What is a Dual Language Program?
My son has been accepted into a dual language program for first grade. So what is a dual language program, anyway? We're thrilled with the opportunity to send our son to a dual language elementary school. We're excited to see how this experience will shape him and his perception of the world. But arriving at this decision wasn’t easy.
I want my kids to feel equally comfortable with both Spanish and English, and to speak them interchangeably. I’ve spoken Spanish to my kids at home since they were born, so my initial decision to enroll my son in the neighborhood public school for kindergarten was largely influenced by the school’s proximity to our house. I thought that I would be able to continue his Spanish education at home and review his school work in Spanish. It was the perfect plan – until reality hit. Being able to ride bikes to school and attend one of the top public schools in Austin was beneficial: My son’s reading level and math abilities showed a drastic improvement over nine months, and he was having fun along the way. Unfortunately, his abilities in Spanish were diminishing at the same rapid speed. While he had previously spoken to me mostly in Spanish, English was becoming his go-to language. Fifteen minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening wasn’t sufficient time to build on the Spanish foundation we had created. I realized that unless he was getting meaningful language nutrition in Spanish, my son’s fluency would diminish. From the time I dropped him off in the morning, through after-school activities in the afternoon, his day was taking place in English. That left only dinnertime and bedtime for Spanish. (And because my husband speaks only English, that was split between two languages.) I wanted my son’s Spanish language skills to progress at the same rate as his English skills, but I was struggling to keep up. That’s when I started exploring the idea of transferring him to a dual language program in the local school district. One-Way and Two-Way Dual Language Programs We live in Austin, TX. I discovered that the dual language program schools here are identified as either one-way or two-way. One-way programs serve students learning an additional language distinct from their native one. In Austin, these programs serve Spanish speakers. Two-way programs include a mix of native speakers of both languages. In both cases, instruction takes place in two languages in an effort to help students excel academically while becoming bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. Courses are either in Spanish or in English; for example, math is always in English. I also discovered some compelling facts:
When it comes to standardized tests conducted in English, students in dual language programs do as well or better than students learning only in English.
Students participating in dual language programs close the achievement gap that exists between English language learners and general education students.
Students in dual language programs develop respect for multiple cultural heritages.
Students in dual language programs increase their marketable skills in a global society.
However, I still didn’t fully understand how a dual language program differed from bilingual education or ESL programs. I wanted to make sure I was making the right decision for my son and that he would be in an inclusive environment.
Language Education with a Difference
“Before, students were grouped together and taken out of the class to provide more instruction to help achieve language fluency,” says AISD’s Dual Language Middle School Coordinator, Peter Gonzales.
As researchers Thomas and Collier found, however, these kids were often then perceived as “problem” kids, and separating them from their peers “resulted in social distance or discrimination and prejudice expressed toward linguistically and culturally diverse students.”
The researchers discovered that two-way bilingual classes resolved some of the sociocultural concerns that resulted from segregated transitional bilingual classes – in addition to a high success rate of language acquisition. In two-way bilingual classes, students from each language group learn to respect their fellow students as valued partners in the learning process.
In 2010, AISD’s superintendent, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, implemented 10 dual language programs based on research conducted by Thomas and Collier. Their research also has demonstrated higher graduation rates and test scores over time. Today, AISD has more than 60 schools with some form of dual language program.
“Now, we have a variety of students in the same classroom and there is more appreciation for each other’s differences,” says Gonzales.
Is A Dual Language Program the Right Fit?
Even while I want my child to feel proud that he speaks Spanish and to be in an environment that embraces diversity, I started envisioning a classroom in total chaos, with varying levels of language proficiency, education, and knowledge. I wondered how teachers dealt with such a diverse environment. I was afraid my son would be bored waiting for everyone to catch up to his proficiency level. I still had questions: How do teachers manage classrooms where there is a range of language proficiency levels? How do teachers keep children from getting lost or bored? I had to dig deeper.
Checking In with the Experts
I followed up with a first-grade teacher to discuss the challenges of a dual language classroom. She confirmed that the classroom environment is very collaborative and that students support each other. She noted that non-Spanish speakers initially feel frustrated because the day is happening in a language they don’t understand. However, modeling and talking in context helps these children get up to speed fairly quickly.
"Teachers do their best to differentiate language proficiencies and provide work that is adequate for the level of language. They also group students together so they can help each other based on their proficiency," explains Mr. Gonzales.
In addition, teachers are trained to use the TPRS method – Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling. It's the most effective method for foreign language learning because it uses language in context. However, since my son already speaks both Spanish and English, I worried that he might get bored. I was assured that the teachers work with each student individually according to their capabilities.
Of course, I also had to ask Mr. Gonzales about his thoughts on the MamaLingua app...
“It helps develop ‘BICS’ – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills – which include the basic words and phrases you need to communicate,” says Mr. Gonzales. “In the case of MamaLingua, it provides you the basics to be able to communicate with your child in a target language – and then some. It is a great starting point.”explains Mr. Gonzales.
Looking Forward to Fall
Fortunately for us, AISD has been recognized nationwide for its achievements. It’s also a “District of Innovation,” a designation that gives it flexibility to develop and implement new programs outside of certain state laws and according to an approved innovation plan.
“We are an urban school district that has been meeting the needs of our community by combining research and practical implementation to enhance our society,” says Mr. Gonzales. “Our goal is to constantly be modifying and implementing best practices to incorporate what is best for our community and students.”
Their dual language programs are certainly proof of their mission. * * *
I’m looking forward to the next school year and what this new change may bring. I’ll keep you updated about my experiences – and hopefully help you make some exciting decisions, too.