The Benefits of Dual Language Education

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

More than a third of students in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) are not fluent in English, according to new research from Rice University's Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) and HISD. The survey found that the best way to help these students learn English involves teaching them in their native tongue.

HERC is part of Rice's Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Ruth Lopez Turley, a professor of sociology at Rice and the director of HERC, said that while this dual-language approach to education might seem counterintuitive to some, native Spanish speakers have more success learning English when instructors continue to teach them in Spanish as well. Students enrolled in HISD's "two-way" dual-language program (which includes instruction in both English and Spanish) had the best Spanish skills as well as the best English skills.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Sandra Alvear, a Rice graduate student who conducted analyses of the survey results, to learn more about this research. After spending several years pursuing a career in education research for urban school districts in Texas and Florida, Ms. Alvear returned to her hometown to begin a PhD program in sociology at Rice University. Currently in her fourth year of the graduate program, Ms. Alvear plans to further expand her research into college readiness among disadvantaged students, magnet school access, and immigrant incorporation.

The Benefits of Dual Language Education

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Please tell us about the findings for language learning, from the new study the Houston Education Research Consortium, a research partnership between HISD and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

There is an ongoing conversation across bilingual education researchers and practitioners regarding the best program model for educating English Language Learners, or ELLs. Within HISD, ELLs have access to any of four program models to acquire English: English immersion in which students opt out of bilingual education completely, transitional bilingual programs, and either of two dual language programs, which are one-way developmental, and two-way bilingual immersion. Transitional programs offer ELLs Spanish language instruction that tapers off in early grades in order to transition more quickly to English coursework. Dual language programs’ goal is for students to become fully bilingual, so their Spanish instructional components last throughout elementary school. Whereas one-way students are in class exclusively with Spanish-dominant students, two-way students have classes mixed with English-dominant and Spanish-dominant students.

The study followed a cohort of Latino kindergartners who entered school as ELLs in 2007-08. Among students in transitional, one-way, and two-way programs, we found that all students’ Spanish reading improved between kindergarten and grade 3. On average, Spanish reading growth was highest among two-way program students, and followed closely by transitional students. English immersion students were not included in this analysis because they do not take Spanish assessments.

We followed the same cohort of students (this time including bilingual program and English immersion participants) and measured their English reading achievement in grade 5. By grade 5, the highest English reading scores were reported among students who first participated in two-way programs.

What does this mean for language educators - and how can they work toward utilizing these findings in their own classrooms?

This work has important implications for schools and districts looking for ways to best serve ELL students. There is an ongoing debate in bilingual education over which program leads to the best student outcomes. We have evidence that two-way programs are doing a good job of developing students’ Spanish and English reading skills. Contrary to those who argue that developing Spanish skillsets prevents ELLs from learning English, this study shows that two-way students can catch up to and surpass English immersion students’ reading performance in English by grade 5. What shouldn’t be lost is that two-way students are gaining strong skillsets in not one but two languages, which will serve them well not only in their schooling but also in an increasingly competitive job market. Educators should  encourage their local schools and districts to incorporate two-way programs into their system to serve Spanish-speaking ELLs. For those who have yet to implement these programs, consider looking into the two-way program model and incorporating components of the framework.

What should language learners focus on, in terms of practical applications of finding two way, dual language learning opportunities?

In this study, HISD’s two-way program has demonstrated benefits. The detailed structure of these programs, teacher training, and curriculum implementation is easily accessible online through the HISD Multilingual Department’s site.

There’s no need to start from scratch when deciding to implement two-way programs; there are many successful two-way program models operating throughout the country. Educators should also consult with nearby districts and schools to learn about their successful bilingual  programs, as well as any state, federal, or local funding streams that they access.

The Benefits of Dual Language Education

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Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

While this research speaks to the Spanish-speaking ELL experience in elementary school, much work remains to be done in researching the best methods for instructing ELLs in middle and high school, as well as ELLs who speak languages other than Spanish.

Where can educators and language learners learn more about this?

Visit the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) website to learn more about this and other studies conducted through the research partnership between the Kinder Institute at Rice University and the  Houston Independent School District: