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Bilingual Education: Good For English

NCJW Journal; New York Vol. 21, Iss. 3,  (Oct 31, 1998): 18.

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According to common wisdom, more exposure to English means better English, but this is not the case. Using and developing the first language can help second language development in two ways. When we use the child's first language to teach subject matter, we give children knowledge, and this knowledge helps make the second language children hear and read more comprehensible. A limited-English proficient child who knows her math, for example, thanks to math instruction in her primary language, will understand more in an English-language medium math class than a child without a good background in math. This results in better achievement in math and more English language development.

The second way first language development helps occurs when children develop literacy in their primary language. Literacy developed in the primary language transfers to the second language. Because we learn to read by reading, by making sense of what is on the page, it is easier to learn to read in a language we understand, and once we can read in one language, we can read in general.

Subject matter knowledge and literacy, gained through the primary language, provide indirect but powerful support for English language development and are two of the three components of quality bilingual programs. The third component is direct support for English, through English as a second language classes and, for intermediate students, sheltered subject matter teaching, classes in which intermediate level ESL students learn subject matter taught in English in a comprehensible way.

What the research says

A number of studies have shown that bilingual education is effective, with children in well-designed programs acquiring academic English as well and often better than children in all-English programs. When programs have the three components described above (subject matter teaching in the first language, literacy development...