Bilingual Education: An Overview

Rosa Castro Feinberg and Consuelo Conde Morencia

It is increasingly common for teachers to have students in their classes who are learners of the English language. Estimates of percentages of students designated as limited English proficient (LEP) in 1994-95 range from 24% in Alaska to 0.3% in Mississippi and Tennessee; overall, the percentage of LEP students in public and private schools was 7%.1

As of October 1995, there were 6.3 million school age children in the United States with a home language other than English (with Spanish as the home language for five million school-agers). This represented an increase of 38% over the course of a decade. Of this group, which constituted 13.9% of the total school age population, approximately 2.4 million had difficulty speaking English.2 Based on March 1997 census data, Rumbaut concludes that the fastest growing segment of the U.S. child population includes 3 million foreign-born children under 18, and more than 10 million U.S.-born children under 18 living with at least one foreign-born parentóor 20% of all children and youth in America.3

The serious implications of this growth for the total school program are obvious, but determining how best to teach these students is not so easy. First and second generation immigrant students often place great value on education and outperform their districtís norms on grade point averages, while exhibiting lower drop-out rates. Yet success rates of different national origin groups vary greatly. As would be expected, those who experience the greatest conditions of adversity and discrimination typically perform at lower levels than do peers who receive a positive reception in their new country.

The achievement status of LEP students is typically low, even though it varies by nationality. It is not unusual to find that English-language learners score below acceptable levels on high stakes tests, are at greater risk of leaving school, are less likely to go to college than are their English proficient peers, are over-represented in remedial or compensatory programs, and are under-represented in both courses for the college-bound and courses to prepare students for highly paid vocations. Data submitted by 33 state education agencies reveals that 27% of the LEP students in those states scored below their state norms on standardized tests administered in 1994-95 in English reading, mathematics, science, or social studies.4

Such statistics suggest a need for more educators who are prepared to teach linguistically and culturally diverse students across the curriculum. Language-minority students are being placed in mainstream classrooms in increasing numbers, even though they have separate instruction in bilingual programs for part of the day. Mainstream teachers must therefore learn the skills and strategies needed to teach these students and become familiar with the resources that can assist them. This article will summarize factors that affect the design of bilingual education programs and describe the program components that are necessary to provide education services to English-language learners.

Historical and Political Context

Linguistic diversity has been a fact of life on this continent and in its schools since before the founding of this country. German-language schools, for example, were established in Philadelphia by 1694 and were common in the midwest until the early 1900s.5 By the mid-1800s, instruction in French in Louisiana, in Spanish in New Mexico, and in a number of other languages in other jurisdictions had been explicitly authorized by state and local education authorities. With each of the world wars, however, nativist positions acquired greater popularity, so that language restrictions in the form of English-only laws now exist in 23 states.

The issue underlying language restrictions is familiar to anyone in multicultural education. The basic question is whether this country is best served by a citizenry that holds to one culture and one language or by one that expresses allegiance to the fundamental principles of American democracy in a variety of cultural and linguistic ways. Those who favor the former support language education programs that result in personal and societal monolingualism; those who favor the latter support programs that result in personal and societal bilingualism or multilingualism.

Economic Issues

Practical business considerations often eclipse political and philosophical debates over language education, for the simple fact is that in a global economy, employees with skills in more than one language and culture are needed. The top three exporting states in the country, for example, are also the countryís most populated states; two of these are Texas and California, ranked second and third in land area. How did Florida, with its 1992 population of 13,487,621 and its 22nd ranking in land area, leapfrog into eighth place on international commerce criteria? The emergence of a bilingual work force is a significant contributing factor.

Floridaís Dade County (now Miami-Dade County) government had gone on record as opposed to bilingualism. But, recognizing the importance of bilingualism to the local economy, several business organizations including the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce called for increased access for all students to bilingual programs with the scope to promote biliteracy. A study commissioned by the chamber and the Policy Studies Center of the Cuban American National Council documented unmet linguistic needs in the South Florida workplace.6 Although many local high school graduates had oral command of the Spanish language sufficient for social and family needs, their reading and writing skills in Spanish were not sufficient for firms engaged in international trade and commerce.

Dadeís school board, a leader in bilingual and foreign language education since the early 1960s, responded with the unanimous approval of plans to achieve this goal, including a reaffirmation of previously approved but largely unaddressed system priority goals supporting biliteracy. It allocated more than two million dollars to do so, and approved resolutions in opposition to Californiaís Proposition 227 (which limited special instruction in English to one year and prohibited instruction provided through a home language).

