ERIC® Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Why Bilingual Education?
by Stephen Krashen
EDO RC 96-8 (January 1997)
Bilingual education continues to receive criticism in the national
media. This Digest examines some of the criticism, and its effect on
public opinion, which often is based on misconceptions about bilingual
education's goals and practice. The Digest explains the rationale
underlying good bilingual education programs and summarizes research
findings about their effectiveness.
When schools provide children quality education in their primary
language, they give them two things: knowledge and literacy. The
knowledge that children get through their first language helps make
the English they hear and read more comprehensible. Literacy
developed in the primary language transfers to the second language. The
reason is simple: Because we learn to read by reading that is, by making
sense of what is on the page (Smith, 1994) it is easier to learn to read
in a language we understand. Once we can read in one language, we can
read in general.
The combination of first language subject matter teaching and
literacy development that characterizes good bilingual programs
indirectly but powerfully aids students as they strive for a third
factor essential to their success: English proficiency. Of course, we
also want to teach in English directly, via high quality
English-as-a-second language (ESL) classes, and through sheltered
subject matter teaching, where intermediate-level English language
acquirers learn subject matter taught in English.
The best bilingual education programs include all of these
characteristics: ESL instruction, sheltered subject matter teaching, and
instruction in the first language. Non-English-speaking children
initially receive core instruction in the primary language along with
ESL instruction. As children grow more proficient in English, they learn
subjects using more contextualized language (e.g., math and science) in
sheltered classes taught in English, and eventually in mainstream
classes. In this way, the sheltered classes function as a bridge between
instruction in the first language and in the mainstream. In advanced
levels, the only subjects done in the first language are those demanding
the most abstract use of language (social studies and language arts).
Once full mainstreaming is complete, advanced first language development
is available as an option. Gradual exit plans, such as these,
avoid problems associated with exiting children too early (before the
English they encounter is comprehensible) and provide instruction in the
first language where it is most needed. These plans also allow children
to have the advantages of advanced first language development.
Success Without Bilingual Education?
A common argument against bilingual education is the observation that
many people have succeeded without it. This has certainly happened. In
these cases, however, the successful person got plenty of comprehensible
input in the second language, and in many cases had a de facto bilingual
education program. For example, Rodriguez (1982) and de la Peña (1991)
are often cited as counter-evidence to bilingual education.
Rodriguez (1982) tells us that he succeeded in school without a
special program and acquired a very high level of English literacy. He
had two crucial advantages, however, that most
limited-English-proficient (LEP) children do not have. First, he grew up
in an English-speaking neighborhood in Sacramento, California, and thus
got a great deal of informal comprehensible input from classmates. Many
LEP children today encounter English only at school; they live in
neighborhoods where Spanish prevails. In addition, Rodriguez became a
voracious reader, which helped him acquire academic language. Most LEP
children have little access to books.
De la Peña (1991) reports that he came to the United States at age
nine with no English competence and claims that he succeeded without
bilingual education. He reports that he acquired English rapidly, and
"by the end of my first school year, I was among the top students." De
la Peña, however, had the advantages of bilingual education: In Mexico,
he was in the fifth grade, and was thus literate in Spanish and knew
subject matter. In addition, when he started school in the United States
he was put back two grades. His superior knowledge of subject matter
helped make the English input he heard more comprehensible.
Children who arrive with a good education in their primary language
have already gained two of the three objectives of a good bilingual
education program literacy and subject matter knowledge. Their success
is good evidence for bilingual education.
What About Languages Other Than Spanish?
Porter (1990) states that "even if there were a demonstrable advantage
for Spanish-speakers learning to read first in their home language, it
does not follow that the same holds true for speakers of languages that
do not use the Roman alphabet" (p. 65). But it does. The ability to read
transfers across languages, even when the writing systems are
There is evidence that reading ability transfers from Chinese to
English (Hoover, 1982), from Vietnamese to English (Cummins, Swain,
Nakajima, Handscombe, Green, & Tran, 1984), from Japanese to English
(Cummins et al.), and from Turkish to Dutch (Verhoeven, 1991). In other
words, those who read well in one language, read well in the second
language (as long as length of residence in the country is taken into
account because of the first language loss that is common).
Bilingual Education And Public Opinion
Opponents of bilingual education tell us that the public is against
bilingual education. This impression is a result of the way the question
is asked. One can easily get a near-100-percent rejection of bilingual
education when the question is biased. Porter (1990), for example,
states that "Many parents are not committed to having the schools
maintain the mother tongue if it is at the expense of gaining a sound
education and the English-language skills needed for obtaining jobs or
pursuing higher education" (p. 8). Who would support mother
tongue education at such a price?
However, when respondents are simply asked whether or not they
support bilingual education, the degree of support is quite strong: From
60-99 percent of samples of parents and teachers say they support
bilingual education (Krashen, 1996). In a series of studies, Shin (Shin,
1994; Shin & Gribbons, 1996) examined attitudes toward the principles
underlying bilingual education. Shin found that many respondents agree
with the idea that the first language can be helpful in providing
background knowledge, most agree that literacy transfers across
languages, and most support the principles underlying continuing
bilingual education (economic and cognitive advantages).
The number of people opposed to bilingual education is probably even
less than these results suggest; many people who say they are opposed to
bilingual education are actually opposed to certain practices (e.g.,
inappropriate placement of children) or are opposed to regulations
connected to bilingual education (e.g., forcing teachers to acquire
another language to keep their jobs).
