Critical Components of Effective Bilingual Programs

by multilingualmania on November 15, 2009

in Bilingual Ed 101, Bilingual Education, bilingual teachers

Over the past couple of months I have had the opportunity to meet with many bilingual teachers throughout the state of California and have listened to the various experiences that they have had as bilingual educators. A reoccurring theme that often surfaces in our conversations about bilingual education is that many teachers feel that they are unfamiliar with the critical components that characterize effective bilingual education programs, and they often do not have school administrators or school district personnel who are able to build and sustain effective bilingual programs.

“In our school district we don’t have a bilingual coordinator and our school principal doesn’t really understand the Dual Immersion program. We are just hanging on by a thread and sometimes we are just winging it. We don’t really know what we need to do,” a fifth grade Dual Immersion teacher stated at a recent testing committee for the California standards-based test in Spanish.

Another teacher at the testing committee meeting stated, “I’m so jealous to hear about some of the bilingual teachers who work for schools that have a plan for their bilingual program. In my school, none of us know how much Spanish or English we should teach at each grade level and it’s very confusing.”


Such comments about the lack of support or understanding of the critical components that characterize effective bilingual education programs is alarming. It’s imperative that bilingual teachers, administrators, school staff, and parents of children enrolled in bilingual programs understand and implement the following essential components in order to build rigorous bilingual programs. The following components are non-negotiable when implementing bilingual programs, whether they are Dual Immersion, transitional bilingual education, or maintenance bilingual education programs:

#1 Effective bilingual programs have administrators and site instructional personnel who are knowledgeable and supportive of the goals and design of the bilingual program.

Site administrators of bilingual programs must be highly committed to the program. Administrators must be able to clearly explain the goals and design of the program to parents, teachers and other stakeholders. Effective administrators of bilingual programs ensure that bilingual teachers receive training and materials that support the goals of the bilingual program. Effective administrators of bilingual programs also ensure that there are sufficient instructional personnel to support the distinct needs of bilingual educators in the area of professional development and classroom coaching. Administrators provide frequent opportunities for bilingual teachers to meet as a vertical bilingual team to discuss issues related to the bilingual program. It’s highly recommended that administrators possess basic proficiency in the minority language (i.e., Spanish, French, German, etc), but not essential for program success.

#2 Effective bilingual programs have highly qualified bilingual teachers.

Highly qualified bilingual teachers are committed to and are able to clearly articulate the goals and program design of the bilingual program. Effective bilingual teachers hold an appropriate bilingual teaching authorization and are highly trained in dual language and second language acquisition pedagogy. Highly qualified bilingual educators possess high levels of conversational fluency and academic proficiency in both languages of the program. Effective bilingual teachers are highly skilled in the ability to collaborate with bilingual teachers at their particular grade level as well as other bilingual teachers in different grade levels within the bilingual program. In Dual Immersion programs, teachers must also have high levels of cross-cultural competence because they work with children and families of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

#3 Effective bilingual programs have a clearly articulated program model design that is faithfully implemented at each grade level.

Effective bilingual programs have a clearly defined program model design which delineates the percentage of time that each language is taught at each grade level. Effective bilingual programs provide instruction in the minority language (i.e., Spanish, French, German, etc) for a minimum of four to six years. Administrators, parents, teachers and students are well-informed about the program model design and are able to clearly articulate it throughout all grade levels. The program model design outlines which academic subjects are taught in each language at each grade level, as well as the curriculum and instructional materials that are to be used. Effective bilingual programs have clearly defined goals and expectations for both languages at each grade level, and teachers and parents are knowledgeable about the first and second language expectations.

#4 Effective bilingual programs provide multiple opportunities for parent involvement,  education, and support with an emphasis on topics pertinent to the bilingual program.

Effective bilingual programs provide parents with an orientation about the goals, research-base and program design of the bilingual program prior to entering into the program. Parent meetings are conducted in parents’ primary language, or translation services are provided. Effective bilingual programs have an identified bilingual parent liaison who is knowledgeable about the bilingual program as well as bilingual office staff. Ongoing parent meetings are provided about issues related to the bilingual program such as literacy/biliteracy, frequently asked questions, homework help, second language acquisition, grade level expectations, and other related topics.

#5 Effective bilingual programs utilize separation of languages and monolingual lesson delivery, to the best extent possible.

Effective bilingual programs typically maintain separation of languages when the two languages are taught during separate time blocks according to each school’s specific program model design. Teachers provide instruction in one language during the designated language block and students are highly encouraged to adhere to the language of instruction. For example, in a program where eighty percent of the day is allocated to instruction in Spanish, the teacher and students will adhere to speaking, reading and writing exclusively in Spanish during the Spanish instructional block. The rationale behind such a practice is that students sometimes tend to use the language with which they are most comfortable if clear guidelines for language separation are not established. It is highly recommended that teachers adhere to the language of instruction, yet on certain occasions teachers may briefly utilize the other language when students are in need of primary language support or clarification.

Books Related to the Critical Components:

The following books contain information additional information about the critical components of effective bilingual programs. These books are applicable to Dual Immersion, transitional bilingual education, maintenance bilingual education, bilingual immersion, and other forms of bilingual education.

Dual Language Education (Bilingual Education and Bilingualism)

Dual Language Instruction: A Handbook for Enriched Education

Dual Language: Teaching and Learning in Two Languages

Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism

Dual Language Essentials for Teachers and Administrators

Related Resource:

A Parent’s Guide to the Critical Components of Effective Bilingual Programs
Surefire Ways to Elevate the Status of Your Bilingual Program

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

smashedpea November 16, 2009 at 8:35 am

As you know, dual immersion is close to my heart these days, so I’m ver interested to read about the perspective from the ‘other side’ :)

Could you maybe comment on what expectations one can have from such a programme? Maybe I expect too much when I want balanced bilingualism out of it?