Studies have also identified the personal economic consequences of monolingualism. University of Miami Professor Thomas Boswell investigated the relationship between bilingualism and income in multilingual South Florida, as revealed in 1990 census figures. His conclusions are that persons who speak English very well earn incomes that average $8,034 more than those who do not speak English at all and that Hispanics who speak Spanish at home but also function very well in English have annual median and mean incomes about $2,000 higher than Hispanics who speak only English.7 It is no surprise that those who do not speak English have limited economic prospects. This report, however, is among the first to identify an economic disadvantage for Hispanics who speak only English.

Language Education Programs

English language, social studies, and other content area teachers all have major roles to play in meeting these legal mandates and supporting the educational process that is the mandateís ultimate objective.

The Legal Context

There are no constitutional language rights per se other than the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. Language-minority students are, however, protected by a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of national origin. Persons whose home language, native language, or most frequently used language is other than English are included in the group defined as National Origin Minority (NOM). Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbids federally funded discrimination, Title VI prohibits discrimination or exclusion from participation or benefits on the ground of race, color, or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. The penalty for non-compliance can be the termination of all federal funds.

Apart from the Civil Rights Act, there are a number of federal requirements for services to language-minority students that are presently applicable to (though not yet honored by) all U.S. school districts. They include the following:

> May 25, 1970, Memorandum

According to the May 25, 1970, Memorandum sent by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to every Chief State School Officer and superintendents of districts with large numbers of language-minority students, Title VI is applicable to NOM students.8 The memorandum includes the following:

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 school district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to those students.

In other words, school districts must take affirmative steps to teach English to LEP students and must not exclude such children solely on the basis of language from effective participation in any part of its programs. This first directive of the memorandum extends not only to the areas of the curriculum required by the state or district, but to all programs offered by the district including college preparatory, vocational education, and gifted programs.

The second directive in this memorandum, reinforced by similar provisions in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is that language-minority students should not be inappropriately tracked into dead-end educational programs nor inappropriately placed in or denied the services of special education programs. Fulfilling this requirement requires the solution of two problems. The first is to avoid culturally and linguistically biased testing procedures and instruments, which lead to inappropriate placements. The second is to avoid denying LEP students meaningful compensatory or special education services that are in fact needed.

The third directiveóto communicate effectively with parents of LEP studentsómust generally be accomplished in the home language. Obviously, there can be no effective inclusion of LEP parents in school communication programs without use of languages understood by those parents. If parents are not literate in their home language, the school district must use whichever mode of communication is effective, including mass communications media such as radio and television.

> Lau v. Nichols

A class action brought by San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Services on behalf of a group of Chinese students in San Franciscoís school district led to a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the LEP students in 1974.9 The court found that the district had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to provide these students with special instruction designed to overcome their English language deficiency:

There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, text books, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.

> Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974

The requirements set forth in the May 25th Memorandum and the Lau decision were fashioned into federal legislation that included a prohibition against unlawful denial of equal educational opportunity to NOM students. The act, a floor amendment to the 1974 legislation amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, states in Section 1703:

No state shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, by . . . (f) the failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional program.

School districts were again directed to take affirmative steps and appropriate action to comply and were required to attend to the educational needs of even one LEP student, as well as to those of students from language groups represented in larger numbers. Under this act, state and local education agencies were charged with compliance responsibilities.

> Castaneda v. Pickard

The criteria for determining what constitutes sufficient affirmative steps and appropriate action were provided in Castaneda v. Pickard in 1981.10 In this case, the Appeals Court for the Fifth Circuit outlined a three-point test to determine the effectiveness of an alternative program for LEP students. Because the same criteria are used by the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education in reviewing school district programs for NOM students, it has national application.11 The court asked three questions:

1. Is the school system pursuing a program based on an education theory recognized as sound or, at least, as a legitimate experimental strategy, by experts in the field of providing services to LEP students?

2. Have sufficient resources been allocated to the program so that it can reasonably be expected to implement the selected theory?

3. After being used for enough time to constitute a legitimate trial, has the program proved effective in teaching English and other content areas?

In remanding the case to the lower court, the appeals court made clear its expectation that effective program implementation can only be carried out by teachers specifically trained and linguistically qualified to provide those services.

