Dual-Language Education


Dual-language education, formerly called bilingual education, refers to academic programs that are taught in two languages (*Since the term bilingual education has negative associations, it is now more commonly called dual-language education, among other terms). While dual-language education has existed in the United States for roughly two centuries, and it reached it height of popularity in the 1970s, the use of dual-language education in public schools has declined significantly in recent decades due to legislative actions that have sought to limit its use, conflicting research on its benefits, pedagogical and ideological disagreements, and diminished funding and resources supporting the approach.

Students who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, who are not proficient in English, and who require specialized or modified language instruction, are known by a variety of names in the education community: English-language learners (ELLs), English learners (or ELs), limited English proficient (LEP) students, non-native English speakers, language-minority students, and either bilingual students or emerging bilingual students.

When used, dual-language education is generally seen as a way to ensure that non-English-speaking students, or students who are not yet proficient in English, are given equitable opportunities to succeed in and complete their education. While schools and teachers may use a wide variety of dual-language strategies, each with its own specific instructional goals, the programs are typically designed to simultaneously develop English fluency, content knowledge, and academic language—the knowledge, skills, and cultural proficiencies needed to succeed in an academic program.

There are few main forms of dual-language education:

  • Transitional programs provide students with some level of instruction in their primary or native language for a certain period of time—generally one to three years—before students transition into English-only instructional programs. They are known as “one-way” programs because they only serve one group—non-native English speakers.
  • Maintenance programs provide students with concurrent instruction in English and their primary language throughout their elementary-school years—typically pre-kindergarten through sixth grade—with the goal of developing English fluency and academic literacy in both languages. (Both transitional and maintenance programs include instructional strategies associated with English as a second language).
  • Two-way enrichment programs teach both native and non-native English speakers in two languages with the goal of developing bilingual fluency. In some cases, monolingual English-speaking students may be immersed in second-language instruction alongside native speakers of the language with limited English ability.

Although dual-language programs take a wide variety of forms from school to school, the programs generally include the following features:

  • Dual-language curriculum and instruction: Depending on the specific model being used, the curriculum is typically presented bilingually and may be divided into distinct blocks of time—e.g., day one in English, day two in Spanish, day three in English, etc. Instruction typically does not include straight translation from language to language—teachers move through the curriculum as they would in an English-only course. Students in dual-language programs are generally required to meet the same learning standards and graduation requirements as other students.
  • Bilingual teachers and instructional staff: If schools cannot employ bilingual teachers, they may pair monolingual English teachers with an assistant or educational technician who speaks the native language of the students in a class.
  • Dual-language evaluation: When possible or required, students entering dual-language programs will be tested in English and their primary language to determine their proficiency levels in English and their first language. Careful attention is given to their knowledge of both conversational language (the language used in social interactions) and academic language (the language used in educational settings).
  • Culturally and linguistically relevant learning materials: When available, students are given texts, videos, software applications, tests, and other instructional resources that are produced in their primary language, which may also include content and references that reflect the students’ specific cultural background.
  • Dual-language assessments and accommodations: When they are not being tested on their language proficiency, such as in a math course, dual-education students may be assessed in their primary language. They may also be given various testing accommodations, such as bilingual dictionaries or additional time to complete a test.
  • Bilingual orientation and liaisons: Incoming students and their families may be provided some form of orientation, particularly if the students are recently arrived immigrants or refugees who are unfamiliar with the expectations and culture of American public schools. Orientation sessions will be conducted in their native language, and bilingual students or staff members—sometimes called parent liaisons or home liaisons—may be assigned to maintain regular contact with the incoming students and their families.


As noted above, dual-language education has been in decline in the United States in favor of English-only instructional approaches such as English as a second language or sheltered English instruction.

Like multicultural education, dual-language education is predicated on the concept of equity—or the principal of fairness and equal educational opportunity in education. By providing modified language instruction and specialized academic support to non-English-speaking and limited-English-proficient students, it is believed, schools can accelerate their acquisition of English and academic literacy, as well as the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn in school. If limited-English-proficient students are denied instruction in their native language, the reasoning goes, schools reduce the students’ ability to understand what is being taught and meet the same learning standards as English-speaking students (there is strong evidence that the skills and concepts learned in one language can be transferred to another), which can give rise to learning gaps, achievement gaps, opportunity gaps, and other issues.

Bilingual education gained momentum following legislation passed by the United States Congress and a later decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. In the wake of reports on high dropout rates and low academic-achievement levels among non-English-proficient students, the Bilingual Education Act of 1967 began providing funding for transitional bilingual programs. In 1974, the Supreme Court’s Lau vs. Nichols decision—which advocates perceived to be as important to the education of non-English-speaking students as the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was for African Americans—stated that students whose primary language is not English do not have equal educational opportunity without specialized language instruction. While the decision did not recommend a particular remedy, the federal government publicly supported transitional bilingual programs throughout the 1970s.


