How does Dual Language Education Work?

Listen to Diane August, managing researcher at American Institutes for Research, explain some of the key distinguishing elements of dual language programs as well as some of the challenges faced by school districts in implementing them.

The report referenced in this video was published in 2015 and presented an analysis of related research and the data related to dual language education policies and practices at that time. The report was a joint production of the U.S. Department of Education with the American Institutes for Research.

The full report referenced is available here at Click the title below to read the report here, or click the download button to save your own copy as a PDF file.

Dual Language Success in North Carolina

Episode 42 of the America the Bilingual podcast addresses the rapid growth of dual language education in North Carolina and the benefits that growth is bringing. This brief episode only takes 15 minutes. I encourage you to listen!

Assessing English Language Proficiency and Program Effectiveness

It’s that time of year again when English Language Learners all across the country are being assessed to determine their level of proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing. In North Carolina we use the ACCESS test for this purpose. The name of the test is an acronym for “Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State”).

Every year teachers around the country wonder about the effectiveness of such tests. We have all had the experience of seeing a student exit ESL services only to flounder in the regular classroom for reasons that we all understand: the student was not ready to function like a native speaker, yet is expected to do so because of having exited ESL services.

While this problem is present in every state, regardless of the test used, it is particularly acute in North Carolina because our state does not follow the recommendation of the designers of the test regarding exit criteria. WIDA (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment) recommends that the test be used as one criterion among several, and that a student not be exited with a composite score of less than 5 out of 6 on the ACCESS test. North Carolina uses the test as the only criterion and exists students with a composite score of 4.8.

What is the the effect of this decision on students? Denying students the support they need before they have an adequate grasp of academic English sets them up for failure. A student who can carry on a perfectly sensible conversation with teachers and sound fluent, often still lacks the academic vocabulary essential to success in school. Teachers are well aware of this and frequently lament a student exiting the ESL program when it is clear the student is not ready.

Financial Incentives to Underserve Language Learners

Why would any state decide not to follow the recommendations of the designers of the test in terms of exiting children from ESL services?

Meeting the needs of second language learners is expensive. It requires additional training for classroom teachers, hiring language acquisition specialists in every school district—sometimes several per school—and purchasing expensive curricular materials. By lowering the bar for exiting its ESL program, a state can “save” a massive amount of money.

Intentionally underfunding services to language learners, however, would show a blatant disregard for what federal courts have determined to be the rights of these students. So the question in the case of North Carolina becomes whether the State is aware of the damage its early exit decision is creating. This should not be a difficult question to answer, given that regular evaluation of the program is mandated by the courts and North Carolina’s own data show quite conclusively that its approach to meeting the needs of language learners is weak at best.

Mandate for Ongoing Evaluation of Programs

Court cases related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act have established precedents to guide the way districts address the needs of ESL students. In Castañeda v. Pickard (1981) the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit outlined a three-point test to evaluate ESL programs:

  • The program a district selects must be recognized by relevant experts as a legitimate approach to language access. (It must be “based on sound educational theory”).
  • The district must provide adequate resources to implement the approach it has selected. (The program must be “implemented effectively with resources for personnel, instructional materials, and space.”)
  • The program must be evaluated on an ongoing basis. If students are failing to make adequate progress, the program must be improved until it can be proven effective.

The U.S. Department of Education has provided further guidance in a document entitled “The Provision of an Equal Education Opportunity to Limited-English Proficient Students“. In its effort to comply with these guidelines, North Carolina has been conducting the required evaluations for many years now, yet the graduation rate of English Language Learners still lags far behind the average for other groups of students. In 2016 North Carolina’s overall high school graduation rate was 85.8%. The graduation rate for students who had qualified as English Language Learners at some point in their school experience, though, was much lower: 57.1%. (See NC’s own publication of its graduation rate data.)

How can we consider this a program that has been “proven effective”?

Recommended Further Reading

Function over Form in English Language Instruction

Experiences that require active use of the language are essential for successful language acquisition. Studying the grammar of a language without using that language in meaningful contexts never leads to real fluency.

In the following TED talk Roberto Guzmán highlights the essential nature of creating opportunities for language use in the classroom that mimic use of the language outside the classroom. This is nothing new. What sets the talk apart is the level to which Guzmán incorporates critical thinking (logic) into his work with students. Real-world language activities coupled with high levels of critical thinking can and does lead to dramatic improvement in language use.

After you listen to the talk, feel free to leave a comment below.


Scaffolding Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners

The following video from EL Education examines a co-taught literacy lesson at King Middle School in Porland, Maine. The lesson includes scaffolding to insure that the English Language Learners in the classroom succeed. Language Arts teacher, Karen MacDonald and Social Studies teacher Caitlin LeClair put together and implemented an engaging lesson that elicited the success of a diverse population of students.

Diagnosing English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities

In the following webcast bilingual speech-language pathologist Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan discusses effective assessment and instruction strategies for ELLS with learning disabilities and presents ways to help encourage their parents to be actively involved in their education.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan is director of Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, TX, and author of the Esperanza Program, a Spanish multi-sensory reading, writing, and spelling program. She was one of the two principal investigators of a longitudinal study examining oral skills and literacy development of Spanish-speaking children in both English and Spanish. This research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Institute of Education Sciences.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Leadership Texas. She has served on the Texas State Board of Examiners for Speech Language Pathology and Audiology and is a member of the American Speech Language and Hearing Association and the International Dyslexia Society.

