Free Term Paper on Bilingual Education

Miriam Amanda Ferguson, known as Ma Ferguson, the first woman governor of Texas some 75 years ago, became involved in a debate about which languages should be used in teaching Texas schoolchildren. “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me,” she said. This statement characterizes the seemingly irrational view many Americans have of English. Just like motherhood, justice, freedom, democracy, and apple pie, it seems that English has become a central symbol of American culture.


I. Introduction

II. Not All of the Founding Fathers Were English Speakers

III. Bilingual Instruction: An American Tradition

IV. The Exciting 1950s and 1960s

V. Bilingual Education Redux

VI. Bilingual Programs and the Supreme Court

VII. Bilingual Education: The Research Base

VIII. Conclusion


Bilingual EducationMany view English, especially reading and writing, as the prerequisite that allows both native-born and immigrant students’ participation in schools, socialization into society, ability to learn, and academic and professional success. Many believe that the learning of English is a basic requirement of citizenship for immigrants; that it is their democratic responsibility. Many secondary teachers argue that English should be a prerequisite for entrance into their classes and are convinced that English should be a prerequisite for immigration. Issues relating to the use of languages other than English in the United States have become both contentious and politically charged. English has become so central that some states have passed English-only laws, and the group called U.S. English has organized to lobby for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would establish English as the official language. In 1998, 63 percent of the voters in California supported an anti-bilingual proposition called Proposition 227. Arizona has also passed a similar law. In the midterm election of 2006, voters of Arizona voted 849,772 (66 percent) to 295,632 (26 percent) in favor of Proposition 103 to make English the official language and to make businesses enforce the measure. A year later, Idaho and Kansas passed similar laws, and Oklahoma seemed set to pass an English-only law in November 2010. (See for an interesting view of English.)

The passage of the law in California in 1998 neither made the advocates of English-only happy nor did it eliminate bilingual education. The bilingual lobby is now simply defying the state law. A front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle headlined “Educators Working around Prop. 227 ” reports that, “in many Bay Area school districts, bilingual education lives.” When kids got back to school, “they found bilingual education waiting for them.” The bilingual education director in Contra Costa County defiantly said, “If a child is very limited in English proficiency, we will offer [native] language instruction. It’s essentially the same as what we offered last year” (Amselle and Moore 1998, 2).

The mere mention of bilingual instruction disturbs many Americans. Those who speak English as a second language are seen as the culprits of lower reading scores in many jurisdictions. Unfortunately, students who speak languages other than English at home are less likely to succeed in schools. Spanish-speaking students are less likely to complete high school than English speakers and are also less likely to go on to university. Immigrants enrolled in secondary school English-only programs do not do well academically, and they drop out at alarming rates. Such students could be helped in their studies by some kind of support in their first languages. The political climate is such, however, that the use of languages other than English or bilingual instructional programs causes general societal and governmental angst. History, however, reveals that the United States is a country of diversity that has welcomed people who speak many different languages. How then, has it transpired that English-only is considered by so many as the only way; the American way?

Not All of the Founding Fathers Were English Speakers

The earliest European colonists to America were English speakers. However, by 1776, there were thousands of German settlers in what became the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, and Ohio. The Continental Congress produced German versions of many of its proclamations. Heinz Kloss, in The American Bilingual Tradition (1998), notes that “the most important German publication of the Continental Congress was the German edition of the Articles of Confederation, which had the title: ‘Artikel des Bundes under der immerwahrenden Eintracht zwischen den Staaten’ ” (28). And the recognition of the German language was also a recognition of “a strong and enthusiastic participation of most of the German minority in the armed rebellion” (28).

According to Kloss, the Third Congress was asked in 1794 by individuals from Virginia to print copies of federal laws in German. This issue did not come up for a vote until 1795, when it lost, 41 to 42. Kloss notes these events gave rise to the “Muhlenberg legend.” The legend is that the Congress wanted to make German rather than English the official language of Congress, and Muhlenberg, the speaker of the House, “thwarted” the action (30). Kloss concludes that this is not true. It is true, however, that the first Constitutional Convention in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania on July 26, 1776, published records in German. Therefore, the use of German in state business is as old as the state itself.

