General Education

A Truly Bilingual School: What Classes Are Really Like

A Truly Bilingual School: What Classes Are Really Like
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Ryan W. Pontier August 12, 2015

Bilingual education is gaining popularity in many communities across the U.S. Learn from Noodle Expert Ryan Pontier what types of programs are offered and how to evaluate their educational goals to make the best choice for your family.

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Have you ever considered enrolling your child in a bilingual classroom?

There are a variety of terms used to describe the education programs that serve students who are learning English and academic content simultaneously. These offerings appeal to many different families, from those who are learning English to those who want sustained and integrated instruction in two languages. Often, they are referred to as bilingual, and while some are, many lack the goals that truly foster bilingualism and biliteracy.

The key to choosing a program that matches your child's needs is understanding the precise terminology and goals of bilingual education, as well as determining what will coincide with your family's linguistic goals.

Monolingual Education

U.S. educational programs are typically classified as monolingual or bilingual. The former offer instruction in only one language — almost always English — with the primary linguistic goal of helping students acquire spoken and written English skills. Traditionally, English-only programs do relatively little to accommodate students’ home languages because the focus is on learning English. Moreover, since there are often many different languages spoken in these classrooms, it is difficult to address the native language of each student.

# English as a Second Language

English as a Second Language (ESL) is still commonly referred to as one type of bilingual program, but it is more accurate to place it into the monolingual category of education. Although students in these classes are bilingual or emergent bilinguals (that is, those in the process of learning a second target language in addition to their home language), the teaching itself is completely monolingual. English proficiency is the goal, and English is the language of instruction. Typically, teachers are not required to speak any other languages; on the contrary, they are only required to understand English-language development. You’ll often see these programs implemented in communities where there are few emergent bilingual students or teachers who are proficient in non-English languages.

Bilingual Education

Bilingual programs, by contrast, offer instruction in at least two languages. Those programs that are truly characteristic of bilingual education fall along a continuum: That is, they offer varying amounts of home-language instruction with goals that range from English proficiency to bilingualism and biliteracy.

# Early-exit and Late-exit Programs

Early-exit and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs are found on one end of this continuum, using students’ native language as a medium of instruction — although the goal remains English proficiency. In these types of settings, the home language is used as a springboard for acquiring English. To this end, early-exit programs transition students to mainstream, English-only classes as soon as they reach a minimum specified English proficiency. By contrast, late-exit programs move children after a prolonged period of time during which they are expected to develop English proficiency.

Once students move to English-only classrooms, they no longer receive instruction in their native language. Both early- and late-exit programs exploit students’ linguistic strengths in their home language at the initial stages of acquiring English, but this support is short-lived as more and more emphasis is placed on English. And it’s important to note that some research suggests that this shift can result in language loss in a child’s home language.

Many public schools prefer one of these forms of bilingual education because the costs are lower than for dual language or immersion programs. Fewer duplicate resources — such as books, computer programs, videos, classroom posters, and so on — are needed for instruction in both languages.

# Dual-language and Two-way Immersion

On the other end of the bilingual education spectrum, there are dual language (DL) and two-way immersion (TWI) programs. In these models, students are taught in English and another language throughout the duration of the program. Some academic subjects are taught in English, while others are delivered in a second target language, such as Spanish or Mandarin. Alternatively, the language of instruction may change according to the time of day or the teacher.

DL and TWI classrooms include students who are English-speakers and speakers of the other target language, as well as those who are already bilingual or already have some level of proficiency in both languages. The aim of these approaches is to foster bilingualism and biliteracy, high academic achievement in both languages, and cross-cultural understanding. Such programs have been strongly supported by those who want to ensure that their children develop or maintain a high level of bilingual proficiency when they enter the job market.

Bilingual education is an approach that is gaining in popularity across the U.S. The term can be used to describe very different educational experiences, however. Parents will benefit from understanding the different models schools employ and how to determine which one may be right for their family.

To learn more about bilingual programs, check out Should You Consider a Bilingual Education for Your Family?.


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Fillmore, L. (2000). Loss of family languages: Should educators be concerned? Theory Into Practice, 39(4), 203-210.

Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6(3), 323-346.

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Portes, A., & Hao, L. (1998). E Pluribus Unum: Bilingualism and loss of language in the second generation. Sociology of Education, 71(4), 269-294.