> Plyler v. Doe

Although Plyler does not deal with language issues per se, this 1982 decision affords constitutional protection to foreign-born NOM students. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states and public schools are prohibited under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution from disparate treatment of undocumented students solely on the basis of their immigration status. Education agencies are also prohibited by this decision from requiring information of students that might expose their undocumented status and thus have a chilling effect on their right to free, equal, and unhindered access to the public schools or on the performance of their duty to attend public schools in conformity with state compulsory attendance laws.12

English Language Development

Many districts offer courses in English as a Second Language (ESL) or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for English-language learners. The task of the ESOL teacher is similar to that of the foreign language teacher, in that both teach a language and culture that is not native to their students and both draw on other areas of the curriculum. They differ, however, in that the language taught by the ESOL teacher is English, so ESOL curriculum goals eventually dovetail with goals of the English language arts program.

English language arts instruction, on the other hand, presupposes command of the English language. When LEP students are placed in these classes, absent other sources of English language development support, they are left to sink or swim; generally they sink into failure.

Submersion programs are often compared to ìimmersion education,î a term that refers to the language programs for language majority (English-speaking) students in Quebec initiated at the request of Anglophone parents. A pilot program was established in St. Lambert, a small community outside Montreal, in 1965. For most of the school day, students in the early grades received instruction in French, the other official language of Canada. Instruction in English was introduced in the later grades for part of the school day, as the program goal was for students to learn French while maintaining their Englishóthat is, to add another language, not to replace the native language. This pilot program was successful, and subsequent immersion programs have been widely adopted in Canada, the United States, and Europe.13

The similarity of immersion to submersion programs is spurious, however, for immersion programs are a form of bilingual education in which students who speak the language of the majority receive part of their instruction through the medium of a second language and part through their first language. They thus have an additive goal. Submersion programs, on the other hand, have a subtractive goal because they seek to replace the native language of the language-minority population. The sociolinguistic environment, therefore, is not the same, nor has there been a record of success for submersion approaches for LEP students. Indeed, it was the failure of the ìsink or swimî approach of submersion programs, reflected in the high drop-out rates of language minority students, that led to the search for alternative approaches, such as ESOL programs.

Bilingual education programs in this country include ESOL as a program component. Typically, such programs also include instruction in Home Language Arts, which provides the base from which literacy and language skills will transfer to English language settings. These programs can be transitional in character, serving as a humane bridge to all-English language instruction, or developmental, serving to maintain and develop home language skills even after the student has mastered English.

Social studies teachers can assist with the language development process by working in collaboration with the schoolís language specialists to coordinate instructional goals. This collaboration includes identification of the vocabulary and language structures that LEP students must master to understand the social studies lesson. The ESOL teacher provides the required content-related language instruction, and the social studies teacher reinforces the language objectives while presenting the content.

Content Areas

Access to the curriculum in content areas other than English is approached in a variety of ways. In many districts, LEP students spend a period or two in ESOL classes and the rest of the day in classes with English-proficient students. In the absence of teacher training programs to prepare content teachers to work effectively with LEP students, it is difficult for districts to document the success of this approach.

In other districts, LEP students are enrolled only in art, music, and physical education while they are in the beginning stages of English-language learning. Access to subjects with heavier verbal loads is provided through home language instruction or in sheltered settings, where ESOL teachers provide instruction in the content areas in English through ESOL methods. Transitional ESOL classes prepare LEP students in the learning strategies and study skills needed for success in all-English language instructional settings prior to the gradual substitution of mainstream classes for those conducted in the home language or in sheltered content classes.

A special form of immersion, the two-way bilingual or dual-language immersion model, also called developmental bilingual education, has been gaining ground in the last two decades.14 Students receive content instruction in two languagesóEnglish and that of the language-minority groupóeach for 50% of the instructional time. A special characteristic of these programs is that they provide an environment that promotes positive attitudes toward the two languages and toward the cultures associated with those languages. This model aims at additive bilingualism and biliteracy for both minority and majority language students.

