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HomeDual LanguageWhy Dual Language Works for Everyone

Why Dual Language Works for Everyone

Virginia P. Collier and Wayne P. Thomas explain the rationale behind extending bilingual education from pre-K through Grade 12

Bilingualism is becoming popular as more and more parents demand bilingual schooling for their children. English monolingualism, encouraged in the US during the 20th century and stimulated by the English-only movement of the 1980s and 1990s, is diminishing as communications shrink the planet. At the state level, governors and state boards of education are dramatically expanding the number of dual language (DL) schools, along with financial resources for this expansion.

They often justify the expenditure by arguing that graduating more proficient bilingual/biliterate students boosts state economies in the long run. The popularity of DL programs is evidenced by 4,894 schools in 43 states that currently identify as having a DL program (, so the challenge is now to honor the commitment to support English learners and their families.

Program Names
In this article we’re using the shorter name dual language (DL) to refer to all high-quality models of bilingual schooling, and we’re contrasting DL with the older program for English learners called transitional bilingual education (TBE).

DL Compared to TBE
• Dual language education was initially started in a few US schools in the 1960s, but over the last half-century it has evolved dramatically.

• TBE was a remedial program. DL is the mainstream, an enrichment program; it is the standard grade-level curriculum taught through two languages.

• TBE was only for English learners. DL is for everyone, including English learners.

• TBE was provided for only a few years. DL starts in preschool or kindergarten and grows grade by grade each year, until it is implemented in all grades pre-K–12.

• The ultimate goal for students attending TBE classes was English proficiency, resulting in the loss of their first languages. DL graduates are proficient bilinguals, prepared to use their biliteracy in their professions.

• Longitudinal research on TBE found that English learners only closed half of the achievement gap in English. Longitudinal research findings on DL show that by middle school years, all DL student groups reach grade level and above in two languages (English learners, native English speakers, students from poverty, all ethnic groups) (Collier and Thomas, 2017).

Benefits for DL Students
DL is not a separate, segregated program only for English learners. All students work together, teaching each other and benefiting from cooperative learning activities in pairs, small groups, and learning centers.

DL students are happier, more engaged with instruction, and more confident; they attend school more regularly, and their high school graduation rates are dramatically higher than for students not attending DL classes (Collier and Thomas, 2018; Lindholm-Leary, 2001; Thomas and Collier, 2012, 2014). DL is exciting, stimulating, and fun.

DL Teachers Rule!
What kind of teaching innovations have emerged in DL classrooms? DL is so powerful that it is changing teaching practices for all teachers, because research shows it works for all students, including at-risk groups.

DL teachers must teach very heterogeneous groups of students—of different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, proficiency levels in the language of instruction, and amounts of schooling they have received in the past.

To manage all these diverse student needs, DL teachers must use many varied strategies based on cooperative learning, with teachers modeling routines and procedures in the process of guiding new curricular experiences and providing lots of clues to meaning through mime, gestures, pictures, word charts, chants, music, movement, graphic organizers, and so much more.

As the lesson moves on, peer teaching among students in pairs and small groups stimulates cognitive development through collaborative problem solving and critical thinking across the curriculum (Collier and Thomas, 2009, 2012).

Many DL classes are team taught, with each teacher providing instruction in one language and the two teachers exchanging their two classes. Team teaching requires coordination and planning, but two heads are better than one for developing innovative teaching strategies and problem solving regarding individual student needs.

Some DL classes are self-contained with one deeply proficient bilingual teacher providing instruction in the two languages, but not translating or code switching, unless that is the specific objective of a lesson. For elementary schools, the amount of instructional time in each language is designated by the program model chosen by the DL school (90:10, 80:20, 50:50, and these variations can influence the choice of either sequential or simultaneous biliteracy development).

Secondary DL classes are planned by offering core curricular courses and electives taught in the non-English (partner) language, along with ESL content courses for the newly arriving immigrants. In our North Carolina research, we conducted principal interviews that confirmed our surprising data-analytic findings regarding DL teaching practices. The types of second-language teaching strategies developed by DL teachers are powerful not only for the English learners but also for other students who in the past have not done well in school.

Professional development opportunities in DL schools now help monolingual English teachers master more varied teaching strategies based on DL teaching innovations, to serve all learners’ diverse needs (Thomas and Collier, 2014, 2017).

DL Administrative Reforms
Since DL is the mainstream curriculum, teaching all subjects through both languages over each two-year period (e.g., if math is taught in English this year, math should be taught in the partner language next year), this reform pushes all central-office curricular heads into collaboration and shared financing.

Textbooks in each subject area must be chosen thoughtfully, so that the curricular materials in the partner language are cross-culturally appropriate and authentic, and match the curricular goals of the grade for the subject being taught. Also financial and logistical support should be provided by all departments for hiring high-quality, certified bilingual staff, for library resources in the partner language, and for DL professional development for teachers and administrators. Uniting all administrative divisions also requires collaboration across elementary, middle, and high schools, because all K–12 educators contribute to DL students’ long-term success. This can occur only when the superintendent, chief academic officer, school board members, and principals fully understand and support the DL program.

Extending DL to Secondary
DL courses need to continue into the feeder middle and high schools for many reasons. Remember from our longitudinal research that it takes groups an average of six years to reach grade-level achievement in their second language (Collier and Thomas, 2009), and that means that some students get there in a shorter time and others take a longer time.

