What is a Dual Language Program?
Updated: Jan 24
For many families seeking to raise bilingual kids, access to a dual language program can be life changing. But what is a dual language program, and should you consider enrolling your child?
What is Dual Language?
Just like it sounds, a dual language program is a form of bilingual education that offers instruction in two languages. The goal is to help students excel academically while achieving proficiency and literacy in both languages. These programs produce learners who are bilingual, biliterate and bicultural.
In the United States, given our demographics, most dual language programs are offered in English and Spanish. (Here in Austin, TX, the local school district also offers dual language programs in Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese.)
Dual language programs generally fall into two categories: one-way and two-way. One-way programs serve students learning a language in addition to their native one. In Austin, the district’s one-way programs help native Spanish speakers gain fluency in English, while maintaining and building their Spanish fluency.
Two-way programs include native speakers of both languages – each class aims to include a balanced mix of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers, advancing learning in both languages simultaneously. This blend allows both groups of students to serve in the role of language “model” and “learner” at different times. The structure of a two-way program can vary, but they all provide at least 50 percent of instruction in the target language. Programs generally begin with pre-K and extend through elementary grades or higher.
So, how do these differ from English as a Second Language (ESL) programs? ESL and “traditional” models of bilingual education aren’t focused on preserving the heritage language. In the case of dual language programs, academic achievement and fluency in both languages are the goals.
Why Choose a Dual Language Program?
Parents enroll their children in dual language programs for a number of reasons. Some want to preserve their heritage language while ensuring fluency in the dominant one. Others want to give their child an advantage in the future job market. And some hope to help their child become a citizen of the world who appreciates the adventures and opportunities that await them beyond our borders. (Or all of the above!)
A quality dual language program provides a solid linguistic foundation that’s difficult to achieve by solely speaking a second language at home, when the school day is done. In a traditional monolingual school setting, children hear only English from the beginning of the school day until the end of the last extracurricular activity. (When additional language instruction is provided, it’s typically limited to a few times a week for a short duration.)
Given the reality, there’s limited potential for gaining true fluency in a second language with only dinnertime, bedtime and weekends to practice. This is where dual language education comes in. These programs provide quality dual language instruction while also focusing on core academics.
As it turns out, dual language programs benefit all involved. When it comes to academics, students in dual language programs perform as well or better than students learning only in English. In Oregon, students enrolled in Portland Public Schools’ Dual Language Immersion program outperformed their peers in reading by approximately nine months – that’s nearly a full school year! (Dual language programs are also the only model that have been consistently shown to close the achievement gap that exists between English Language Learners (ELLs) and general education students.) While dual language programs help students connect to multiple cultures and develop marketable skills, findings indicate they’re also producing better long-term educational outcomes.
Dual language programs produce learners who are bilingual, biliterate and bicultural. Academic achievement and fluency in both languages are the goals.
Language Education with a Difference
Austin Independent School District’s Dual Language Middle School Coordinator, Peter Gonzales, spoke about the change he’s seen in his district since the implementation of the dual language program. “Before, [ELL] students were grouped together and taken out of class to provide more instruction to help achieve language fluency,” Gonzales said.
However, researchers Thomas and Collier have found that this practice can result in the perception that English language learners are “problem” kids. 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. These classes also provided 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 the research conducted by Thomas and Collier. Today, AISD offers some form of dual language education at more than 60 campuses. “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?
It can be scary to remove your child from a traditional schooling model and enroll them in a dual language program, especially if you don’t know any other families who have made the same choice. With varying levels of language proficiency, education, and knowledge, it’s easy to imagine a chaotic classroom and to wonder if your child will feel lost during instruction in the target language – or bored during instruction in their native one.
In reality, watching the teacher in a dual language classroom is a bit like watching a masterful conductor lead an orchestra: dozens of different instruments all come together to produce a symphony. The dual language classroom environment is highly collaborative, and students take pride in supporting each other. In the beginning, students commonly experience frustration because much of their day is happening in a language they don’t understand. Through modeling and teaching in context, the students quickly start to feel more comfortable.
“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 Gonzales. Teachers of all grade levels and classroom types use differentiated instruction to meet the needs of every learner, but in dual language classrooms, it’s second nature. In addition, teachers 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.
Where Do I Start?
Once you make the decision to enroll your child in a dual language program, the next step is to find the right school. In larger public school districts, dual language programs are offered at many neighborhood elementary schools. If your local district doesn’t yet provide dual language education, search for nearby private schools and schedule a tour. Make sure you’re comfortable with the amount of Spanish spoken throughout the day and the level of proficiency of the teachers and guides.
When your child begins, be patient. Remember that language acquisition doesn’t happen overnight, and give your child the space to be frustrated at first. Provide support and resources, and most of all, love. Be confident in your decision – the benefits are significant.
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