What if our Dual Language Program is Not Working?

We know that, according to national research, a well-executed Dual Language program results in better performance for Emergent Bilinguals than any other form of support.  However, Thomas & Collier (2004-2012) share a “warning graph” that demonstrates that calling a program “Dual Language” is not sufficient to get the results we intend for our students.  

In order to close the opportunity gap for our Emergent Bilinguals, we need to consistently monitor our results as our students move through the program to ensure that they are on the trajectory for closing the opportunity gap.  Note that this does not mean that we are expecting students to ace an English Language Arts test in 3rd grade itself, but we expect their average scores to be where Thomas & Collier (2001-2009) demonstrate students should be based on whether they are in a One-Way or Two-Way Dual Language Program.  We should also be ensuring that growth in the Language Other Than English (LOTE) is happening with students eventually becoming balanced bilinguals.

But what happens if we look at our data and realize that our students are not making the growth we had expected?  Does this mean that Dual Language programs do not work?  Are our students different and therefore, do they need a different program?  Do we scrap our programs all together?  Of course not.

When our students are not making the growth we expect them to make, we need to look at and improve the quality of our programming.  By asking ourselves the following 7 questions (without being judgmental about ourselves but instead looking for opportunities for growth), we can better our work and provide the equitable education our students deserve.  

  1. How much time are we spending in the LOTE? – One of the non-negotiables of Dual Language is that at least 50% of content instruction should take place in the LOTE (Beeman and Urow, 2013).  This means that if we are not adhering to the Language Allocation Plan or if we are pulling Emergent Bilingual students out of content instruction in the LOTE for English instruction, we need to adjust our schedules to ensure that our students are getting 50% of their content instruction in the LOTE.
  2. Are we teaching Language Arts in both languages? – The other half of the above non-negotiable is that Language Arts should be taught in both languages each year (Beeman and Urow, 2013).  Hence, we need to make sure that we are teaching literacy in both languages.  Otherwise, we are losing the “Dual” in our Dual Language and are not likely to see the results we desire.
  3. Are we teaching all the standards? – One of the goals of Dual Language Education is high academic achievement in both languages (Howard et. al, 2018). Hence, we need to teach all standards (although all of the standards do not need to be taught in both languages).  Are we teaching all the standards?  If not, do we need to adjust our pacing?  Do we need to create or purchase resources?  Is there something else getting in the way of teaching all of the standards?  If there is, how do we address it? 
  4. Are the adults in the classroom adhering to separation of language? –  Separation of language on the part of adults is a nonnegotiable of Dual Language Education (Beeman & Urow, 2013).  Of course, teachers need to be using language acquisition strategies such as visuals, gesturing, graphic organizers, etc, to ensure comprehensible input for students who are not yet proficient in the language of instruction.  It is worth noting that students are allowed to use all of their linguistic repertoire (although teachers can use their professional judgment to push students to stay in the language of instruction when appropriate.  For example, when students are practicing with sentence stems or if the teacher knows that a student has the needed linguistic ability for an activity, they may ask students, for a certain amount of time, to stay in the language of instruction.)
  5. Are the adults in the classroom also engaged in bridging? – Although the adults practice separation of language,  Beeman & Urow (2013) are clear that there should be time dedicated to intentional translanguaging when teachers and students have the opportunity to both bridge academic standards/vocabulary from one language to another and focus on metalinguistic analysis.  
  6. Is our program at least 6 years?  – Dual Language programs must be at least 6 years, preferably longer.  If our program lasts only for three years, for example, it is not a Dual Language program.  We need to focus our energies on ensuring that the years we are focusing on bilingual education are strong and then work on expanding our program. 
  7. Are we ensuring that we are pulling from our toolbox of good instruction? – Instructional tools such as planning, having content and language objectives, establishing relationships both with students and their families, differentiating instruction, and working at higher levels of depth of knowledge do not disappear once the program becomes bilingual.  We should always be evaluating our own teaching and seeking non evaluative feedback from our colleagues to help us identify our own strengths and weaknesses so that we can grow as professionals.

In conclusion, throwing away a Dual Language program because test results are not where we expect them is the same as throwing the baby away with the bathwater.  Instead, we should work on figuring out how we need to improve and respond in kind.

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