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Language Learning

Three Ways English Language Learners Benefit from Dual Language Programs

English language learners (ELLs) make up 10.4 percent of the K–12 student population in the United States. Sixty-four percent of all teachers have at least one ELL in their classrooms, and this group of more than 4.8 million students grows each year.

In a recent Participate Learning Virginia Principal Priority Pulse Survey, 86 percent of respondents indicated that meeting the needs of ELLs is an important priority in their schools. 

Dual language (DL) immersion programs have the power to address the needs of ELLs through increased biliteracy and bilingualism. Research shows that bilinguals have better mental health and higher academic performance and are more prepared for the future.

Mitigating the challenges ELL students face is a critical aspect of public education. Dual language immersion is one path to increasing language proficiency, achievement, and cognitive development for both ELLs and their peers.

Higher academic achievement 

Research studies over the past several decades have shown that implementing DL programs provides many benefits to schools and surrounding communities. Student achievement—regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or school environment—is higher in DL students than their peers who are not in a program.

In North Carolina, a study compared reading and math end-of-grade test scores for DL and non-DL peers. In all student populations, test scores were higher for DL students than for those who were not in a program.

These benefits also extend to ELLs. According to the Thomas & Collier 2002 study, when implementing full immersion or two-way immersion models, schools can expect one-fifth to one-sixth of the achievement gap for ELLs to close each year.

DL programs also offer an opportunity for ELLs to learn in an enriching environment rather than a remedial one. They learn alongside their peers instead of being pulled away from the classroom for separate instruction.

Suzanne Mitchell, former principal of Selma Elementary, a member of the Participate Learning Network, said the program has greatly benefited the school’s ELL population.

“In terms of closing the achievement gap, dual language is doing it in a way that is much better than our typical [ELL] programs. When children can become proficient in their native language, I think they’re able to leverage it as they’re learning English,” Mitchell said.

Greater English proficiency

ELLs become more proficient in English by middle or high school when enrolled in a dual language immersion program.

The Portland Public Schools RAND study confirmed previous findings that ELLs reach English proficiency at higher rates when enrolled in a DL program, especially when their native language matches the partner language.

A 2015 Rice University study of the Houston Independent School District showed ELLs reach greater proficiency when enrolled in DL programs with native English speakers rather than in isolated, separate environments. By fifth grade, ELLs in two-way programs consistently had higher English performance. This indicates that ELLs benefit from being in class with their peers rather than in separate classrooms typical of more traditional English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

Honoring culture and building self-confidence

DL programs create a unique environment in which students can use their native language while acquiring a new one. In a 50/50 program, instructional time is split equally between English and the target language. In this environment, ELL students are recognized as equal experts in their heritage language, which helps avoid the language loss that can happen when they are pulled out of the classroom. 

Students are also able to maintain a sense of identity and often have more opportunities to share their cultures with peers and teachers. This can lead to greater confidence, self-esteem, and sense of belonging in their school environment.

Dual language immersion is a powerful approach to address the needs of ELLs and improve the education environment for all students. To learn more about how a DL program can benefit your school or district, download Participate Learning’s latest e-book: Building a Bilingual District.

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