Bilingual education could make a comeback

July 29, 2014

By Lillian Mongeau

A Stanford University study of a 60,000-student district in California, which is unnamed as part of an agreement between researchers and the district, looked at 12 years of English learner data. Researchers found that many students enrolled in English immersion classes, which focus on teaching English and offer no instruction in students’ primary language, were reclassified as fluent in English before finishing elementary school, said Ilana Umansky, now an education professor at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study. That jump start didn’t help them in middle school, though, when their peers who had been enrolled in bilingual or dual immersion classes began getting reclassified and performed better on tests that measure academic proficiency.

“It makes sense, when you think about it, that students in an English-only environment would make more rapid progress in English, but students given a firm foundation in their own language would be better able to apply that language towards learning English and towards academic (pursuits),” said Umansky, who conducted the study with Professor Sean Reardon while earning her Ph.D. at Stanford.

In the district she studied, Umansky said that the families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and with less proficiency in English as kindergartners were more likely to choose bilingual or dual immersion programs for their children. Families who chose English immersion programs were often better off financially and knew more English when they started school. Nevertheless, students enrolled in programs that included instruction in their primary language throughout elementary school and often into middle school were able to demonstrate a more sophisticated command of English and stronger performances on tests measuring academic proficiency by the end of high school, Umansky said.

Though her study did not examine the reasons for the better long-term outcomes for students in bilingual programs, Umansky said other research suggests that students acquire transferable language skills and a better understanding of subjects like math and history by studying in their native language first. For example, a Spanish-speaking 6th grade student who already understands that every sentence needs a subject and a verb can transfer that knowledge to learning English. And an 8th grader who first learned about the Civil War in Spanish during elementary school would have some basis for understanding the conflict between North and South even if the subject was now being taught in English.