Teacher Perspectives on the Best Instructional Models for DLLs

Blog Post
Jan. 5, 2017

In November, California voters helped overturn the state’s English-only law and ushered in the promise of bringing multilingual education programs back to their 1.4 million dual language learners (DLLs). The vote was a bright spot for DLLs in an election marked by divisive, racist rhetoric against immigrants, refugees, Latinos and Muslims. California’s resuscitation of multilingual instruction provides yet another marker of the growing national trend towards dual immersion program expansion.

And while the push for dual immersion has largely been driven by researchers, advocates, and education policy wonks, a new study suggests that there is hardly a consensus on the most effective instructional model for DLLs. As Audrey Figueroa Murphy, Bruce Torff and David Sessions write in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, there are three different sides to the argument of what is best: the “right-leaning” folks who argue that English language development should be the focus of instruction; the “left-leaning” individuals who advocate for dual language to support the development of English and the home language; and those in the center who favor bilingual education that provides strong home language support up front and gradually transitions DLLs to English-only classrooms.

But what do the educators responsible for leading DLLs’ instruction believe? Figueroa Murphy, Torff and Sessions’s new study asks teachers to rate their support for five predominant DLL instructional models. These five models are:

  1. ESL Self-Contained: DLL students are provided with intensive English language instruction and academic instruction outside of the general education classroom with an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. These models are often used for students who enter school with relatively low levels of English and/or to group together DLL students with different home languages.

  2. ESL pull-out: DLL students remain in the mainstream classroom for academic content instruction but are pulled out into small groups for dedicated English language instruction with an ESL teacher.

  3. ESL push-in: DLL students receive targeted English language development from an ESL teacher who pushes into the mainstream classroom. That means DLLs are able to stay in their classroom all day and not run the risk of missing content area instruction.

  4. Bilingual education: DLL students receive core academic instruction in their home language with English instruction gradually increased over time. The goal of these programs is to transition students into English-only classrooms.

  5. Dual language: DLL students receive academic content instruction in both their home language and English. This model integrates DLL and non-DLL students with the goal of helping them develop bilingualism, biliteracy, and increased cultural competence.

A total of 366 teachers and administrators across five schools in a large northeastern city responded to the survey. Importantly, participants were asked to determine which instructional model was most effective for different populations of DLL students: 1) students with high levels of literacy in both English and their home language; 2) students with high literacy in their home language but low levels in English; 3) students with low literacy in their home language but high literacy in English; 4) students with low levels of literacy in both their home language and English. These distinctions are important, given the heterogeneity of the DLL student population. DLLs represent a broad spectrum of linguistic and academic skills and require differentiated services (see my colleague Janie Tankard Carnock’s recent paper on New York for more on this topic and how this can be done at the state and district level).

So what did the researchers find? First, ESL push-in and ESL pull-out were the least popular instructional models for DLLs of all levels of proficiency in their home languages or English. By contrast, respondents rated dual language models as effective for DLLs with strong literacy skills in English regardless of their level of proficiency in their home language. However, the finding was strongest for DLLs with high levels of proficiency in English and their home language. The researchers suggest that teachers may believe that strong proficiency in English and the home language provide students with an advantage in dual immersion programs that share core academic content instruction between both languages

Teachers preferred bilingual education for DLLs with strong literacy skills in their their home language and low levels of English proficiency. That’s likely due to the fact that strong home language skills were seen as an “asset” in settings where “the home language is used as an instructional vehicle for teaching content in core academic subjects,” write the authors. In other words, the surveyed teachers believe that DLLs’ home languages can be an “on ramp” to access rigorous academic content and support the transition to English.

ESL self-contained models were preferred for DLLs with low literacy skills in both English and the home language followed by ESL pullout and ESL push-in. This finding is interesting given that those models focus heavily on English language acquisition. The teachers’ preferences here may reflect the fact that students with low levels of literacy in English and their home language are often newcomers to the country. As the researchers suggest, self-contained settings may seem advantageous for these students due to low student-teacher ratios and intensive support provided. In our own research we have seen these models used for newcomer students (those who have been in the U.S. for a year or less and with very low English) as a way to help accelerate their English language development and equip them with the language skills necessary to navigate the school day.

To be sure, these findings are just the first step in uncovering teachers’ perceptions of the best instructional models for DLLs. The authors are quick to point out that more research should be conducted on why educators held these beliefs and how they align with their practices in the classroom and the policies of their districts. And importantly, how do teachers’ perspectives comport with the research?

Consider: while a growing body of research suggests that dual immersion models support DLLs’ English language proficiency and academic achievement, it’s unclear if there are differences in how these programs impact DLLs with varying backgrounds. Can educators expect similar results for DLLs regardless of: when they begin the program (e.g. elementary or middle school), their educational backgrounds (e.g. newcomer, immigrant, native born, interrupted education), and their level of proficiency in English and the partner language? Or is dual immersion most effective for students with high levels of proficiency in English as the participants in this study believed?

These are questions that will hopefully be explored further in research and practice. As the population of DLLs in U.S. schools continues to grow — in 2013 a full ten percent of public school students were DLLs  — states and districts will increasingly need to know what works best for different DLL subgroups in order to maximize their outcomes and ensure their future success.


This post comes from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”