Given the culturally sensitive and often ideologically contentious nature of the peripheral issues raised by dual-language education—including politicized debates related to citizenship status, English primacy, immigration reform, and employment and social-services eligibility for non-citizens—it is perhaps unsurprising that dual-language education has been the object of debate and controversy, or that there has been a steady erosion of support for the approach over the past three decades (a cultural shift that contributed to the abandonment of the term bilingual education). For example, a significant number of states have adopted “English as the official language” statutes, and citizen referendums have passed in other states prohibiting dual-language instruction except in special cases. In addition, states have generally favored English-only programs such as English as a second language and sheltered English instruction. While it is not clear how many dual-language programs now exist—or what models they use—the programs serve only a small proportion of English-language learners in the United States.

The issues of citizenship and fairness tend to be at the center of debates over dual-language education. Critics often argue that the use of the non-English languages in public school deemphasizes the role of English as a source of linguistic and cultural unification. While critics generally do not object to bilingualism—the ability to speak two languages—they often contend that dual-language instruction inhibits or delays the acquisition of English fluency. Advocates of the practice argue that when used judiciously and effectively—as in many two-way enrichment programs—dual-language education can improve academic achievement, educational attainment, and educational equity.

Given the wide variety of dual-language models and variations, researchers have found it difficult to conduct large-scale studies on their effectiveness, and the research that does exist has largely been inconclusive. Recent findings, however, clearly favor some form of native-language instruction, in tandem with English instruction, for students who are not yet proficient in English. Many proponents of dual-language education believe that the “non-compensatory” nature of two-way enrichment instruction contributes to the success of such programs, since they tend to inherently value, rather than stigmatize, the student’s linguistic and cultural background.

The following are a few representative examples of debates related to dual-language education:

  • Citizenship status and language policies: One of the central debates about dual-language education, and related language policies, is whether public schools should be focused on the assimilation and acculturation of non-English-speaking students, including students who may not have full citizenship status. (While most English-language learners are United States citizens, the conflation of language ability and citizenship status often motivates and complicates ongoing debates.) Both advocates and critics generally agree that all students should become fluent in English and that a bilingual citizenry is a worthy goal. Nevertheless, some educators, school reformers, elected officials, and policy makers do not see linguistic and cultural diversity as a valuable educational asset in schools. Opponents of dual-language education may argue that programs intended solely for language-minority students should be temporary, transitional, and assimilationist—i.e., that they should be designed to promote the cultural assimilation of students into mainstream American society. These critics may be unconcerned about students maintaining their native language and cultural connections, and they may also cite the growing number of non-English-speaking adults in the United State as evidence of a splintering within American society. Advocates, on the other hand, may argue that acculturation—which favors multicultural education and the maintenance of native language ability alongside the acquisition of English proficiency—would strengthen the country both culturally and economically.
  • Immigration: While most language-minority students were born in the United States and are full citizens, some critics believe that dual-language programs encourage illegal immigration. Advocates contend that there is no evidence for such claims, and that millions of eligible students would benefit from some degree of instruction in a language that they know and understand. Nonetheless, a handful of states have passed laws that criminalize the enrollment of undocumented immigrant students in public schools.
  • Curriculum, instruction, and assessment: Since limited-English-proficient students have to meet the same state-required learning standards and graduation expectations that apply to English-speaking students, dual-language education has significant implications for how students are taught. For example, textbooks and other instructional materials may be translated from English or produced outside of the United States, and English-language learners may be given accommodations on standardized tests that some might perceive to be unfair to other students. Since dual-language programs typically do not present both English and non-English versions of the same content—i.e., each lesson, unit, or school day is taught in alternating languages—there may be concern that less-proficient students could fall behind academically, lose motivation, or drop out of school. Some critics of dual-language education may cite examples of students remaining in these programs long after they achieve fluency in English, and they may also express concern about the separation of bilingual children from their English-speaking peers, which may delay assimilation. Proponents argue that what students are learning in their native language will transfer to their English instruction, and that teachers who cannot converse with their students will be unable to design meaningful instructional experiences for them.
  • Staffing and resource allocation: Since dual-language programs must have bilingual teachers or support staff, the practice may raise concerns about funding and hiring. For example, some districts might prioritize the hiring of bilingual educators, which may be perceived as unfair to other candidates and academic departments or to the students who will not benefit from additional teachers in other areas. (This type of staffing debate also intersected with ongoing debates related to affirmative action.)
  • Teacher preparation: As the number of language-minority students increased in the United States, it became clear that many teachers, particularly those from monolingual English backgrounds, were not well prepared to teach them—either in English or another language. As a result, schools, districts, universities, state departments of education, professional associations, and accrediting agencies began to develop a wide variety of policies and strategies to address the problem. Some states, for example, created specific teaching licenses and preparation requirements for dual-language programs. While some of these actions helped stabilize school staffing or improve instructional quality for some students, their inconsistent application often perpetuated the perception that limited-English-proficient students were being taught by unqualified teachers.
  • Parent participation: Because of the linguistic, cultural, and economic barriers faced by many language-minority parents and families, they may struggle to actively and meaningfully participate in their children’s education. Consequently, they may be unfairly perceived as uncaring or disengaged.
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