What the Rising Popularity in Dual Language Programs Could Mean for Dual Language Learners

Blog Post
Jan. 16, 2015

NYC public schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced plans this week to add or expand an additional 40 dual language programs in the Big Apple. She framed these programs as a way to boost school integration, increase global competence, and provide DLLs with improved support.

New York’s just the most recent place to invest more in dual language. Here in the nation’s capital, demand for dual language programs is surging: 13 elementary schools already offer such programs. Waiting lists for these programs are long — one school had 1,100 applicants for 20 slots — and advocacy supporting expanding dual language across the city is growing.

Dual language programs provide dual language learners (DLLs) with instruction in their native language and English with the goal of developing proficiency in both. Beyond that, design and implementation of these programs varies widely. In the District of Columbia, many programs enroll both non-native English speakers and native English speakers. These “’two-way” immersion programs integrate DLLs into classrooms with their native English-speaking peers. They also allow students with varying linguistic backgrounds to learn alongside peers who can model the language they are trying to learn. In contrast, “one-way” immersion programs enroll one language group, for example, native-Spanish speakers only.

What does the rising interest in dual language programs mean for DLLs? A growing body of research suggests these programs have significant, positive impacts on the development of DLLs’ English and native language proficiency and academic trajectories.

Drs. Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier have published extensively on the benefits of dual language programs on DLL’s academic growth using evidence from studies in North Carolina, and Texas. Their North Carolina findings are particularly noteworthy: they found that dual language programs produced higher ELA and Math score for all students and some narrowing of the achievement gap. And for those who might quibble about the inferences that can be drawn from descriptive data, there are several studies that use more robust statistical methods to highlight the effectiveness of dual immersion programs.

Recently, Stanford University researchers Rachel Valentino and Sean Reardon examined the academic achievement of dual language learners enrolled in four types of instructional programs: English Immersion (EI), Transitional Bilingual (TB), Developmental Bilingual (DB), and Dual Immersion (DI). Their study provided a unique picture of how instructional program type influences DLLs’ ELA and Math achievement trajectory from kindergarten entry through middle school. Importantly, it also captures variations between students of different ethnicities (Latino and Chinese) and initial English proficiency levels.

After controlling for student background, and other factors, the researchers uncovered differences in students’ short- and long-term academic growth. At the end of second grade, the ELA scores of students enrolled in dual immersion programs were significantly lower than the scores of those enrolled in English immersion programs. However, as these students progressed through school, those in dual immersion and transitional bilingual began to outperform their peers enrolled in English immersion. Test score growth rates of students in DI programs also “far out-pace[d]” those of language learners in other programs.

Notably, different programs impacted Latino and Chinese students in distinct ways. Chinese students did well in both dual immersion and English immersion settings. Valentino and Reardon suggested that the lack of structural similarity between Chinese and English means more time spent on English instruction may be uniquely beneficial for these students. Or it could be that the implementation of Spanish and Chinese bilingual programs simply differs.

Implementation matters as much as program goals and design. English immersion classes are designed to help language learners develop  English proficiency and are often criticized for limiting students’ access to academic content. By contrast, dual language immersion programs are designed to give students better access academic content through use of their home language. But delivering on any program’s design requires careful implementation.

Clearly, dual language programs hold promise in improving the educational outcomes of DLLs. The growing momentum around dual language programs could be an enormous opportunity for these students if states and school districts are careful to ensure access and fidelity of implementation. But we can’t start working on strong implementation until we get serious about creating and funding programs that treat DLLs’ bilingualism as an asset."