Bilingual Instruction: An American Tradition

The state of Ohio first authorized German-English instruction in 1839. Laws authorized French and English programs in Louisiana in 1847 and Spanish and English in the territory of New Mexico in 1850. By the end of the 1800s, nearly a dozen states had established bilingual programs in languages such as Norwegian, Italian, Cherokee, Czechoslovakian, and Polish. Reports revealed that about 600,000 students were receiving some or all of their education in German. During the years before the First World War there were thousands of students enrolled in bilingual classes. Subjects such as mathematics and history were taught in students’ first languages. However, it appears that the First World War signaled a hardening of attitudes toward instruction in languages other than English. This negative view appears to have solidified during the Second World War and did not change substantially until the 1960s. It is important to note that immigrant students did not do so well in their studies by being immersed in English-only programs. During the later 1800s and early 1900s, immigrant students did considerably worse than their English-speaking classmates.

Immigrant groups did much worse than the native-born, and some immigrant groups did much worse. The poorest were Italians. According to a 1911 federal immigration commission report, in Boston, Chicago, and New York, 80 percent of native white children in the seventh grade stayed in school another year, but 58 percent of Southern Italian children, 62 percent of Polish children, and 74 percent of Russian Jewish children did so. Of those who made it to the eighth grade, 58 percent of the native whites went on to high school, but only 23 percent of the Southern Italians did so. In New York, 54 percent of native-born eighth-graders made it to ninth grade, but only 34 percent of foreign-born eighth-graders did so (Olneck and Lazerson 1974).

By the mid-1940s, bilingual education had become unpopular in general, and it seems that an anti-German response was likely responsible.

The Exciting 1950s and 1960s

The space age was launched on October 4, 1957, by the Soviet Union. The successful launch of Sputnik I was followed by the launch of Sputnik II on November 3. A great feeling of failure became part of the American psyche, and a general angst focused Americans’ attention on how the Soviet Union had been first. The schools became the target for critics who believed they were not producing the scientists required to keep the United States first in technology and science. In 1963, H. G. Rickover wrote American Education: A National Failure. As a result of his efforts, a focus turned to training students to become scientists. However, in the early 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking Cubans arriving in Florida resulted in a resurgence of and a refocus on bilingual education in an environment of the drive for civil rights.

Bilingual Education Redux

Systematic bilingual programs in the United States appeared in Dade County in Florida after the influx of thousands of Spanish-speaking Cubans. These bilingual programs were designed to be transitional; that is, the first language was used to support students until their English skills developed and they could learn in English. The majority of students’ early education in this model was conducted in their first language, with a daily period reserved for English instruction. Students began to transition to English after they had attained a degree of English proficiency. These programs came to be known as transitional bilingual education, or TBE. It is interesting to note that, in 1968, Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law California Senate Bill 53 that allowed the use of other instructional languages in California public schools. Like other Republicans in the 1960s, he was a proponent of bilingual instruction.

Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act (known as Title VII) in 1968. The act specified that individuals who “come from environments where a language other than English has had a significant impact on their level of English language proficiency; and who, by reason thereof, have sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language” should be provided bilingual programs. All programs had to provide students “full access to the learning environment, the curriculum, special services and assessment in a meaningful way.” Congress did not provide funding for Title VII. However, subsequently it provided support, and 27,000 students were served by Title VII–funded programs. The bill encouraged instruction in a language other than English, primarily Spanish.

Bilingual Programs and the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 concluded that all students had the right to access educational programs in schools and that an individual’s first language (L1) was a key to such access. The decision is referred to as Lau v. Nichols. In essence, the Court stated that school districts must have measures in place that make instruction comprehensible to English learners. The decision included a number of comments, as well, one of which was the following:

-Basic English skills are at the very core of what public schools teach. Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education.

Title II of the Educational Amendments Act of 1974 mandated that language barriers were to be eliminated by instructional programs. School districts were required to have bilingual programs. The new teachers were told that any group having 20 or more speakers was to be provided bilingual programs. In another ruling, Castaneda v. Pickard (1981), the Supreme Court laid out guidelines for schools with respect to how to meet the needs of English language learners.

