The Benefits of a Bilingual Education and ELLs

This contribution to the Performance Pyramid as made by Sydney Laskarzewski and Delaney Orr in Fall, 2015.


Who are ELLs?

According to the National Council of Teachers of English, English Language Learners are the “fastest growing segment of the student population.” In fact, “ELLs now comprise 10.5 percent of the nation’s K–12 enrollment, up from 5 percent in 1990” (NCTE, 2008, pg. 2). As the population of non-native English speaking students continues to grow in the United States, the issue of how to best approach teaching these students is becoming more and more prevalent.  

Five Levels of Language Proficiency

 English Immersion, Bilingualism, or Somewhere In Between?

Should teachers utilize English Immersion or Bilingualism?  Should ELL students receive different forms of assessment compared to native English speakers or should educators expect the same knowledge of English from these students who are learning English as a second language? These difficult questions are becoming more urgent and necessary to answer due to the quickly growing ELL population.

Many believe that English immersion is the best way to teach these students. However, research has shown that English immersion is not the most effective approach at all. Rather, “Studies show…that the most effective way to ensure that ELLs learn academic English well enough for school success is to teach them in both languages” (Lopez Estrada, 2009, pg. 2). Not only is English immersion ineffective, it also impedes upon these students rights as citizens to speak in their native language and be proud of their cultural heritage. Not only will this help their learning of the English language, it will also encourage them to embrace their own culture, and allow them to not have to disregard their native language.

Bilingualism IS More Effective

Encouraging English Language Learners to stay fluent in their first language is beneficial in more ways than one. However, probably the most important benefit of educators practicing a bilingual approach to teaching ELLs is that it is more effective than English immersion. In their article “Let’s Make Dual Language the Norm,” Verónica López Estrada, Leo Gómez, and José Agustín Ruíz-Escalante (2009) write that “Research shows that ELLs in dual language programs, as a group, not only closed the achievement gap in terms of standardized test scores, but also surpassed native English speakers in academic achievement” (Lopez Estrada, pg. 3).

An Example of a Bilingual School

A positive example of effective bilingual teaching is Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring. At this school, the majority of students who do not speak English as their primary language speak Spanish. Therefore, the elementary school focuses heavily on Spanish and English over other languages. This elementary school “serves as a bilingual program for English-speaking students whose parents want them to learn Spanish and for Spanish speakers who must learn English. The remaining Kemp Mill students attend traditional classes” (Hernandez, 2009, pg. 1). This program is a prime example of the effectiveness of the bilingual approach to teaching. Kemp Mill believes in “The theory…that when Spanish speakers learn to read in Spanish first, they gain skills that can translate into learning English” (Hernandez, 2009, pg. 2). This elementary school has also proven that this theory works. By becoming fluent in both English and their native language, English Language Learners have to overcome more academic difficulties, ultimately making them into a stronger student with a larger language foundation.

Benefits of a Bilingual Education

Which leads into another benefit from teaching bilingualism in American classrooms: English Language Learners, or any student who speaks two or more languages, are actually smarter than students who are only proficient in one language. Yudhijit Bhattaharjee (2012) makes this claim in his article “Why Bilinguals are Smarter.” Rather than a second language impeding the students’ ability to develop cognitively and academically, bilingual students are smarter than their monolingual peers because mastering different languages “forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles” (pg. 1). The intelligence benefits from speaking two or more languages extend to nonacademic skills, such as “planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks…ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind” (Bhattaharjee, 2012, pg. 1). Speaking multiple languages has many benefits. Being a bilingual student is a blessing, not a curse, and should be treated as such.