The situation with our French immersion programmes is also probably slightly different from your area in that kids in the programme don’t necessarily get French at home already. They may or may not be bilingual going on, but more likely than not will not have French, I think.

Thanks!

multilingualmania November 16, 2009 at 6:16 pm

I am just thinking about and brainstorming a post about this as we speak!

It is quite possible that students will achieve high levels of french if you also expose them to it outside of the school. I’m curious to know if there are many native french speakers in the area and especially in the program? If not, sometimes students in such programs become highly fluent in the language, but never really attain native-like proficiency. If there are not native french speakers in the class integrated with English speaking students, they will become proficient but will still not be native-like in some of their grammar.

multilingualmania November 16, 2009 at 6:19 pm

The question that you have to ask yourself is: Do you only want your child to be in a bilingual program to build balanced bilingualism? Because you can still be highly proficient in a second language and not achieve native-like proficiency in a second language. I am highly proficient in Spanish, can be successful in a college Spanish literature class, etc but I still have some non-nativelike grammatical issues going on. I’m still bilingual though. I don’t know if this theoretical construct of “balanced bilingualism” actually really exists-I think that we are always going to have more proficiency in one language than the other.

smashedpea November 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm

As far as I know, there won’t be many (and maybe no) native French speakers in the programme as we have separate schools, one in our neighbourhood even, for those who already speak French. It’s really meant for kids to learn French but build up to a high level since most instruction will be in French only. In the community, there are not many French things going on, though you can probably find some if you only look hard enough – which I may not be likely to do, since I’m more interested in the kids learning German. They don’t get much input since I work full-time, so I’m hesitant to have French ‘invade’ the little time I have to get them to use their German.

What I’m hearing from parents whose kids started French immersion in SK (age 5) and who are now in higher grades is that they come out being able to do basic things (like order food in a restaurant), and that’s about it. Writing and reading lag far behind speaking and since they also get very little English instruction, their English may also be hit or miss.

I agree with your point on ‘balanced bilingualism’ – but what I expect out of an immersion programme really is a near-native like level. I also expect teachers who speak French really well or are native speakers, and apparently that is not the case, at least not in our school. What I’m hearing from other parents is that either the teacher is a good teacher or they are good in French, but you won’t get both. Which is a bit frustrating, really.

But despite all my pondering about this, we’re still likely to try out French Immersion SK (if we get a spot) next year and see how it goes.

Thanks for your answer, and I’m waiting for your post on all this :) It’s interesting to hear it from those in the know!

multilingualmania November 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm

How much time is allocated during the day to French? If it’s a significant part of the day,then they should be able to do more than just order food in a restaurant. If this is not the case, then it’s possible that all the critical components are not in place. It may be that they don’t have clearly defined expectations for what is expected at each grade level.

One of the defining characteristics of effective bilingual programs is that teachers posses high levels of proficiency in both languages. If the teachers do not have high levels of proficiency in french, parents in the program need to demand it from the school administration. I have worked with programs that have had this problem and we instituted advanced language classes for the teachers in order to increase proficiency.

Never underestimate the power of parents when demanding that all of the critical components for program success must be included! Demand that the teachers increase their proficiency, and demand that they institute expectations in English and French per grade level in order to ensure that they achieve proficiency in both languages by the fifth grade or so.

Also, if there are no native-french speakers in the program then the students will achieve communicative competence and will be able to read, write, speak, listen but sometimes will still have non-native grammar issues. The best programs are the dual immersion, where native french speakers are mixed with the english speakers so that english speakers will have native french speakers as models for native-like proficiency.

smashedpea November 19, 2009 at 1:49 pm

It’s all French all day for a couple of years until at some point they start to introduce some English again. Given that most kids don’t speak French as they enter the programme, I’m sure they are off to a pretty slow start. However, for me that still doesn’t excuse that the kids supposedly come out with no more basic French.

It’s my suspicion, too, that they just don’t have the right components in place. But it seems to be a bigger issue than just in our local school. I’ve heard from parents in other schools as well that the teachers’ French is hit or miss. Apparently the School Boards have a hard time finding qualified candidates, so they hire people with less French than necessary.

Thanks again for all the info!

Estella Flores December 1, 2009 at 1:36 pm

We are very fortunate here in NM that we do have people above us that understand how a dual language program should work. I was not in the initial stages of the program we have in Ruidoso, NM, but so far we have had great results. The kids who started in Kindergarten the first year are now in fifth grade. The standardized scores are also very good. We too had difficulty deciding how much time in each subject should be in the first language and how much in the second. We sat down this last school year and made our own guidelines. Our thoughts were that we should have something in place to show any new teachers, administration etc. what our dual lang. program should look like. Our bilingual director and administratos are all behind us, even if they don’t all understand the total process. We are lucky that our bilingual teachers have been so dedicated to the program that it is successful. The program has done so well that we have added another Kindergarten class due to the enrollment of our English speakers wanting to participate as well. Since we are looking for a well balanced program of English and Spanish speakers, we find that exciting. We are a small community and had two classes of dual language available through now 5th. Our original program was to go through 4th, with a commitment of the parents. They stood up and asked the district to continue this through at least the 5th grade. We were delighted that the district backed the program. They figure that at middle school, the kids can take Spanish as an elective if they choose. We have dreams of the students going into high school demanding higher levels of Spanish there. Our grand goal is that more of our Hispanic population graduate and we feel that with this dual lang. program now in place, that this will occur. Good luck to all of you in your struggles of maintaining great dual lang. programs.

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