By the mid-1980s, however, it seemed that a more pessimistic view of bilingual education had taken hold across the United States. A form of ethnic politics came to dominate instructional decision making, and by the end of the decade there were calls in several states to make laws limiting or banning bilingual education. In 1992, an Arizona state court upheld a parent’s claim that her child, an English language learner, was not being provided with sufficient English-language instruction to allow the child to succeed in school. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, taking up the matter years later (in Horne v. Flores, 2009), overturned the state court’s decision and offered the opinion that the state could determine its own requirements as to English language learning instruction. Two decades of openness toward bilingual education on the part of the Court seemed to be in jeopardy.

Bilingual Education: The Research Base

Researchers became interested in exploring bilingual education beginning in the late 1960s and found evidence that a student’s initial reading instruction, for instance, should be in their native language. The belief was that students should learn to read in their L1s first as the “native-language literacy axiom.” Some early researchers, particularly those who looked at French-immersion programs in Canada, concluded that students do not necessarily learn to read best in their L1s. This is an argument that continues. Generally, however, the students in these early studies were from families in which both English and French were highly valued and the dominant language was English.

There are two kinds of language proficiencies to be learned: basic interpersonal communicative skill (BICS), the language of ordinary conversation or the manifestation of language proficiency in everyday communicative contexts, and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), the language of instruction and academic text. These labels might lead to a misinterpretation of the complexities they seek to describe and imply a deficit model of language. CALP has been likened to “test-wiseness” and is sometimes referred to by an additional acronym: SIN, or “skill in instructional nonsense,” a term coined by C. Edelsky in With Literacy and Justice for All: Rethinking the Social in Language and Education. The two labels have generally, however, come to represent two categories of proficiency; one associated with face-to-face conversation (BICS) and the other with learning in the context-reduced cognitively demanding oral and written environment of the classroom (CALP). Older students use knowledge of academic material and concepts gained studying L1 to help them in L2, and the acquisition of L2 occurs faster. A number of researchers found that BICS requires about two to three years to develop and that CALP takes about five to seven years.

Cummins and Swain (1986) proposed a common underlying proficiency (CUP) model based on the notion that “literacy-related aspects of a bilingual’s proficiency in L1 and L2 are seen as common or interdependent across languages” (82). Literacy experience in either language promotes the underlying interdependent proficiency base. This view suggests that “common cross-lingual proficiencies underlie the obviously different surface manifestations of each language” (82). There is evidence to support CUP; however, there is only modest evidence of transfer of language skills. Common underlying proficiency has also been referred to as the interdependence principle, and some research provides powerful long-term evidence that common underlying proficiency or interdependence does exist.

The 1990s brought a focused research effort to investigate bilingual education but resulted in little definitive evidence that transitional bilingual education is a superior strategy for improving language achievement. Bilingual immersion programs were designed to introduce minority students to English during the early years by integrating second-language instruction with content-area instruction. Immersion students showed an early significant advantage at grade four that disappeared by grade seven. One major difficulty in evaluating bilingual studies is that there are so many variations in programs across studies. A second major difficulty is that many studies are neither well designed nor well evaluated. A third difficulty is that authors often take for granted that what other authors claim is true of their findings is, in fact, true.

Dual-immersion programs were an alternative to TBE programs that gained popularity in the 1990s. Two-way immersion programs are defined as the integration of language-majority and language-minority students in the same classrooms, where: (1) language-minority and language-majority students are integrated for at least half of the day at all grade levels; (2) content and literacy instruction are provided in both languages to all students; and (3) language-minority and language-majority students are balanced. The support for dual-immersion programs, like other bilingual programs, is limited.

The director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development established the National Reading Panel in 1997 as a result of a congressional request (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development 2006). The issue of second- language learning was not included in the panel because it was to be addressed by a different research review. An additional National Literacy Panel was established to conduct a literature review on the literacy of language-minority children and youth. In August 2005, the U.S. Department of Education declined to publish the report of the National Literacy Panel, reportedly “because of concerns about its technical adequacy and the degree to which it could help inform policy and practice.”

Research has found that secondary students in English-only schools disappeared from academic classes at about a 60 percent rate, and there were significant differences in disappearance rate among ethnolinguistic groups. The relatively high socioeconomic status students who were Mandarin speakers achieved at higher rates and had lower disappearance rates than did the low socioeconomic status students who were Spanish and Vietnamese speakers. Other research shows that structured English immersion resulted in higher success for English language learners.