Extending the DL program into middle school gives all students the opportunity to catch up to grade level in their second language and to excel in their first language. Proficient bilinguals usually outscore monolinguals on any test you give them in either language, so once the DL students reach grade-level achievement, they typically outscore native speakers by as much as one or two grades. Principals of DL middle and high schools watch their scores go up as increasing numbers of students who attended the DL elementary program reach secondary, addressing issues of accountability and making it a win–win for students, teachers, and administrators. Most important, though, is that the DL secondary courses are where the newly arriving immigrants belong when the DL partner language is their native language.

Courses taught in the partner language allow the new arrivals to catch up and keep up with schoolwork while they are acquiring English through the ESL content courses, taught by ESL faculty who are part of the DL program. We have some astonishing stories of student success in our book on secondary DL (Collier and Thomas, 2018), for those arriving in the US at secondary level.

Since bilingually schooled students are high achievers, DL students should be offered many core courses for AP credit in the partner language, as well as popular electives. DL high school programs lead to high graduation rates, big reductions in dropouts and misbehavior, and no more long-term English learners.

The Biliteracy Seal
This credential added to a student’s high school diploma helps DL students gain admission and scholarships to four-year universities, professional credibility, and higher salaries in their professional lives.

Languages of DL programs
Since Spanish is the primary language of 76% percent of English learners in the US (US Department of Education, 2020), Spanish–English programs are quite popular. Spanish is the second-largest language of the world after Mandarin Chinese, as defined by the number of native speakers (see Figure 1.5 in Thomas and Collier, 2017).

The US now has the second-largest number of Spanish speakers in the world, after Mexico.

There are also US DL programs taught in English and Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Cantonese, Filipino, French, German, Greek, Haitian-Creole, Hebrew, Hmong, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese, and the list is growing every year.

In addition, DL programs are provided in the following Indigenous languages of the US: Arapahoe, Cherokee, Crow, Diné (Navajo), Hoopa, Inupiaq, Keres, Lakota, Nahuatl, Ojibwe, Passamaquoddy, Shoshone, Ute, and Yurok (US Department of Education, 2015; Center for Applied Linguistics, 2017).

DL Works for Everyone
So you can see that DL is popular, and it’s expanding throughout the US. In our research in North Carolina and Texas, we have found that African American students benefit dramatically from attending DL classes, scoring as much as two grades above grade level by the middle school years (Thomas and Collier, 2002, 2014).

In our North Carolina research, DL students with exceptionalities such as learning disabilities, autism, and other categories of special need scored significantly higher than their peers with special needs not in DL; it does not harm these students to study through two languages—they benefit! Native English speakers, new immigrants, English learners, Latinos, Asians, Indigenous groups, students of low socio-economic status—all groups of students thrive in DL enrichment classes.

Center for Applied Linguistics (2017). Two-Way Immersion Directory. Center for Applied Linguistics.

Collier, V. P., and Thomas, W. P. (2009). Educating English Learners for a Transformed World. Dual Language Education of New Mexico-Fuente Press.

Collier, V. P., and Thomas, W. P. (2014). Creating Dual Language Schools for a Transformed World: Administrators Speak. Dual Language Education of New Mexico-Fuente Press.

Collier, V. P., and Thomas, W. P. (2017). “Validating the Power of Bilingual Schooling: Thirty-two years of large-scale, longitudinal research.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. Cambridge University Press.

Collier, V. P., and Thomas, W. P. (2018). Transforming Secondary Education: Middle and High School Dual Language Programs. Dual Language Education of New Mexico-Fuente Press.

Lindholm-Leary, K. (2001). Dual Language Education. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Thomas, W. P., and Collier, V. P. (2002). A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement. Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, University of California–Santa Cruz.

Thomas, W. P., and Collier, V. P. (2012). Dual Language Education for a Transformed World. Dual Language Education of New Mexico-Fuente Press.

Thomas, W. P., and Collier, V. P. (2014). English Learners in North Carolina Dual Language Programs: Year 3 of This Study: School Year 2009–2010. George Mason University. A research report provided to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Thomas, W. P., and Collier, V. P. (2017). Why Dual Language Schooling. Dual Language Education of New Mexico-Fuente Press.

US Department of Education: Office of English Language Acquisition (2015). Dual Language Education Programs: Current State Policies and Practices. US Department of Education.

US Department of Education: Office of English Language Acquisition (2020). “The Top Languages Spoken by English Learners in the United States.” US Department of Education.

Virginia P. Collier and Wayne P. Thomas are professors emeritus, George Mason University. Superintendents, school board members, and central administrative staff should check out their short book, Why Dual Language Schooling (Thomas and Collier, 2017; 2019 edition in Spanish).

This is also a good book for convincing bilingual families to enroll their children in DL classes. Educators should ensure that newly arriving immigrants who are speakers of the DL partner language understand the importance of the program so that their children can continue to keep up or catch up to grade level in their native language while they also acquire English.

They should know that the research shows that in DL classes their children will develop deeper proficiency in English than in a monolingual English program. For details on well-implemented DL programs, see Thomas and Collier (2017), as well as the whole series of five books on DL, three of which have editions in Spanish.

Collier and Thomas (2014) is written by and for DL principals, and Collier and Thomas (2018) provides the passionate voices of 19 contributing authors who are experienced secondary DL educators.

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