Despite what is presented to the public in the national media,
research has revealed much support for bilingual education. McQuillan
and Tse (in press) reviewed publications appearing between 1984 and
1994, and reported that 87 percent of academic publications supported
bilingual education, but newspaper and magazine opinion articles tended
to be antibilingual education, with only 45 percent supporting bilingual
education. One wonders what public support would look like if bilingual
education were more clearly defined in such articles and editorials.
The Research Debate
It is sometimes claimed that research does not support the efficacy of
bilingual education. Its harshest critics, however (e.g., Rossell &
Baker, 1996), do not claim that bilingual education does not work;
instead, they claim there is little evidence that it is superior to
all-English programs. Nevertheless, the evidence used against bilingual
education is not convincing. One major problem is in labeling. Several
critics, for example, have claimed that English immersion programs in El
Paso and McAllen, Texas, were shown to be superior to bilingual
education. In each case, however, programs labeled immersion were
really bilingual education, with a substantial part of the day taught in
the primary language. In another study, Gersten (1985) claimed that
all-English immersion was better than bilingual education. However, the
sample size was small and the duration of the study was short; also, no
description of "bilingual education" was provided. For a detailed
discussion, see Krashen (1996).
On the other hand, a vast number of other studies have shown that
bilingual education is effective, with children in well-designed
programs acquiring academic English at least as well and often better
than children in all-English programs (Cummins, 1989; Krashen, 1996;
Willig, 1985). Willig concluded that the better the experimental design
of the study, the more positive were the effects of bilingual
Improving Bilingual Education
Bilingual education has done well, but it can do much better. The
biggest problem, in this author's view, is the absence of books in both
the first and second languages in the lives of students in these
programs. Free voluntary reading can help all components of bilingual
education: It can be a source of comprehensible input in English or a
means for developing knowledge and literacy through the first language,
and for continuing first language development.
Limited-English-proficient Spanish-speaking children have little
access to books at home (about 22 books per home for the entire family
according to Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, & Pasta, 1991) or at school (an
average of one book in Spanish per Spanish-speaking child in some school
libraries in schools with bilingual programs, according to Pucci, 1994).
A book flood in both languages is clearly called for. Good bilingual
programs have brought students to the 50th percentile on standardized
tests of English reading by grade five (Burnham-Massey & Pina, 1990).
But with a good supply of books in both first and second languages,
students can go far beyond the 50th percentile. It is possible that we
might then have the Lake Wobegon effect, where all of the children are
above average, and we can finally do away with the tests (and put the
money saved to much better use).
Burnham-Massey, L., & Pina, M. (1990). Effects of bilingual instruction
on English academic achievement of LEP students. Reading Improvement,
Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering minority students. Sacramento,
CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.
Cummins, J., Swain, M., Nakajima, K., Handscombe, J., Green, D., &
Tran, C. (1984). Linguistic interdependence among Japanese and
Vietnamese immigrant students. In C. Rivera (Ed.), Communicative
competence approaches to language proficiency assessment: Research and
application, pp. 60-81. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 249 793)
de la Peña, F. (1991). Democracy or Babel? The case for official
English in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. English.
Gersten, R. (1985). Structured immersion for language-minority
students: Results of a longitudinal evaluation. Educational
Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 7(3), 187-196.
Hoover, W. (1982). Language and literacy learning in bilingual
education: Preliminary report. Cantanese site analytic study. Austin,
TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 245 572)
Krashen, S. (1996). Under attack: The case against bilingual
education. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.
McQuillan, J., & Tse, L. (in press). Does research matter? An
analysis of media opinion on bilingual education, 1984-1994. Bilingual
Porter, R. P. (1990). Forked tongue: The politics of bilingual
education. New York: Basic Books.
Pucci, S. L. (1994). Supporting Spanish language literacy: Latino
children and free reading resources in schools. Bilingual Research
Journal, 18(1-2), 67-82.
Ramirez, J. D., Yuen, S., Ramey, D., & Pasta, D. (1991).
Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit
and late-exit bilingual education programs for language-minority
children (Final Report, Vols. 1 & 2). San Mateo, CA: Aguirre
International. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 330 216)
Rodriguez, R. (1982). Hunger of memory: The education of Richard
Rodriguez. An autobiography. Boston: D. R. Godine.
Rossell, C., & Baker, R. (1996). The educational effectiveness of
bilingual education. Research in the Teaching of English, 30(1), 7-74.
Shin, F. (1994). Attitudes of Korean parents toward bilingual
education. BEOutreach Newsletter, California State Department of
Education, 5(2), pp. 47-48.
Shin, F., & Gribbons, B. (1996). Hispanic parents' perceptions and
attitudes of bilingual education. Journal of Mexican-American Educators,
Smith, F. (1994). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic
analysis of reading and learning to read (5th ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: L.
Verhoeven, L. (1991). Acquisition of literacy. Association
Internationale de Linguistique Appliquee (AILA) Review, 8 61-74.
Willig, A. (1985). A meta-analysis of selected studies on the
effectiveness of bilingual education. Review of Educational Research,
Stephen Krashen is a professor of education at the University of
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of
Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,
under contract no. RR93002012. The opinions expressed herein do not
necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI, the Department,