Across the nation, school systems are witnessing a surge of interest in dual language education. This approach has been shown to equip students with valuable language skills, improve academic achievement, and develop important cognitive skills. But as dual language programs and schools open across the country, families need clear information about the best practices in this field.
At LEEP Dual Language Academy Charter School, we’ve spent the last two years studying the latest research, visiting the nation’s top-performing dual language schools, and interviewing more than 300 expert researchers and practitioners. We’ve learned that parents should look for a dozen critical best practices—whether you’re considering LEEP Dual Language Academy or any other school. (We refer to Spanish/English, but these practices apply to any languages.)
“Immersion” education teaches language and all other subjects together, so students study not only Spanish but also math (for example) or science in Spanish. This requires teachers to commit to immersion teaching methods and model a full embrace of Spanish. If teachers lapse into English whenever a student struggles, for example, the immersion experience will be missed and learning will slow down.
In “two-way immersion,” a classroom includes students from both English- and Spanish-speaking households, learning together and from one another. Studies show that two-way immersion is more effective than any other method of second-language acquisition.
In a common “90:10 model,” kindergarten students spend up to 90% of their school day in Spanish, then gradually scale back each year by 10% until reaching a 50:50 balance. Compared to 50:50, 90:10 has been shown to produce better learning and retention of the Spanish (or other partner) language, without any decrease in achievement in English or other subject areas.
Many traditional schools offer dual language “programs” or “strands” as options within a larger school. These programs can lose effectiveness when students feel social pressure to speak English, however, or or when the program must compete for scarce attention and resources from school leaders. Experts say a whole-school dual language approach makes success more likely.
Academic fluency in both languages and teaching experience are important, but dual language teachers also need specialized training. Standard teacher training typically doesn’t go deep enough into how children’s brains acquire language, or how they can become literate in two languages at the same time.
Leaders in successful dual language schools describe the benefits of having native Spanish speakers as teachers. Such teachers help shape students’ “ear” for native pronunciation and deepen their appreciation for national accents and dialects—to distinguish the sounds of Mexico vs. Colombia, for example.
Anyone who has taken a traditional language class—only to fail at actual conversation—knows the importance of oral language practice. Research shows that students need formal and informal chances to practice speaking and listening, if they are to develop real “oracy” in addition to literacy.
Students watch everything their teachers do, and they are sensitive to status. To reinforce the idea that Spanish is a beautiful, useful, and powerful language, educators at top dual language schools conduct their own business in Spanish. Whether the conversation includes students or not, the students notice.
The powerful educational benefits of a two-way immersion school rely on diverse families joining the school community. Acknowledging this, school programs should be welcoming for all—including through facilitated communications, convenient meeting times, low financial pressure, and equitable access to leaders.
What we learn builds on what we already know, and even so-called “skills” such as reading comprehension depend on students knowing certain facts and concepts. In a dual language setting, students must build a body of knowledge that is even broader, gaining vocabulary and other knowledge from multiple cultures.
To achieve real immersion, students should encounter “native” texts as well as speakers. Translated books are less likely to reflect standard usages, distinctive cultural ideas, and nuanced connotations. When translation is unavoidable, a well-trained interpreter should be used to adapt the text to local needs.
Studies show that dual language programs have the strongest results when students participate for at least six years. Schools and districts
must understand dual language education as a long-term investment, not a “quick fix” or a fad, and mirror the commitment they ask families