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Two-Way Language Immersion Grows in Popularity

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 15, 2005 6 min read
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Promising results from research on two-way language-immersion programs have pumped up the popularity of such programs in recent years.

But some experts say that the three large-scale studies that compare two-way immersion with other kinds of instructional methods for English-language learners aren’t conclusive in showing that the programs are better than other options.

In two-way immersion, native speakers of English and native speakers of another language—usually Spanish—learn both languages in the same classroom. The two-way programs have a growing level of political clout, especially in comparison with transitional bilingual education, in which children are taught some subjects in their native language while learning English with the goal of moving into regular classes as quickly as possible.

Transitional bilingual education programs took a beating after voters in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts passed state ballot initiatives to replace that method with English-only programs.

“I like two-way—I would recommend it for my grandson,” Stephen D. Krashen, an emeritus professor of education at the University of Southern California and a language expert, said in an e-mail message this month.

Still, he cautioned: “The research has not shown it is the best option for English-language development. We don’t have the data yet. So some claims made by advocates are exaggerated.”

Scholars at Odds

Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier, both emeritus professors of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., are the co-authors of two of the three large-scale studies that compare two-way immersion programs with other English-acquisition programs.

They gave a presentation about their studies at a Jan. 19 institute here on two-way immersion programs that was sponsored by the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, or NABE. Their studies, published in 1997 and 2002, were based on more than 2 million student records from 23 school districts. They grouped student records into cohorts according to the students’ English proficiency, grade, and other kinds of characteristics, and then followed them over several years.

Students read a story to their class.

Mr. Thomas and Ms. Collier concluded that not only is two-way immersion better than the English-only approach, but it’s better than all other kinds of bilingual education as well, such as transitional bilingual education.

“We’re not saying that transitional bilingual education is bad,” Mr. Thomas said. “We’re saying it needs an upgrade.”

In a paper written in 2004, Mr. Krashen questions Mr. Thomas and Ms. Collier’s assertion that two-way immersion is the best choice for English-language learners.

To begin with, he points out that some of the English-language learners the George Mason University researchers studied in two-way immersion programs had high scores in English in 1st grade, which suggests that many of the children already knew a lot of English before starting school. He also speculates that two-way immersion programs looked more effective than other kinds of English-acquisition programs because higher-scoring students tend to stay in two-way programs longer than in other kinds of programs.

But Ms. Collier said the English scores were high in 1st grade only in one school system, the Houston Independent School District. And those scores were high because the English-language learners there had already been in school since prekindergarten, which wasn’t the case in most other districts, and also because the 1st grade test used in Texas is relatively easy.

Kathyrn Lindholm-Leary, a professor of child and adolescent development at San Jose State University in California, is the author of the other large-scale study that compares students in two-way immersion with students in other kinds of programs. Her 2001 study of 8,000 students in 16 two-way immersion programs and four transitional-bilingual-education programs found that both English-language learners and native speakers of English in two-way immersion programs achieved at least as well as their peers who weren’t in such programs.

By the 6th and 7th grades, students in two-way immersion, on average, could perform at least at grade level—at the 50th percentile—on achievement tests of reading, language, and content areas, her research found. Experts consider those scores high for English-language learners.

“You’re only going to see those kinds of outcomes if you have a high-quality program,” she said in an interview.

The trouble is that research on two-way immersion programs has some methodological problems, according to Donna Christian, the director of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based language research organization. Self-selection in the programs is one of them, she writes in a 2003 review of 113 studies on two-way immersion.

“If students in two-way immersion are found to do better than their peers in other programs,” she points out in the review, “it is difficult to know if this is because of the effects of the two-way immersion program itself, or due at least in part to inherent differences among the student populations and their families.”

James Crawford, the executive director of NABE, echoed that note of caution about research on two-way immersion. “We’re not promoting only this model even though we are gratified by its growing popularity, especially among English-speaking parents,” he said.

Mr. Crawford added that two-way immersion can be harder to carry out than some other kinds of English-acquisition programs, because teachers must be prepared to serve children who have very different linguistic needs in the same classroom.

Programs Expanding

What everyone does agree on is that each school year brings more two-way immersion programs.

As of December, the Center for Applied Linguistics had found 309 two-way immersion programs in schools in the United States, up from 30 in 1987, when the concept really took off. Most of the two-way immersion programs—292—teach Spanish and English.

The center counts only programs that have a balanced proportion of native speakers of English and the non-English language. A third of the two-way programs are in California. By far, most two-way programs are operated by elementary schools, with only 41 middle or high schools running such programs, according to the center.

Some educators at the NABE institute said their school districts have expanded their programs, or plan to extend them from elementary to middle or high schools.

Rodnie Barbosa, an ESL teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Washington, said he hopes to help launch next fall at his school the first two-way immersion program for middle school students in the District of Columbia public schools. The program will teach in English and Spanish.

For 32 years, the 64,000-student district has run a schoolwide two-way immersion program in English and Spanish at the Oyster Bilingual Elementary School. Oyster School students have done well on standardized tests, and the school has a long waiting list for children who want to attend the school.

“Parents have been putting a lot of pressure on the district to develop a middle and high school bilingual program,” Mr. Barbosa said.

Virginia Hansen, an English-for-speakers-of-other-languages resource teacher for the 173,000-student Palm Beach County public schools in Florida, said her district is expanding its two-way language immersion program to serve more middle and high school students.

The programs help native speakers of Spanish to be proud of their culture, she said.

What’s more, she said, “I’ve seen children who are English-dominant just zoom with it. Their accent is almost nonexistent.”

Charles Stallcup, the owner of the Beckman Inn and Carriage House here in San Antonio and the father of two sons, a kindergartner and a 5th grader, in a two-way immersion program at the 345-student Bonham Elementary School, said he wishes he could have participated in a similar program when he attended school in the city.

Mr. Stallcup said the two-way immersion program at Bonham, located a few blocks from his home, has been successful for both of his sons. The benefit of the program is not just that his children learn Spanish, he said, but also that they learn about another culture.

“There’s a sense of romance in having a second language,” he said. “It makes you so much more in touch with the world.”

Interesting Ideas? Send suggestions for possible Research section stories to Debra Viadero at Eduation Week, 6935 Arlington Rd, Bethesda, MD 20814; e-mail: dviadero@epe.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Two-Way Language Immersion Grows in Popularity

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