There is a constant debate between advocates of English-only and advocates of bilingual programs. The claims that one instructional approach is superior to any other appear to be founded on limited or questionable evidence. At best, inferences about best approaches appear to have limited empirical support. It is impossible to conduct scientific research in a typical school, because there are too many confounding variables to control. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of English language learners are failing to learn in school and are dropping out. In the United States, Spanish-speaking students are less likely to complete high school than English speakers and are also less likely to go on to university. The 2005 National Assessment of Adult Literacy report states that, “Perhaps most sobering was that adult literacy dropped or was fl at across every level of education, from people with graduate degrees to those who dropped out of high school” (National Institute for Literacy 2006). It also states that those who have higher literacy levels made about $50,000 a year, which is $28,000 more than those who had only minimal literacy skills. It is estimated that the loss of potential wages and taxes in the United States alone over the lifespan of the total number of dropouts in a year is approximately $260 trillion. For countries like the United States that are striving to have a technically trained work force and to remain technically superior, dropouts are a serious difficulty. It is a significant problem that seems to be ignored in favor of arguments about the language of instruction. It remains to be seen what the Obama administration will do in the area of bilingual education, but Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated that educating bilingual students is a matter of civil rights and has requested $800 million for English language learner programs in 2011.


The struggle to learn English and to learn academic content is extremely difficult. English language learners deal with the trials and tribulations of growing into adulthood while trying to master English and multiple sets of expectations from their schoolmates, their friends, their teachers, and their parents. Many hundreds of thousands drop out. Proponents and opponents of bilingual education argue their viewpoints vehemently, often referring to research or to political views to support their beliefs. Most bilingual research is focused on younger students, and what happens in secondary and postsecondary situations has had little attention. Much like Ma Ferguson, modern-day critics often make statements that are not always logical. Bob Dole, for instance, argued that “We must stop the practice of multilingual educations as a means of instilling ethnic pride, or as a therapy for low self-esteem, or out of guilt over a culture built on the traditions of the west.” The former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, concluded: “Bilingualism keeps people actively tied to their old language and habits and maximizes the cost of transition to becoming American,” and “Without English as a common language, there is no such civilization.” He also has stated, “When we allow children to stay trapped in bilingual programs where they do not learn English, we are destroying their economic future.”

The scandalous situation is that English language learners are not learning the academic skills to allow them to enter into our technological society, and they are dropping out at high rates—some groups more than others. Meanwhile, educators, researchers, politicians, and others seem intent on proving that their views of English-only or bilingual instruction are right rather than on searching for the best programs to assure that all students, including English language learners, learn the vital skills they need to participate in this technologically based society. Is learning English in a bilingual program so evil? It seems time to wake up to history. Diversity has worked well for the United States in the past; one wonders, why not today?


Lee Gunderson



  1. Amselle, J., and S. Moore, “North of the Border—Mexico Lobbies for Specific U.S. Educational Policies” (includes related article on California’s Proposition 227). National Review (October 12, 1998): 22–24.
  2. Cummins, Jim, and Merill Swain, Bilingualism in Education: Aspects of Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Longman, 1986.
  3. Edelsky, Carole, With Literacy and Justice for All: Rethinking the Social in Language and Education. New York: Falmer Press, 1991.
  4. Gandara, Patricia, and Megan Hopkins, Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.
  5. Garcia, Eugene E., Teaching and Learning in Two Languages: Bilingualism and Schooling in the United States. New York: Teachers College Press, 2005.
  6. Gunderson, Lee, English-Only Instruction and Immigrant Students in Secondary Schools: A Critical Examination. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007.
  7. Kloss, Heinz, The American Bilingual Tradition. McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1998 (orig. 1977, Newbury House).
  8. National Center for Education Statistics, Language Minorities and Their Educational and Labor Market Indicators—Recent Trends. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, 2004.
  9. National Institute for Literacy, “Adults with Basic and Below Basic Literacy Levels: Findings from NAAL and Implications for Practice” (2006).
  10. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, “Report of the National Reading Panel” (2006).
  11. Olneck, M. R., and M. Lazerson, “The School Achievement of Immigrant Children: 1900–1930.” History of Education Quarterly (Winter 1974): 453–482.
  12. Salomone, Rosemary C., True Americans: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  13. Samway, Katharine Davies, and Denise McKeon, Myths and Realities: Best Practices for English Language Learners, 2d ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007.