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The Bilingual Education Debate: Part I


Thirty years after its introduction, bilingual education is still generating controversy.

In recent years, bilingual education has sparked as much controversy as any other education issue. Most educators and parents agree that the main goals in educating students with a native language other than English are mastery of English and of content in academic areas. But a heated academic and political battle rages over how best to reach those goals and how important it is to preserve the students' original language in the process.

Teachers use several methods to instruct students whose English is limited -- including immersion, transitional bilingual education, and developmental, or maintenance, bilingual education.

  • In immersion, students learn in English. Teachers generally use simple language that is tailored to let students absorb English while learning academic subjects.
  • Transitional bilingual education offers students some instruction in their native language while simultaneously providing concentrated English-language instruction. At least in theory, students make a transition from transitional bilingual programs to mainstream English programs within a few years.
  • Developmental bilingual education attempts to build on students' skills in their native language as they learn English as a second language.



Special services for limited-English-speaking students were few and limited until the 1970s. At that point, language-minority speakers and their advocates were arguing for bilingual education as a civil right. They argued that students were being deprived of an education if they were taught in a language they didn't understand.

The push for bilingual education blossomed as a fight for students' overall rights. Bilingual programs were seen as fostering respect for the non-native English-speaking students' culture. As one of the organizations backing bilingual education, for example, the New York State Association for Bilingual Education maintains it is important to foster "the awareness and appreciation of biculturalism and bilingualism as an integral part of cultural pluralism in our society."

In 1968 Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act to provide for the growing number of linguistically diverse students who, because of their limited English proficiency, were not getting an education equal to that of their English-proficient peers. The Bilingual Education Act revisions of 1974 recast provisions of the 1968 legislation. The 1974 law created the National Advisory Council on Bilingual Education to articulate a plan for a national policy in bilingual education.

In the language of the federal law: "Where inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national origin minority group children from effective participation in the educational program offered by a school district, the district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students."

According to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, "the role of bilingual education is grounded in two knowledge-based principles:

  • All children are capable of engaging in complex thinking tasks.
  • Developing and maintaining the [student's] native language in no way interferes with English language acquisition. On the contrary, research over the last decade in bilingual classrooms with established models of instructional excellence indicates that utilization of and facility in the primary language enhances the acquisition of a second language."


Yet in the past few years, some language-minority speakers -- even some Hispanic parents who have historically been strong advocates for bilingual education -- have expressed doubts about the success of bilingual programs. A focus on students' civil rights and cultural integrity is, in some cases, giving way to concern that some non-native English speakers are acquiring insufficient mastery of the English language.

But critics of bilingual education advocate for the elimination of what they view as costly and ineffective multilingual policies. The politically charged issue of whether to mandate an official U.S. language clouds the academic questions surrounding bilingual programs.

Focusing on academic issues are the less strident but still determined critics who say many non-native English speakers are graduating from school systems with poor reading skills in both English and their native language. They cite low test scores to support their argument.

Backers of bilingual programs defend them by arguing that becoming proficient in any second language takes longer than one or two years. They also point to the shortage of well-qualified, fully bilingual teachers. The problem with bilingual programs, they say, often lies in the teaching, not the curriculum. They acknowledge programs could be improved by the hiring more teachers who are fully qualified. Students should not, they admit, remain in special bilingual programs longer than really necessary.

In the process of debate over bilingual programs, hot-button, politicized issues often push academic concerns into the background. Part II of this article looks at specific movements for and against bilingual programs in school systems and how states and communities have, or have not, managed to resolve them.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 1998 Education World



  • Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups by Stephen Ternstrom, Ann Orlar, and Oscar Hanlin (Harvard University Press, 1980). An excellent reference that provides background information on various ethnic groups.
  • Multicultural Teaching: A Handbook of Activities, Information, and Resources, 3rd edition, by Pamela L. Tiedt and Iris M. Tiedt (Allyn and Bacon, 1990). Includes lesson ideas for all academic areas and nationalities as well as more than 50 references to other books and materials.
  • Multicultural Gamebook by Louise Orlando (Scholastic Professional Books, 1993). Games from 30 different countries are featured in this book. Educators can use it to enable students to appreciate various cultures.
  • Experiences with Literature: Thematic Whole Language Model for the (K-3) Bilingual Classroom by Sandra Nevares, Raquel C. Mireles, and Norma Ramirez (Addison-Wesley, 1990). Reading activities for the Hispanic bilingual classroom make this an excellent resource.

Related Sites

  • Bilingual Education Resources on the Internet This site provides links to bilingual education resources, including government services, journals, schools, and projects online, etc.
  • English for the Children This site focuses on support for teaching English only in schools and effectively ending bilingual education.
  • KidPub Bilingual students can have their writing published on the World Wide Web by submitting their works to this site.


Updated 01/29/2013