A non-English speaker who walked into a U.S. classroom today may well feel at home. As the U.S. has become less monolingual, so has classroom instruction. Students today are just as likely to recite their multiplication tables in any number of languages other than English.
Over the past five decades, dual language programs in elementary, middle and high schools have grown from just one program in 1962 in Miami, Florida, to over 800 programs in public schools across the country. While that still represents a small percentage of U.S. schools, the popularity of such programs is not surprising. Bilingual literacy is not only regarded by educators as a critical tool for success in today’s global business environment; it has been shown to improve students’ overall abilities.
Although many bilingual programs have been established in high-achieving schools, a large number of dual language programs are aimed at students categorized as “at risk” for underachievement. Such programs integrate English Language Learners (ELL)—students who enter school speaking a language other than English— with native English-speaking (NES ) students in the same classroom for instruction in both languages. In these programs, the partner language (often Spanish, Mandarin or Korean) is used for a significant portion (from 50 percent to 90 percent) of the students’ instructional day.
In the 90:10 program, both ELL and NES students spend 90 percent of their day in the partner language, learning content such as math and social studies as well as how to read in that language. The remaining 10 percent of the day is conducted in English. The 90:10 split typically lasts in kindergarten and first grade. Each grade after that adds more English until the fourth grade.
By the fourth grade, students spend half the instructional day in English and half in the partner language (50:50) across all grade levels. Although the most common programs are at the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade levels, students in a few middle and even high schools continue to learn through the partner language.
While most programs include Spanish as the partner language, there is growing demand for other languages as well, particularly Mandarin. Other partner languages include Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian.
Initial demand for the program was prompted in the 1980s by the U.S. Department of Education’s interest in developing more effective programs for ELL students—who were failing to learn English proficiently and were thus underachieving—and in promoting more effective foreign language programs for NES students. In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. government provided several million dollars in funding through grants and supported research centers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Various states (especially California) also provided funding or other technical assistance, which enabled many schools to develop, implement and evaluate the success of their dual-language program.
Considerable research over the past 30 years on both the 90:10 and the 50:50 programs in public (and public charter) schools from preschool through high school have demonstrated the programs’ success. Both NES and ELL students who participate in dual-language programs achieve at levels that are at least comparable to, and often higher than, their peers enrolled in English-only instruction on standardized achievement and English-language proficiency tests.
Further, compared to their peers in English mainstream programs, middle and high school students in dual language programs are not only less likely to drop out of school; they are as or more likely to be enrolled in higher level math courses and to pass the high school exit exam. In a study I conducted in California, 88 percent of dual-language students versus only 58 percent of English mainstream students in the same state took higher level math courses in the tenth grade. The same study found that 82 percent of ELL and 100 percent of NES students in dual-language programs passed the high school exit exam—a higher passing rate than both the ELL (73 percent) and NES (87 percent) students in monolingual classrooms. And, of course, dual-language students have the additional benefit of being
bilingual and biliterate.
NES and ELL students who attain the highest levels of bilingualism tend to score higher on standardized reading and math tests compared to English-speaking students enrolled in English monolingual classrooms. However, research clearly demonstrates that these successful results are not always apparent until the fourth or fifth grade, especially for children who are educationally at risk. The reason: it takes time for children to fully develop skills in the two languages.
More recently, with increasing interest and connections with China, parents, policymakers and business and community leaders have pushed for more Mandarin programs. The state of Utah leads the nation in Mandarin programs after passing legislation in 2007 to establish 100 dual language programs that would enroll 30,000 students throughout the state by 2015. Since passage, the target date has been moved up to 2014. Mandarin is also emerging as a popular partner language due in part to support from the Confucius
Institute, a nonprofit public institution funded by the Chinese government.
Still, despite the success and popularity, the future of U.S. dual language instruction is cloudy. Funds available from federal, state and other sources are declining. That has limited the ability of local schools to pay for materials in the partner language, as well as to pay for the professional development of administrators and teachers who run the dual language programs. But dual language programs are critical for success in a globalized world. As former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt Jr. noted at the 2005 National Language Policy Summit, “If we have a well-educated workforce that knows the languages […] that can be one of the most powerful advantages of a state, of a community and of America.”