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Dual Language/Language Immersion Programs: Research and Policy

Dual Language/Language Immersion Programs: Research and Policy
Posted on March 28, 2018 by CHS

In recent years, dual language or language immersion programs in early education, pre-K, and K-12 education have been the focus of increased attention at the state and federal level. This increase in interest is partly due to demographic changes. The proportion of U.S. children from birth to age 5 who are identified as dual language learners and are enrolled in early education programs is greater than the percentage of children identified as English learners in kindergarten and is growing across the nation. The number of children ages 5 to 17 in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled in the past three decades. California, in particular, has an interest in ensuring that dual language learners succeed. With the largest concentration of dual language learner children in the nation, California can play an important role in innovating policies and best practices to support dual language learners at every level of their education. Roughly 1.4-million English learners make up the K-12 public school system in California, and dual language learners compose 60% of children ages birth to five.

Another reason that dual language or language immersion programs are expanding, including at the early education and pre-K levels, is that research into these programs is showing positive academic and social outcomes for children, particularly at the early education level. These positive outcomes can be seen in children for whom English is their home language as well as those who speak another language at home. This has led many parents to seek out language immersion programs for their young children with the hopes that the child will be more likely to become fluent in a second language if exposed to it in the early years, and in recognition of the other academic and social benefits that are borne out in research.  

Neuroscience shows that the brain is most receptive to language learning in the earliest years of life. Particularly in the case of young dual language leaners, home language development is integral to their cognitive and socio-emotional development, and timing and instructional strategies have significant implications for acquiring English as a second language, and their overall academic achievement. Research also shows that students in dual language programs outperform comparable students in monolingual classrooms – whether they are native English speakers, students from culturally diverse backgrounds, students of low socioeconomic status, or English Learners – bilingual education can help to close the achievement gap.

One of the most comprehensive studies to date of dual language learners showed that students randomly assigned to dual language immersion programs outperformed their peers in English literature by seven months in grade five, and by nine months in grade eight. That amounts to almost a year ahead in reading level by the eighth grade, compared with their non-immersion peers. Immersion students with a native language other than English had a three-point lower rate of classification as English Language Learners (ELLs) by the sixth grade and this effect was considerably larger if the students’ native language matched the classroom partner language.

A recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures, concludes that the PreK-12 educator workforce is inadequately prepared to support dual language learners, and makes recommendations for policymakers to promote school success for these children, including a focus on early childhood and supporting teachers and caregivers. The National Academies report concluded that dual language learners need both systematic exposure to English and ongoing support for maintenance and development of their first language for two major reasons: dual language learners exposed to both languages show as much growth in English language and literacy skills as those instructed only in English; and children immersed in English at an early age often show declines in their first language skills. Strong language skills in a child’s first language have been shown to facilitate English language development.

In 2016, the United States Department of Education and Health and Human Services released a policy statement about how to effectively support the country’s youngest dual language learners (DLLs) in early childhood programs. They also published a toolkit for early educators, child care providers, and families.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) decided to expand their dual language early learning offerings last year, noting that bilingualism has a wide range of benefits in children, helping their communication skills and giving them an edge over monolingual peers in their ability to focus and process information. These benefits can start as early as a baby's first year, and children are likely to have a better mastery of a language the younger they start learning it. English learner students in dual-language programs also have more success becoming proficient in English by the end of high school, according to a study by Stanford University and the University of Oregon.

LAUSD released a policy brief on dual language learners in 2017. The brief noted that studies show that the brain is most receptive to language learning in the earliest years of life. Children are not confused by learning multiple languages. Rather, the brain is wired to learn any language in the world, including young children with disabilities. For young dual language learners, home language is central to developing proficiency in English and other languages, as well as their cognitive and socio-emotional development, their evolving sense of self, and overall academic achievement. Studies show that because bilingual children and adults switch between two languages, their brains are very active and flexible, which helps them learn more easily, helps them focus, strengthens their memory, problem solving and thinking skills, and helps develop other skills which are important for college and career success.

At the state level, Early Edge  notes the challenge presented by the lack of bilingual educators, particularly in light of the recent passage of Proposition 58, which repealed most of an earlier initiative designed to prohibit non-English languages from being used in public schools. Proposition 58 removed the 18-year mandate for a "one size fits all" approach to educating 1.4 million students learning English in California and created opportunities for all students to learn another language. Starting July, 2017, any group of 20 parents at a grade level, or 30 parents at a school site, can initiate the conversation and planning process for determining, with educators, the best language education approach to prepare all students for the 21st century.

Dual language learning clearly presents both challenges and opportunities for our education systems. Additional research on how to best support dual language learners, smart education policies, and support for educators to implement best practices can help ensure that these children and students are supported to capitalize on the academic, social, and economic benefits of bilingual. For additional information on research and policies regarding dual language learners, consider visiting:

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