English-Language Learners

Dual-Language Learning: How Schools Can Plan for a Strong Start

By Corey Mitchell — September 17, 2018 4 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 advises schools to take a year to plan a new program and to commit to a multi-year endeavor to teach students to read, write, and speak fluently in two languages.

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. If you haven’t already, read our explainer on dual-language learning before you dive into our conversation with Rosa Molina, the executive director of the Association for Two-Way & Dual-Language Education, which provides technical assistance and professional development to two-way immersion programs in California and the Western region of the United States.

Molina previously served as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Ravenswood City schools in East Palo Alto, Calif., from 2009 to 2011, and spent 25 years working in a variety of roles in the San Jose Unified schools.

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

Question: How long does it take to start dual-language program, if done properly?

Answer: A year’s planning is really optimum. So that you can put certain elements in place and we highly suggest to programs that they select their school and then survey the incoming kindergarten and preschool parents to see what their interest is. It’s a multi-year endeavor for their children so parents have to be very well grounded and informed about what these programs are and how long it takes for students to reach the goal set out by the program. When you don’t have interest, then you wait until you do get interest because you need to have what we call linguistically balanced classrooms, in order for the programs to be effective.

Q: How do you maintain a good balance of native speakers of the target language, as well as the native English-speakers?

A: In [many] districts in this country, we have these demographics, where you have children who are speakers of other languages and English speakers who are interested in learning a second language. And when you can develop a program where you combine these children in this setting, it requires parents to be very knowledgeable about what that means ... an eight- to nine-year commitment to ensuring that the kids become fluent in both languages. And it’s not even fluency that we’re going for, we’re going for literacy. Literacy in two languages, so reading and writing, speaking and receptive language.

If it was just teaching children to speak, we could probably do that within the scope of three years. But it’s the reading and writing process that takes time and so we’re looking for grade-level proficiency in both languages over the course of their K-8 experience. We’re starting early enough where children see this as just an integral part of their school. There isn’t the resistance that we see when we start with students at a middle school, for example, [or] at the high school and they’re very peer conscious. And pronunciation really matters to them and they’re not using it as much and it’s really only an hour a day. This is a very different process and a very different concept.

Q: Are more school districts looking to expand dual-language programs into their middle schools and high schools?

A: We suggest, from the beginning stages of implementation, that the programs design themselves to be a K-12 endeavor because we can’t just put an elementary program in place and then not have that middle school program developed, since the students go into middle school with a 6th-grade level of another language and they should be allowed to take it further.

Our goal is that students can move into high school at the highest level of language proficiency and that they can then end up taking Advanced Placement as 9th graders and then have other options that open up their schedule to a third language or courses for special courses, like legal and medical translation courses or internships.

We’re working with many districts as they’re working through the middle school and high school [program development]. You blink and five years passed and those kids (heading into middle school) are ready for something else. You just can’t move them into middle school and put them into Spanish I. They’re so far beyond that. They don’t fit in the regular world language structure.

Photo: Kindergarten teacher Priscilla Joseph works with students starting their second year 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.