Bilingual education has been a part of education in the United States since its earliest beginnings. The various ethnic and cultural groups who have contributed to America's cultural mosaic have always understood that literacy and education were an integral part of success in the United States. In fact, the first piece of bilingual education legislation dates back to 1839, when the state of Ohio authorized the use of German-English instruction in public and private schools at a parent's request. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Act to provide federal funding to encourage local school districts to use native-language instruction. Bilingual education was adopted as nationwide policy in 1974, when the Equal Educational Opportunity Act was signed into law in an effort to ensure that children whose first language was not English had equal access to education, and to help them become fluent in the dominant language of business, government, and the public education system. As of 1990, the U.S. Census counted 6.3 million youth ages 5 to 17 who spoke a language other than English at home.
The basic principle of bilingual education is to use the student's native language to teach academic content while simultaneously providing additional English language instruction. In this way, limited English proficiency (LEP) students can learn English and still keep pace with native English-speaking students of the same grade level. The goal is to combine equal access and excellence in learning for all students.
Bilingual Education Models
There are three primary bilingual education models currently in use in the United States:
The transitional or early exit model emphasizes English language development and academic learning, using native language instruction to allow students to keep up with their peers academically while simultaneously acquiring English. Enrollment usually lasts three years; research indicates that this is the most popular method in use today.
The developmental or late-exit model focuses on the development of full bilingualism, encouraging oral fluency and literacy in both English and the student's native language, as well as academic learning. This type of program requires a longer period of study, typically lasting five or more years.
In two-way or dual immersion bilingual education, limited English proficient (LEP) students and native English-speaking students are placed in a developmental bilingual education environment that encourages collaborative efforts at language acquisition. The goal for both groups is to meet high academic standards and develop fluency and literacy in both languages. Like the second model, this type of bilingual education program lasts five or more years.
The alternative to bilingual education are "English immersion" methods--education models that do not use the student's native language as a basis for teaching them English. There are several types of English-only models.
English as a second language (ESL) instruction allows students to receive supplementary "pullout lessons" in English. There are two types of ESL classes: grammar-based ESL, which focuses on language structure, and content-based ESL, which emphasizes communication.
Structured or sheltered immersion classes use a simplified form of English, adjusted to the student's level of proficiency, as the language of instruction in all classes. Native language support is used minimally or not at all.
The submersion or "sink or swim" method was found illegal and outlawed in 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols. This method placed all children in regular English-language classrooms, regardless of English comprehension or literacy levels. Non-English speaking students were not provided with any additional English language instruction.
All good teaching uses the learning tools students already have as the basis for building new skills and acquiring new knowledge. Most children enter school with basic language skills, in English or other languages, already in place; it is up to qualified teachers to use those skills to help them develop the academic competence they need to succeed in life. Children learn more effectively if they learn English through the use of their native language, which provides a contextual basis for learning and allows them to keep pace with their peer group while acquiring the language they will need to learn in order to interact effectively in today's society.
There are several other distinct benefits to the use of bilingual education, besides its basic effectiveness. First, it preserves children's sense of pride in the language of their parents, allowing them to move freely in an English-language dominant society while retaining an important link to their cultural and linguistic heritage. It helps protect their sense of identity, which is also strongly linked to the language and culture of their family and heritage. Today, there are also economic advantages in bilingual fluency and literacy; many jobs pay higher salaries to their bilingual employees. In an increasingly global society, the ability to speak and write in several languages is becoming necessary to effectively compete in the job market. For more information on bilingual education, contact the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) at (202) 898-1829.
The National Latino Children's Institute would like to extend a sincere thanks to NABE for their donation of exhibit space at their 1998 Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas, Feb. 24-28. It is through the support of organizations such as NABE that Latino children will come to be recognized as valuable citizens of the United States.