Two-Way Language Immersion Grows in Popularity
February 16, 2005
But Some Experts Say the Approach Needs More Solid Research
By Mary Ann Zehr
Promising results from research on two-way language-immersion programs have
pumped up the popularity of such programs in recent years.
But some experts say that the three large-scale studies that compare
two-way immersion with other kinds of instructional methods for English-language
learners aren’t conclusive in showing that the programs are better than other
In two-way immersion, native speakers of English and native speakers of
another language—usually Spanish—learn both languages in the same classroom. The
two-way programs have a growing level of political clout, especially in
transitional bilingual education, in which children are taught some subjects in
their native language while learning English with the goal of moving into
regular classes as quickly as possible.
Transitional bilingual education programs took a beating after voters in
Arizona, California, and Massachusetts passed state ballot initiatives to
replace that method with English-only programs.
“I like two-way—I would recommend it for my grandson,” Stephen D. Krashen,
an emeritus professor of education at the University of Southern California and
a language expert, said in an e-mail message this month.
Still, he cautioned: “The research has not shown it is the best option for
English-language development. We don’t have the data yet. So some claims made by
advocates are exaggerated.”
Scholars at Odds
Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier, both emeritus professors of
education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., are the co-authors of two
of the three large-scale studies that compare two-way immersion programs with
They gave a presentation about their studies at a Jan. 19 institute here
on two-way immersion programs that was sponsored by the Washington-based
National Association for Bilingual Education, or NABE. Their studies, published
in 1997 and 2002, were
based on more than 2 million student records from 23 school districts. They
grouped student records into cohorts according to the students’ English
proficiency, grade, and other kinds of characteristics, and then followed them
over several years.
Mr. Thomas and Ms. Collier concluded that not only is two-way immersion better
than the English-only approach, but it’s better than all other kinds of
bilingual education as well, such as transitional bilingual education.
“We’re not saying that transitional bilingual education is bad,” Mr.
Thomas said. “We’re saying it needs an upgrade.”
In a paper written in 2004, Mr. Krashen questions Mr. Thomas and Ms.
Collier’s assertion that two-way immersion is the best choice for
To begin with, he points out that some of the English-language learners
the George Mason University researchers studied in two-way immersion programs
had high scores in English in 1st grade, which suggests that many of the
children already knew a lot of English before starting school. He also
speculates that two-way immersion programs looked more effective than other
kinds of English-acquisition programs because higher-scoring students tend to
stay in two-way programs longer than in other kinds of programs.
But Ms. Collier said the English scores were high in 1st grade only in one
school system, the Houston Independent School District. And those scores were
high because the English-language learners there had already been in school
since prekindergarten, which wasn’t the case in most other districts, and also
because the 1st grade test used in Texas is relatively easy.
Kathyrn Lindholm-Leary, a professor of child and adolescent development at
San Jose State University in California, is the author of the other large-scale
study that compares students in two-way immersion with students in other kinds
of programs. Her 2001 study of 8,000 students in 16 two-way immersion programs
and four transitional-bilingual-education programs found that both
English-language learners and native speakers of English in two-way immersion
programs achieved at least as well as their peers who weren’t in such programs.
By the 6th and 7th grades, students in two-way immersion, on average,
could perform at least at grade level—at the 50th percentile—on achievement
tests of reading, language, and content areas, her research found. Experts
consider those scores high for English-language learners.
“You’re only going to see those kinds of outcomes if you have a
high-quality program,” she said in an interview.
The trouble is that research on two-way immersion programs has some
methodological problems, according to Donna Christian, the director of the
Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based language research
organization. Self-selection in the programs is one of them, she writes in a
2003 review of 113 studies on two-way immersion.
“If students in two-way immersion are found to do better than their peers
in other programs,” she points out in the review, “it is difficult to know if
this is because of the effects of the two-way immersion program itself, or due
at least in part to inherent differences among the student populations and their
James Crawford, the executive director of NABE, echoed that note of
caution about research on two-way immersion. “We’re not promoting only this
model even though we are gratified by its growing popularity, especially among
English-speaking parents,” he said.
Mr. Crawford added that two-way immersion can be harder to carry out than
some other kinds of English-acquisition programs, because teachers must be
prepared to serve children who have very different linguistic needs in the same
What everyone does agree on is that each school year brings more two-way
As of December, the Center for Applied Linguistics had found 309 two-way
immersion programs in schools in the United States, up from 30 in 1987, when the
concept really took off. Most of the two-way immersion programs—292—teach
Spanish and English.
The center counts only programs that have a balanced proportion of native
speakers of English and the non-English language. A third of the two-way
programs are in California. By far, most two-way programs are operated by
elementary schools, with only 41 middle or high schools running such programs,
according to the center.
Some educators at the NABE institute said their school districts have
expanded their programs, or plan to extend them from elementary to middle or
Rodnie Barbosa, an ESL teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Washington,
said he hopes to help launch next fall at his school the first two-way immersion
program for middle school students in the District of Columbia public schools.
The program will teach in English and Spanish.
For 32 years, the 64,000-student district has run a schoolwide two-way
immersion program in English and Spanish at the Oyster Bilingual Elementary
School. Oyster School students have done well on standardized tests, and the
school has a long waiting list for children who want to attend the school.
“Parents have been putting a lot of pressure on the district to develop a
middle and high school bilingual program,” Mr. Barbosa said.
Virginia Hansen, an English-for-speakers-of-other-languages resource
teacher for the 173,000-student Palm Beach County public schools in Florida,
said her district is expanding its two-way language immersion program to serve
more middle and high school students.
The programs help native speakers of Spanish to be proud of their culture,
What’s more, she said, “I’ve seen children who are English-dominant just
zoom with it. Their accent is almost nonexistent.”
Charles Stallcup, the owner of the Beckman Inn and Carriage House here in
San Antonio and the father of two sons, a kindergartner and a 5th grader, in a
two-way immersion program at the 345-student Bonham Elementary School, said he
wishes he could have participated in a similar program when he attended school
in the city.
Mr. Stallcup said the two-way immersion program at Bonham, located a few
blocks from his home, has been successful for both of his sons. The benefit of
the program is not just that his children learn Spanish, he said, but also that
they learn about another culture.
“There’s a sense of romance in having a second language,” he said.
“Itmakes you so much more in touch with the world.”