Why Bilingual Education? ERIC Digest.
by Krashen, Stephen
Bilingual education continues to receive criticism in the national media.
This Digest examines some of the criticism, and its effect on public opinion,
which often is based on misconceptions about bilingual education's goals
and practice. The Digest explains the rationale underlying good bilingual
education programs and summarizes research findings about their effectiveness.
When schools provide children quality education in their primary language,
they give them two things: knowledge and literacy. The knowledge that children
get through their first language helps make the English they hear and read
more comprehensible. Literacy developed in the primary language transfers
to the second language. The reason is simple: Because we learn to read
by reading--that is, by making sense of what is on the page (Smith, 1994)--it
is easier to learn to read in a language we understand. Once we can read
in one language, we can read in general.
The combination of first language subject matter teaching and literacy
development that characterizes good bilingual programs indirectly but powerfully
aids students as they strive for a third factor essential to their success:
English proficiency. Of course, we also want to teach in English directly,
via high quality English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) classes, and through
sheltered subject matter teaching, where intermediate-level English language
acquirers learn subject matter taught in English.
The best bilingual education programs include all of these characteristics:
ESL instruction, sheltered subject matter teaching, and instruction in
the first language. Non-English-speaking children initially receive core
instruction in the primary language along with ESL instruction. As children
grow more proficient in English, they learn subjects using more contextualized
language (e.g., math and science) in sheltered classes taught in English,
and eventually in mainstream classes. In this way, the sheltered classes
function as a bridge between instruction in the first language and in the
mainstream. In advanced levels, the only subjects done in the first language
are those demanding the most abstract use of language (social studies and
language arts). Once full mainstreaming is complete, advanced first language
development is available as an option. Gradual exit plans, such as these,
avoid problems associated with exiting children too early (before the English
they encounter is comprehensible) and provide instruction in the first
language where it is most needed. These plans also allow children to have
the advantages of advanced first language development.
SUCCESS WITHOUT BILINGUAL EDUCATION?
A common argument against bilingual education is the observation that
many people have succeeded without it. This has certainly happened. In
these cases, however, the successful person got plenty of comprehensible
input in the second language, and in many cases had a de facto bilingual
education program. For example, Rodriguez (1982) and de la Pena (1991)
are often cited as counter-evidence to bilingual education.
Rodriguez (1982) tells us that he succeeded in school without a special
program and acquired a very high level of English literacy. He had two
crucial advantages, however, that most limited-English-proficient (LEP)
children do not have. First, he grew up in an English-speaking neighborhood
in Sacramento, California, and thus got a great deal of informal comprehensible
input from classmates. Many LEP children today encounter English only at
school; they live in neighborhoods where Spanish prevails. In addition,
Rodriguez became a voracious reader, which helped him acquire academic
language. Most LEP children have little access to books.
De la Pena (1991) reports that he came to the United States at age nine
with no English competence and claims that he succeeded without bilingual
education. He reports that he acquired English rapidly, and "by the end
of my first school year, I was among the top students." De la Pena, however,
had the advantages of bilingual education: In Mexico, he was in the fifth
grade, and was thus literate in Spanish and knew subject matter. In addition,
when he started school in the United States he was put back two grades.
His superior knowledge of subject matter helped make the English input
he heard more comprehensible.
Children who arrive with a good education in their primary language
have already gained two of the three objectives of a good bilingual education
program--literacy and subject matter knowledge. Their success is good evidence
for bilingual education.
WHAT ABOUT LANGUAGES OTHER THAN SPANISH?
Porter (1990) states that "even if there were a demonstrable advantage
for Spanish-speakers learning to read first in their home language, it
does not follow that the same holds true for speakers of languages that
do not use the Roman alphabet" (p. 65). But it does. The ability to read
transfers across languages, even when the writing systems are different.
There is evidence that reading ability transfers from Chinese to English
(Hoover, 1982), from Vietnamese to English (Cummins, Swain, Nakajima, Handscombe,
Green, & Tran, 1984), from Japanese to English (Cummins et al.), and
from Turkish to Dutch (Verhoeven, 1991). In other words, those who read
well in one language, read well in the second language (as long as length
of residence in the country is taken into account because of the first
language loss that is common).
BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND PUBLIC OPINION
Opponents of bilingual education tell us that the public is against
bilingual education. This impression is a result of the way the question
is asked. One can easily get a near-100-percent rejection of bilingual
education when the question is biased. Porter (1990), for example, states
that "Many parents are not committed to having the schools maintain the
mother tongue if it is at the expense of gaining a sound education and
the English-language skills needed for obtaining jobs or pursuing higher
education" (p. 8). Who would support mother tongue education at such a
However, when respondents are simply asked whether or not they support
bilingual education, the degree of support is quite strong: From 60-99
percent of samples of parents and teachers say they support bilingual education
(Krashen, 1996). In a series of studies, Shin (Shin, 1994; Shin & Gribbons,
1996) examined attitudes toward the principles underlying bilingual education.
Shin found that many respondents agree with the idea that the first language
can be helpful in providing background knowledge, most agree that literacy
transfers across languages, and most support the principles underlying
continuing bilingual education (economic and cognitive advantages).