Social studies teachers can help their LEP students meet challenging content area instructional goals by adapting their instructional materials and procedures to take into account their studentsí level of English language development and knowledge of American culture.15 For example, information in text materials can be presented in the form of maps, diagrams, mind maps, charts, or outlines, thereby reducing the amount of text to be processed and highlighting essential elements. To reduce ambiguity, regular classroom routines can be established and associated expectations explicitly addressed and marked. Cooperative learning groups provide opportunities for LEP students to ask questions and rehearse answers in the safety of a small-group setting. Sources of information in the home language can be made available by teachers who are bilingual or by monolingual teachers working with bilingual parent or community volunteers, peer tutors, or paraprofessionals and with home language print materials, software, or web sites. Teachers can continue their professional development in this area informally, through collaboration with the school language specialists, and by reviewing materials or taking courses.


This overview is intended to provide a basis for further consideration of a topic becoming more important every day in education. A useful next step for teachers is to review the products developed by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence. This groupís research program has identified five generic principles for effective education:16

> Facilitate learning through joint productive activity among teacher and students.

> Develop studentsí competence in the language and literacy of instruction throughout all instructional activities.

> Contextualize teaching and curriculum in the experiences and skills of home and community.

> Challenge students toward cognitive complexity.

> Engage students through dialogue, especially the Instructional Conversation.

These principles are valid for helping all students achieve academic excellence in our schools today and in the future.


1. Reynaldo F. Macías and Candace Kelly, Summary Report of the Survey of the Statesí Limited English Proficient Students and Available Educational Programs and Services 1994-1995 (Washington, DC: The George Washington University, December 6, 1996). Available at: seareports/94-95/index.htm#TOC [Sept. 12, 1998].

2. Dorothy Waggoner, ìNumber of School-Age Home Speakers of Non-English Languages Continues to Grow,î Numbers and Needs: Ethnic and Linguistic Minorities in the United States 8, no. 2 (Washington, DC: March, 1998). Available: edmr98.htm [Sept. 5, 1998].

3. Ruben Rumbaut, ìTransformations: The Post-Immigrant Generation in an Age of Diversity,î Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society, Philadelphia, PA, March 21, 1998.

4. Macías and Kelly, op. cit.

5. James Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice (Trenton, NJ: Crane Publishing Company, 1989), 1-18.

6. Sandra Fradd, The Economic Impact of Spanish-Language Proficiency in Metropolitan Miami (Miami: University of Miami/The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce/The Policy Center of the Cuban American National Council, Inc., 1996).

7. Thomas D. Boswell, ìImplications of Demographic Changes in Floridaís Public School Population,î in Creating Floridaís Multilingual Global Work Force: Educational Policies and Practices for Students Learning English as a New Language, edited by S. H. Fradd and O. Lee (Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Education, 1998).

8. J. S. Pottinger (Director, OCR/DHEW) (1970) Memorandum to School Districts With More Than Five Percent National Origin-Minority Group Children regarding Identification of Discrimination and Denial of Services on the Basis of National Origin. 35 Federal Register 11595

9. Lau v. Nichols (1974) 414 U.S. 563.

10. Castaneda v. Pickard (1981) 648 F.2d 989 (5th Cir.).

11. OCR Title VI Language Minority Compliance Procedures (Washington: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, December 3, 1985).

12. Plyler v. Doe (1982) 457 U.S. 202.

13. H. Baetens Beardsmore, ìAn Overview of European Models of Bilingual Education,î in Towards Global Multilingualism: European Models and Asian Realities, ed. R. Khoo, U. Kreher, and R. Wong (Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 1994).

14. Donna Christian, ìTwo-Way Immersion Education: Students Learning Through Two Languages,î The Modern Language Journal 80 (1996): 66-76.

15. Deborah Short and Chris Montone, Integrating Language and Culture in the Social Studies: Teacher Training Packet (Washington, DC: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning/CAL, 1996).

16. CREDE, ERIC Digest: From At-Risk to Excellence: Principles for Practice (Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, Clearinghouse on Language and Linguistics, Oct. 1997).


Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL)

Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE)

Comprehensive Regional Assistance Centers (CRACS)

Desegregation Assistance Centers (DACs)

National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)

National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) Committees/Assoc/NAME/

National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE) search_biblio.html

Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA)

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

Rosa Castro Feinberg is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Professional Studies in the College of Education at Florida International University, teaching courses in TESOL Curriculum and Sociocultural Foundations. She welcomes correspondence on this article and can be reached at Consuelo Conde Morencia is professor of secondary education and director of the English Seminar at the Tres Cantos Institute for Secondary Education in Madrid, Spain.