Hard Words and the Science of Reading

Young woman taking a book from a shelf
CC0 Public Domain

Teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) requires creativity as well as a solid grounding in research-based methods for teaching all four language domains: listening, speaking, reading and writing. With increased focus on reading mandated from Washington and carried out at the state-level through standardized testing regimes, those of us in this profession have to find ever more ingenious ways to incorporate the other three domains into our work with reading. Every second spent with students matters.

If the methods we are using to teach reading are not maximally effective, we are forced to spend more time on reading, and less time is left for other important aspects of language instruction. Emily Hanford published an article entitled “Hard Words” at on September 10 that addresses the effectiveness of reading instruction and argues that much of what is being done in American schools is ineffective. She has a solid grasp of the relevant research and deserves a hearing. APMReports has produced an hour-long audio program on this topic. You can read Hanford’s article and listen to the podcast correlated with it at, or you can click the audio button below to just hear the audio.


Building Background for English Learners

Latina Student Raising Her HandI’d like to recommend a recent article by Jana Echevarria, one of the authors of the SIOP Model books. Her treatment of the importance of building background for our English Language Learners would make good reading for any teacher, but especially for those with students who have limited English proficiency.

You can read the article here.

How is your state doing with English Language Learners?

In November of 2017 NPR publish an analysis of the academic performance and graduation rates of English Language Learners (ELLs) by state entitled, “English Language Learners: How Your State Is Doing“. The article, accompanied by excellent graphics, discusses a variety of programs for ELLs and their apparent effectiveness. Packed with excellent data, it is well worth reading.

Normal Aspects of Language Acquisition Sometimes Misinterpreted as Signs of Language Processing Disorders

By the 2030s, say demographers, English language learners (ELLs) will account for approximately 40% of the entire school-aged population in the United States. In some areas, that projection is already exceeded—in California, for instance, 60%-70% of schoolchildren speak a language other than English as their primary language.”

Those are the opening words of an article entitled “Acquiring English as a Second Language: What’s ‘Normal,’ What’s Not,” at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s website (Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, Cal. State, Sacramento, and Alejandro Brice, University of Central Florida).  The article is based on information from the 1990s and contains some incorrect projections about which language groups would grow the fastest in the decades after it was written, but the general projection of the overall rate of growth in the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) and the dramatic changes it would bring is arguably still valid.

The focus of the article is not on the rapid demographic shift we have been seeing for several decades, though, but on the response of educators to dealing with language learners, an ever-increasing percentage of today’s classrooms. They wrote mainly for Speech-Language Pathologists, providing relevant information on what is normal and what is not in acquiring an additional language. The advice they gave over a decade ago, with appropriate updating in a few places, remains relevant today, but not only for Speech-Language Pathologists. Increasing numbers of classroom teachers face making decisions about the impact a child’s language proficiency has on academic development and whether to recommend that child for speech-language services.

Three Normal Language Acquisition Phenomena

The Silent Period
The ability to understand in a second (or third) language usually develops faster than the ability to speak. For this reason many language learners go through a period of time when they can understand very basic English, but cannot produce the language as well as they understand it. For some this may cause stress and an unwillingness or inability to speak at first. This period can last for several months for some children, though it passes quickly for most.

This inability to speak is sometimes taken as a sign of a language processing disorder when it is nothing more than a normal part of the process of language acquisition. Give the child time, and try to reduce stress, and you will be amazed at the results in time.

A number of years ago, a kindergarten teacher I know had a tiny Latina in her class who never uttered a word from August to December. I asked if the little girl was able to follow directions given to her in English. The teacher responded that she was. I encouraged her to make the child as comfortable as possible in her class, keep her engaged with lots of hands-on activities, and make her feel welcomed every day.

In late January the teacher came hurrying down the hall to meet me with a grin of delight:

—I ask for a volunteer to summarize the story and Lupita raised her hand. I was worried, but I decided to let her try.

—She did it! I couldn’t believe it! It’s the first time I’ve heard her say anything, and it was complete sentences.”

Lupita had come to the end of her silent period. She did not have a language disorder. She simply needed time.

Children’s Use of All Available Language Resources
English Language Learners (ELLs) frequently borrow structures from their first language to help express what they mean in the new language they are acquiring. Older research often referred to this as interference (as did Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice), but it is more accurate to see it as language learners using the resources at their disposal as they navigate unfamiliar territory.

A Spanish-speaking child may say in English, “Your book bag is more greener than mine.” There is no grammatical ending to make an adjective comparative in Spanish—nothing like the English -er. But the child has heard greenerbiggerstronger, and many other adjectives with -er in English and has grasped that this device is used when comparing things. In Spanish you have to use “mas”, the equivalent of English “more”. While the child has noticed the English -er, it still feels wrong to leave out the equivalent of “mas.” That will change with time, but for the moment the child uses all of the resource available from both languages to say “I’m comparing two things.”

This is not evidence of a language-processing problem. It’s just part of what happens when you are acquiring a new language.

Code Switching
Mixing words and phrases from one language into a sentence from another is often called code switching. We can see this happening even among fully bilingual adults functioning in a bilingual setting. It is nothing uncommon in my household to say something like, “Apúrate, we’re going to be late” (“Hurry up, we’re going to be late). Since we all speak both languages, we know we will be understood. There it’s not a problem, and we just use the first word or phrase that comes to mind.

Language learners, however, may do this even when it is not clear that everyone will understand. They simply use the resources available from their two languages when they can’t yet construct the what they want to say in only one. This does lead to misunderstandings, but it is not a language disorder.

There three phenomena (the silent period, borrowing structures from one language for another, and mixing languages present challenges for he classroom teacher, but they are not signs that a child needs Speech-Language services.