English-Language Learners

Dual-Language Learning: How Schools Can Empower Students and Parents

By Corey Mitchell — September 20, 2018 3 min read
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There’s a strong and growing demand for schools to provide instruction across grade levels and subjects that leads to students who are bilingual and biliterate. In this second installment on the growth in dual-language learning, one expert argues that districts should always focus on the needs of students and their families.

If you haven’t already, read the first four installments of our reporting on dual-language learning. There’s our explainer on dual-language learning, our chat about how to start planning for new dual-language programs, an interview with an expert talking about how all students benefit from dual-language learning, and a look at how dual-language learning can boost linguistic and cultural diversity.

Education Week has talked with several regional and national dual-language education experts, who offer insights into what it takes to launch dual-language programs and strengthen existing ones. Now you can dive into our conversation with David Nieto, the executive director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an assistant research professor at the university’s school of education. BUENO is an acronym for Bilinguals United for Education and New Opportunities. Nieto has also worked as a state-level English-language-learner program administrator in Illinois and Massachusetts.

Education Week edited the questions and responses for clarity and length.

Question: When starting a program, how important is community input?

Answer: The district has to be in sync with the community. When I was working in Massachusetts, there was one district where a majority of the population at that time was of Hispanic descent, and their language was Spanish. But the administration of the district was Portuguese so they decided to implement a dual-language program that was based on Portuguese ... The community was not happy. It’s important to start with the right frame of mind, with the idea of empowering students and parents.

Q: What happens if you try to start a program several years after a student begins formal education?

A: Some districts initially try to go large scale and start all over the place. It’s important for districts to realize: let’s start at kindergarten or 1st grade and then move on from there. If a student has not been in a dual-language program before, the adaptation is harder for that student, especially conceptually. The level of the language of those students needs to be measured up front, to ensure that the students will be able to follow classes.

Q: What role should states play in promoting dual-language education?

A: States should provide targeted resources for dual-language programs. It’s even more important because sometimes dual-language programs actually focus on populations that already speak English. Even if not intentionally, right?

Ultimately, what happens is that the population of bilingual students serves as a tool for native English-speakers to learn a foreign language. And that should not be the purpose of dual language. It should be a balanced context that allows both populations to thrive in two languages, to develop their full potential.

In order to do this, resources have to be targeted to the population that, in this case, is more in need. Whenever I talk to districts that have the intention of implementing [a dual-language program], that’s what I basically tell them. They have to have this clarity that this program is going to benefit native English-speakers but we need to start with our bilingual students in mind. The needs of those students should be driving the implementation of the program.

Photo Credit: Kindergarten student Ariella Renee, center, jumps during a game of “freeze dance” set to Haitian music. Renee is one of several dozen students enrolled in the Toussaint L’Ouverture Academy, a Haitian Creole dual-language program at Mattahunt Elementary school in Boston. --Gretchen Ertl for Education Week

Related Reading on Dual-Language Learning

Dual-Language Learning: 6 Key Insights for Schools

Will Every State Offer Special Recognition for Its Bilingual Graduates?

Dual-Language Programs Boost Student Achievement in English, Study Finds

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.