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The Effectiveness of Bilingual Education: A Reason to Invest in 2017

In 2016, bilingual education received a spotlight treatment rarely given to a teaching method partly in thanks to Proposition 58.

On November 8, California voters voted "yes" on a ballot initiative that effectively overturned a decades-old approach requiring the state's English Language Learners (ELLs) to receive English-only instruction. Given the fact that California has one of the most linguistically diverse populations in the United States, the overwhelming decision to restore bilingual education in the state thrust the education of ELLs into the national conversation that will likely continue into 2017. For this reason, 2017 should be the year that state leaders, policymakers and other thought leaders use this momentum to push for investment in bilingual education—for the benefit of not only ELLs, but for English-speaking U.S. students as well.

Earlier this month, a study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that a lack of language education in every level of U.S. education has resulted in a record-low of U.S. citizens who can speak dual languages.

The report found that only 20 percent of U.S. residents currently speak a language other than English—and that children who immigrated to the U.S. are less likely now than ever before to retain dual-language skills.

This is despite the fact, the report notes, that bilingualism is proven to have many benefits that positively impact an individual's quality of life.

The report notes the results of a study that analyzed the effects dual-language skills have on student achievement.

"By the time dual-immersion students reached the 5th grade, they were an average of seven months ahead in English reading skills compared with their peers in non-immersion classrooms. By the 8th grade, students were a full academic year ahead. These findings support claims that learning a second language helps students tackle the nuances and complexities of their first language," the report said.

Education World spoke with a University of Kansas freshman who recently received a scholarship for her dual-language skills—skills she learned while attending a K-8 dual-language magnet school.

According to KU student Molly Ptasnzik, who attended the Horace Mann Dual-Language Magnet K-8 school in Wichita, Kansas, the one downside to her experience with bilingual education is that she's over-prepared for the language programs available to her.

"I think there's one downside to the experience of going to a bilingual K-8 school: high school and college language classes are mostly designed for students with minimal exposure to said language and culture," Ptasnzik said.

"Therefore, I've struggled to find a Spanish class that was challenging or that offered an equally immersive and authentic experience as when I was at Horace Mann."

Ptasnzik says her exposure to a diverse school culture was one she took for granted as she realized the inclusive nature of her K-8 magnet school was not a norm.

"At the time, I took all the experiences I had for granted. Horace Mann had a folkloric dance team," Ptasnzik said.

"We [had] a day called 'Around the World' before Winter break where parents/friends/families came to speak about their heritage. Around the same time of the year some of my friends were part of Danzas; they would invite everyone to come celebrate. Through the years, I just assumed everyone did those activities. When I got to high school, I was no longer directly immersed in Hispanic culture and that's when I realized my K-8 experiences were invaluable. I realize now I had a phenomenal opportunity and education."

Going forward, Ptasnzik hopes to take advantage of the dual-language resources offered to her at KU, like the opportunity to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. With dreams of being a physician assistant, she is grateful for how beneficial her dual-language skills will be down the road in her future career.

"As for how bilingualism will help me in my college experience and future career, I think it has given me an appreciative outlook about differences. I think it has generally made me more accepting of new people, experiences, and knowledge," Ptasnzik said.

Experts support Ptasnzik’s championship of bilingual education exposure.

Dr. Diane Rodriguez, associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education, has been advocating for quality bilingual education in replacement of English-only instruction for years.

In 2015, she said in an article for Fordham News:

"Nelson Mandela once said that when you speak in a language that someone understands it goes to his head, but when you speak in his native language, it goes into his heart. That's what happens for many of the children who are acquiring a second language in this country—when you speak to them in their native language [that is, in a way that respects who they are and where they come from] they will always remember."

In an e-mail to Education World, she reiterated this importance.

"Proponents of bilingual education argue that the bilingual approach (a) promotes metalinguistic awareness; (b) promotes cognition; (c) promotes social achievement; and (d) promotes cross-cultural awareness and understanding," Rodriguez said in the e-mail.

"The demands of global trade and international connectivity make bilingualism an asset and, often, a need," she said.

Going forward, "[p]arents, schools, and policymakers should encourage and promote the preservation and teaching of more than one language.”

In March, Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. expressed hope that the new education legislation, Every Student Succeeds Act, will give states the opportunity to improve dual-language education within their borders should they chose to seize it.

"We have a new opportunity with the Every Student Succeeds Act to move closer to the full range of opportunity for all students. But we have to approach that work with urgency. A new law only creates an opportunity—we have to seize that moment, by making the right policy decisions with strong engagement of stakeholders. I take that as a deep and important charge for the Department," King said.

"So as we approach implementing this law, we have to do it with that spirit. It gives us new tools. It gives us an opportunity to broaden the definition of educational excellence. Yes, we need students who have strong literacy skills. Yes, we need students who have strong math skills. But yes, we also want all students to have the gift of bi-literacy or multi-literacy."

In other words, improving access to bilingual education should not be limited within California’s borders and should not be confined to 2016. Instead, policymakers, educators, community members and other thought leaders should use 2017 to do their part to champion for access—for the benefit of participating individuals and the country as a whole. 

Nicole Gorman, Education World Contributor

Steps to Literacy

Looking for books that will enhance your students’ language and literacy skills as well as their cultural awareness? You can find collections of culturally and linguistically diverse texts that are perfect for a bilingual classroom at Steps to Literacy.

Steps to Literacy offers inclusive and differentiated collections of age and developmentally appropriate books and resources that engage students and foster a love for reading within each of them.

Learn more about building your own customized classroom library.

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