The number of people opposed to bilingual education is probably even
less than these results suggest; many people who say they are opposed to
bilingual education are actually opposed to certain practices (e.g., inappropriate
placement of children) or are opposed to regulations connected to bilingual
education (e.g., forcing teachers to acquire another language to keep their
Despite what is presented to the public in the national media, research
has revealed much support for bilingual education. McQuillan and Tse (in
press) reviewed publications appearing between 1984 and 1994, and reported
that 87 percent of academic publications supported bilingual education,
but newspaper and magazine opinion articles tended to be antibilingual
education, with only 45 percent supporting bilingual education. One wonders
what public support would look like if bilingual education were more clearly
defined in such articles and editorials.
THE RESEARCH DEBATE
It is sometimes claimed that research does not support the efficacy
of bilingual education. Its harshest critics, however (e.g., Rossell &
Baker, 1996), do not claim that bilingual education does not work; instead,
they claim there is little evidence that it is superior to all-English
programs. Nevertheless, the evidence used against bilingual education is
not convincing. One major problem is in labeling. Several critics, for
example, have claimed that English immersion programs in El Paso and McAllen,
Texas, were shown to be superior to bilingual education. In each case,
however, programs labeled immersion were really bilingual education, with
a substantial part of the day taught in the primary language. In another
study, Gersten (1985) claimed that all-English immersion was better than
bilingual education. However, the sample size was small and the duration
of the study was short; also, no description of "bilingual education" was
provided. For a detailed discussion, see Krashen (1996).
On the other hand, a vast number of other studies have shown that bilingual
education is effective, with children in well-designed programs acquiring
academic English at least as well and often better than children in all-English
programs (Cummins, 1989; Krashen, 1996; Willig, 1985). Willig concluded
that the better the experimental design of the study, the more positive
were the effects of bilingual education.
IMPROVING BILINGUAL EDUCATION
Bilingual education has done well, but it can do much better. The biggest
problem, in this author's view, is the absence of books--in both the first
and second languages--in the lives of students in these programs. Free
voluntary reading can help all components of bilingual education: It can
be a source of comprehensible input in English or a means for developing
knowledge and literacy through the first language, and for continuing first
Limited-English-proficient Spanish-speaking children have little access
to books at home (about 22 books per home for the entire family according
to Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, & Pasta, 1991) or at school (an average of
one book in Spanish per Spanish-speaking child in some school libraries
in schools with bilingual programs, according to Pucci, 1994). A book flood
in both languages is clearly called for. Good bilingual programs have brought
students to the 50th percentile on standardized tests of English reading
by grade five (Burnham-Massey & Pina, 1990). But with a good supply
of books in both first and second languages, students can go far beyond
the 50th percentile. It is possible that we might then have the Lake Wobegon
effect, where all of the children are above average, and we can finally
do away with the tests (and put the money saved to much better use).
Burnham-Massey, L., & Pina, M. (1990). Effects of bilingual instruction
on English academic achievement of LEP students. Reading Improvement, 27(2),
Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering minority students. Sacramento, CA: California
Association for Bilingual Education.
Cummins, J., Swain, M., Nakajima, K., Handscombe, J., Green, D., &
Tran, C. (1984). Linguistic interdependence among Japanese and Vietnamese
immigrant students. In C. Rivera (Ed.), Communicative competence approaches
to language proficiency assessment: Research and application, pp. 60-81.
Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. (ED 249 793)
de la Pena, F. (1991). Democracy or Babel? The case for official English
in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. English.
Gersten, R. (1985). Structured immersion for language-minority students:
Results of a longitudinal evaluation. Educational Evaluation and Policy
Analysis, 7(3), 187-196.
Hoover, W. (1982). Language and literacy learning in bilingual education:
Preliminary report. Cantonese site analytic study. Austin, TX: Southwest
Educational Development Laboratory. (ED 245 572)
Krashen, S. (1996). Under attack: The case against bilingual education.
Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.
McQuillan, J., & Tse, L. (in press). Does research matter? An analysis
of media opinion on bilingual education, 1984-1994. Bilingual Research
Porter, R. P. (1990). Forked tongue: The politics of bilingual education.
New York: Basic Books.
Pucci, S. L. (1994). Supporting Spanish language literacy: Latino children
and free reading resources in schools. Bilingual Research Journal, 18(1-2),
Ramirez, J. D., Yuen, S., Ramey, D., & Pasta, D. (1991). Longitudinal
study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit
bilingual education programs for language-minority children (Final Report,
Vols. 1 & 2). San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International. (ED 330 216)
Rodriguez, R. (1982). Hunger of memory: The education of Richard Rodriguez.
An autobiography. Boston: D. R. Godine.
Rossell, C., & Baker, R. (1996). The educational effectiveness of
bilingual education. Research in the Teaching of English, 30(1), 7-74.
Shin, F. (1994). Attitudes of Korean parents toward bilingual education.
BEOutreach Newsletter, California State Department of Education, 5(2),
Shin, F., & Gribbons, B. (1996). Hispanic parents' perceptions and
attitudes of bilingual education. Journal of Mexican-American Educators,
Smith, F. (1994). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis
of reading and learning to read (5th ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum.
Verhoeven, L. (1991). Acquisition of literacy. Association Internationale
de Linguistique Appliquee (AILA) Review, 8, 61-74.
Willig, A. (1985). A meta-analysis of selected studies on the effectiveness
of bilingual education. Review of Educational Research, 55, 269-316.