What is Dual Language Education?

Jim Kallieris
Jim Kallieris
Early Learning Center Principal; M.S. in Education
Teacher sitting with a young group of students learning about languages.

What is Dual Language Education?

Whether it be called dual language, two-way immersion, or dual language immersion, the philosophy and instructional practices towards equity are one in the same. For this article, I will be using the moniker ‘dual language’ to describe this educational program. There are many different versions of dual language that exist within the United States. The variety is based on the amount of time the students spend in the target language.

Most dual language school programs nation-wide are Spanish/English, however, any other target language can be used as long as at least 50% of the classroom students speak the target language as their home language. Some programs begin as 50/50 Spanish to English language instruction. Others begin as 80/20 or even 90/10 Spanish to English language instruction. It is typically a Board of Education decision as to which of these they feel matches the needs of their community of learners.

In all of these scenarios, a language allocation plan must be implemented in order to decide which content areas are taught in Spanish and which are taught in English. There is just not enough time in a school day to teach all content areas twice, nor would this benefit the dual language learners in the program due to the fact that students would just wait to hear the content in the language they were most comfortable using.

Some dual language programs utilize a two-teacher model while others have just one teacher who speaks both languages. There are benefits and detriments to both of these models. A two-teacher model requires a great deal of collaboration between the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking teacher. However a one-teacher model could possibly lead to teacher burnout as the teacher must plan and teach all content areas and teach in both languages.

What are the Components of Dual Language Education?

Once a school district has the student population necessary and the teaching model and language allocation have been decided, professional development must be provided regarding the research-based components of a quality dual language program. Resources towards these components include: The Center for Applied Linguistics, Teaching for Biliteracy, Biliteracy from the Start, and the WIDA Consortium, to name a few.

As half of the class may not be fluent in the language of instruction, the first component of any unit of study would be a shared experience intended for all students to gain background knowledge and to build oracy so that each child has an understanding of the concept being attained. The teacher’s use of TPR (Total Physical Response) and visual or other multi-modal representations is key to building oracy or the language required to attain the concept.

Each unit of study in dual language instruction must address the four areas of reading, writing, speaking, and listening across all content areas. A content and language objective is crucial so that students understand what concept they are learning and where it fits into the scope and sequence of what students need to know, understand, and be able to do.

Most importantly, biliteracy units of study must be thematic in nature. Each concept taught needs to be contextualized through the integration of content and language. There is not enough time to teach concepts in isolation, nor is drilling isolated skills best practice for emerging bilinguals. For example, a content goal might be: Students will be able to compare and contrast the contributions to society of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. The language objective could be: Students will write in the target language about a historical figure including what positive impact that historical figure had on society.

Once these language and content goals are created, the teachers would work backwards in order to create lessons and learning activities that help their students get to the end content and language goals. Again, all learning activities would focus on the four areas of reading, writing, speaking, and listening across the content areas following the language allocation plan.

What are the Goals of Dual Language Education?

Put simply, the goal of a dual language program is for students to leave the program bilingual, biliterate, and bi- or multi-cultural. These three words can be dissected in order to unearth intricacies that are difficult for people to put in words but are extremely powerful agents of change to our educational practices.

Throughout the history of public education, there have been inequities in opportunity for quality education, especially for marginalized subgroups, including English-learners. Dual language is the great equalizer. No longer are our EL students segregated in self-contained bilingual programs with only the teacher acting as a model of the English language. ELs in a dual language program have the opportunity to utilize their home language in order to be leaders in the classroom for a portion of the day in order to support the students who only speak English at home.

Students in a dual language program actually need each other in order to be successful just as much as they need their teacher. It is for this reason that students are paired with a language counterpart. This philosophy mirrors society as a whole in that we all need each other in order to be successful in our multicultural and global workplaces. Collaboration is the key to success in a dual language program as much as it is in the real world.

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