new study: Two-way dual language programs best for English language learners

September 29, 2015

The findings may strike some as counterintuitive, but a new study, released jointly by Rice University and Houston ISD, found that the most effective way to help non-native speakers acquire English is to teach them in their first language.

Houston ISD provides Spanish-dominant English Language Learners (ELLs) with several educational programs options in elementary school. Ryan Holeywell from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research explains:

Parents of ELLs may forego any type of bilingual education for their children and simply place them in the same classes as English-speaking students in hopes that they’ll pick up on the language.

They can enroll their ELL children in a short-term, transitional program. The program initially provides instruction in both languages but is primarily designed to move students from being Spanish speakers to being English speakers as quickly as possible.

A third option is a “one-way” dual language program that exclusively focuses on Spanish-native speakers but includes instruction in both Spanish and English. The goal is to produce students who are fluent in both languages.

Lastly, there are “two-way” dual language programs that include both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers in the classroom. Instruction occurs in both languages. By the time they complete the program, both types of students are expected to be fluent in both languages.

The study, which tracked the test scores of a cohort of ELL students beginning in kindergarten in 2007, measured student performance on Spanish and English reading tests. Of the four options, ELL students enrolled in the two-way program developed superior Spanish and English skills. As summarized by Education Week, the study further found:

  • Through 3rd grade, ELLs in two-way programs demonstrated higher Spanish reading scores and slightly faster growth than their peers in other bilingual programs.
  • ELLs in two-way programs had consistently higher English performance in grade 5.
  • With additional program exposure (greater than one year), two-way students met and surpassed the performance of students whose parents opted out of bilingual or dual-language programs.
  • Regardless of the type of bilingual program, ELLs who participated in their original program for approximately four years (through grade 3) had the highest English reading achievement.

The most effective way to help non-native speakers acquire English is to teach them in their first language.

While Spanish-dominant parents may believe their children will learn English more quickly by being immersed in English in a traditional classroom, this study suggests that’s not true. The combination of classroom instruction in their dominant language and the interaction of peers from English-dominant families seems to create the environment most conducive to ELL students’ success. If you’re interested in digging into the study more, visit the Kinder Institute for Urban Research here.


September 29, 2015

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