interpersonal messages should reflect support for both languages.

According to an article by Dr. Jose Medina, Director of Global Language and Culture Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, there are three pillars for dual-language best-practices education. The instruction must promote bilingualism and biliteracy, pursue high academic achievement in both program languages, and develop socio-cultural competencies (the students’ knowledge of their own culture and cultures in the world). An example of a digital instructional program that reflects these dual-language pillars is Imagine Español. Imagine Español was created by Spanish speakers and is not translated from English. It is aligned with national standards of achievement, and exposes students to speakers, dialects, customs, music, art, geography, food, and local culture from various Spanish-speaking countries around the world. 

Results of Two-Way Dual Immersion Instruction

HS graduate

The benefits of participating in a best practices dual-language program are notable. Research found that EL students who were taught using two-way dual immersion experienced a notable bump in high-stakes assessment scores by fifth grade, with sixth-grade through eighth-grade students surpassing native-English peers’ assessment scores. By ninth and tenth grade, students who participated in an effective dual-language program through middle school demonstrated even further academic achievement. “Dual-language students sharpen their cognitive abilities as they are required to process and acquire literacy skills in two languages,” explains Fowler. 

And dual-language instruction doesn’t only benefit ELs. In fact, when any student learns a second language they experience gains from increased academic achievement to greater cognitive benefits and a more positive attitude toward speakers of the newly-learned language

Confounding Variables to Effective Dual-Language Education 

When establishing a dual-language instructional program, it is important to consider potential obstacles. One difficulty can be the time and energy needed for educators to coordinate instructional plans that consistently enforce the two-way immersion dual-language model. The hope is that when educators learn of the benefits for language learners, they will see that the sacrifices made are worth the end results. Teachers must also value biliteracy as an asset for their students in order to buy in to the work necessary to create an effective program. 

Additionally, although many people today adopt the view that being able to communicate in two or more languages is valuable there are still others who do not see biliteracy as an asset. These views are often based on historical views where English learners are seen as outsiders who should learn to fit in to an English-speaking America. The best remedy to this view is education and encounters with individuals from different backgrounds. Often, coming to personally know others from different walks of life dispels fears and reduces prejudices, allowing people to focus instead on their commonalities and see that everyone has a place in our society regardless of their differences.

Parents of second-language learners can sometimes be an obstacle to effective dual-language instruction. Some of these parents don’t understand the research around dual-language and resist this approach. Parents may believe that trying to teach their student a second language will slow the child down academically, though research has found the opposite. Native English-speaking parents may embrace the idea of dual-language but attribute a status to certain languages over others creating a perceived language hierarchy. Potential remedies to parental attitudes are holding a parent education event and informative conversations between parents, students, and educators.

When educators and parents support effective dual-language instruction for the student, language learners can feel included while gaining literacy skills in both languages. In our globally connected world, bilingual—and even multilingual—individuals will find they have increased opportunities due to their ability to fully operate in a variety of cultures in the US and around the world. 

For more information about how Imagine Español can be a part of an effective dual-language program, visit our Imagine Español page.

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