The Cost of English Immersion

However, many Americans are against the bilingual approach to teaching and claim that English Language Learners need to be immediately immersed in English in order to learn the language quickly and proficiently. These citizens are also under the impression that not encouraging English immersion is a threat to American democracy. There is clear opposition of the bilingual approach to education. In her article, “Does NCLB Promote Monolingualism?,” Rosemary Salomone (2010) makes the claim that No Child Left Behind, passed by President Bush in 2001, is “an impediment to fostering bilingual skills and bicultural understandings, especially among the nation’s 12 million students from immigrant families, including the 5.1 million identified as English-language learners, as well as millions of English-dominant students who are economically disadvantaged” (pg. 1) based on recent developments in language instruction. Salomone (2010) writes that even though it is not implicitly stated in NCLB, there are clear benefits to public schools to not utilize their “federal funds for that purpose” mainly due to “The fact that schools are judged by the percentage of students reclassified as fluent in English each year creates a built-in incentive to set aside non-English-language instruction in the interest of moving ELLs swiftly and exclusively toward English proficiency” (pg. 2).

Another way that NCLB represses the progress of bilingual learning is that, because of English becoming an internationally necessary language, Americans are becoming too comfortable with their language status, while Europeans have come to expect that their students “develop proficiency in at least two languages in addition to the mother tongue by the completion of secondary school” (Salomone, 2010, pg. 3). Americans need to “shed the misguided notion that monolingualism promotes economic growth, while multilingualism threatens national security and identity” (Salomone, 2010, pg. 4). By disregarding bilingualism as a weakness instead of a strength, Americans are not only impeding the learning of English Language Learners, but they are also falling behind from an international standpoint when it comes to being able to communicate with people from various backgrounds.


Utilizing a bilingual approach to teaching is in the best interests of English Language Learners. Not only is this teaching method a more effective way for these students to learn, English Language Learners also deserve to be taught in this way. Just because a student is not a native English speaker does not mean that student should be forced to give up their own native language. Doing this infringes upon the student’s democratic rights, which is unacceptable. In his essay, “The Public and its Problems,” John Dewey (1946) presents individual democracy as “having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain” (pg. 9). Living in multiple cultures at once, English Language Learners have responsibilities to both their native culture and the English culture that they face outside of their home and in school. Therefore, ELL students have a right to be able to practice their first language in order to stay involved with their culture and heritage. Dewey (1946) goes on to state that “Since every individual is a member of many groups, this specification cannot be fulfilled except when different groups interact flexibly and fully in connection with other groups” (pg. 9).

In the case of English Language Learners, this interaction between groups pertains to the school systems and the various cultures of ELLs, or more specifically the interaction between English and non-English languages. By adopting a bilingual approach, English Language Learners are allowed their democratic rights due to this flexible interaction between English and non-English speakers and cultures. Along with this idea of individual and group democracy is the fact that America is based on the premises that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” (Jefferson, 1776). Surely among these “unalienable rights” would be a citizen’s right to speak and celebrate their native language, without having to be ashamed of their heritage and being forced to conform to the language of other Americans, which English. It is definitely a necessity to be able to speak and to become literate and proficient in American English as a second language, especially for students who are in grades K-12; however, this does not mean that the students’ first language, whether it be Spanish, Czech, Japanese, Russian, or any language, needs to be disregarded.


Teaching English Language Learners in a way that encourages them to give up their first language does nothing positive, neither for these students nor America as a whole. America was once called a “melting pot” of different peoples, cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, and languages. In this same way, English Language Learners are their own “melting pot,” due to the fact that “there is no one profile for an ELL student, nor is one single response adequate to meet their educational goals and needs. ELL students are a diverse group that offers challenges and opportunities to U.S. education” (NCTE, 2008, pg. 2). By encouraging ELLs to continue to practice their native language does not in any way infringe on America’s democracy. In fact, by encouraging students to celebrate their language and heritage, America is creating a stronger sense of democracy by celebrating these differences. Therefore, as a country we are sending the message that even though we are a nation composed of various different identities, by embracing each other’s differences we are a prouder, stronger county because of them.


Effectively Teaching ELLs


For Parents of ELLs


Helpful Resources