Eight Best Practices for Teaching in Dual Language and Other Bilingual Programs

Effective bilingual programs strengthen students' literacy in students' home language while building their academic English skills. 

Ten-year-old Olivia Chinchio learns in Mandarin and English at College Park Elementary School in San Mateo, CA. 
Photo courtesy of Connie Chang

When most Americans think about bilingual education, what first comes to mind isn’t its long history in this country. But Manka Varghese, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education, reminds her students that the United States has always had multiple languages, starting with Indigenous ones. Before compulsory education laws were on the books, public schools offered instruction in languages like German to attract immigrant families, Varghese says, and the Supreme Court has affirmed both a school’s right to do so, in 1923, and, in 1974, the responsibility. In the latter case, Lau v. Nichols, the court found that English-only instruction unlawfully deprives non-English speaking students of the opportunity to learn.

Today, effective bilingual programs strengthen students’ literacy in their home language while they build their academic English skills. But these programs require a lot of invisible labor—these educators dedicate extra time developing curricular materials that may not always be apparent. Melanie Ortega taught in multiple bilingual settings prior to becoming a New York City Department of Education administrator. “I had to make my own flashcards. I made posters myself. I used my mom’s color printer at work,” she says. “I remember asking my mom, when she went to [visit] the Dominican Republic, to get me one of the alphabet books that she used when she was little.”

A 2019 paper in the Bilingual Research Journal described these tasks—as well as translating district-provided materials and creating infographics—as the result of failures in teacher education, professional development, and resource allocation. Conscientious librarians who serve students in bilingual programs take on similar invisible work, like these eight best practices.

1. Understand the structure and goal of a class’s bilingual education

According to Wayne E. Wright, chair of literacy and language at Purdue University, all effective bilingual programs have three elements: ESL instruction, meaning teaching English as a foreign language rather than English Language Arts; primary laguage support; and content-area instruction with “sheltering,” which means making what you’re saying more accessible via, for example, simplified vocabulary, less complex sentence structure, or slower-paced speech, without sacrificing rigor. Different programs offer different proportions of these elements and achieve varying levels of success at each.

Transitional bilingual education programs, also known as “early-exit,” are the most common in the United States. The goal is to steadily reduce home-language and ESL instruction, transitioning to content-area instruction in English as quickly as possible. Patricia Sánchez chairs the bicultural-bilingual studies department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She says this model conveys a certain message: “You’re deficient. You don’t know English, so we have to hurry up and give you some content in Spanish so that we can cram English.”

It also often sets kids up to fail by asking them to learn in English as soon as they have basic interpersonal communication skills rather than allowing them to wait until they have cognitive academic language proficiency, she says.

Developmental bilingual education, a.k.a. “late-exit,” treats a child’s home language as a resource and sets biculturalism, bilingualism, and biliteracy as its goals, rather than assimilation. So, too, do dual language programs, bilingual immersion programs for English speakers, and robust heritage language programs.

Many dual language programs are composed of half native English speakers and half English learners, though some divide into thirds with students who are already bilingual making up 33 percent of the class, Sánchez says. Most focus on Spanish, but others teach in Vietnamese, Armenian, Russian, French, Mandarin, Korean, Navajo, and other languages. The most common model splits instructional time in each language at 50/50. In another model, the 90/10, students instead begin with the bulk of instruction in their home language, with the proportion shifting toward English over the elementary years.

Often, several of these program types coexist in a single school. Knowing the structure and goals of an individual class can help librarians best adjust their lessons and policies. “In some schools the model might not be all that well-defined, and there may even be disagreements,” says Judy Viertel, school librarian at Marshall Elementary School in San Francisco. “Because it’s about language, and our work is centered on language and information, we can actually be a voice in the discussion of what the program should look like.”

2. Use welcoming signage and displays

The first step is making all students feel welcome. Part of that task is visual, according to a 2001 paper by Drexel University professor Denise E. Agosto: “The posters and other artwork in the library should depict people of multiple ethnic, racial, religious, and so forth backgrounds.”

All signage should be bilingual with design choices not preferencing one language over the other.

3. Take a critical approach to collection development

“It’s still a real problem that a lot of school libraries don’t have books in other languages,” Varghese says.

“In my dreams, I’d have equal proportions of relevant books in both languages, but so many more books get published each year in English than in Spanish that that really isn’t possible. The most popular books in my library are graphic novels, and I can’t find very many in Spanish,” Viertel says.

Shortages can make it difficult to make sure the home language collection “is as fresh as our English collection; that it’s not outdated, especially when it comes to our nonfiction,” says Lissette Rossi-Felipe, media specialist at PS145K The School of Innovation in Brooklyn, NY. But the most important thing to Rossi-Felipe “is having authentic literature in the language.”

The reason is twofold: Students more readily engage with and understand individual texts that are culturally relevant, and the overall composition of a collection sends messages about who is valued that can either support or disrupt a child’s learning. Gilberto Lara is an assistant professor in Sánchez’s department. He remembers discovering a novel about Latinx characters who code-switched in ninth grade. “Something sparked in me when I saw myself reflected in the book,” he says. And when children don’t see themselves, research shows, they can feel like something about them, about their culture, isn’t worthy of inclusion. Members of the dominant culture also benefit when exposed to diverse materials, becoming increasingly positive about difference.

Eliza G. Braden, assistant professor of elementary education at the University of South Carolina, and Sanjuana C. Rodriguez, assistant professor of literacy and reading education at Kennesaw State University, examined 3,200 picture books published in 2013 and 2014. They discovered that only 57 had significant Latinx content and only 48 were authored by Latinx individuals. Braden and Rodriguez also found that even culturally authentic books contained stereotypical elements like poverty; traditional foods; and cliché gender roles, including the unemployed homemaker. Also unhelpful to kids are utopian tales with “near perfect pictures of family life.”

Pulling together their own questions as well as those posed by other researchers, Braden and Rodriguez suggest asking the following questions when curating a classroom collection or library:

• What cultural narratives are implicitly and explicitly suggested?

• Are characters outside the mainstream culture depicted as individuals or as caricatures?

• Does their representation include significant specific cultural information, or does it follow stereotypes?

• Who has the wisdom?

Not all translations are created equal, either. Rossi-Felipe stays away from translated books entirely to ensure “that the author knows the culture.” One tip-off that that’s not true? When all the characters in a book have identical skin tone and features. Another thing to watch for: English being privileged in bilingual texts, including typographically (with size, space, weight, and color inconsistently applied across the two languages), in layout (when English is presented at the top of the page or on the left side of facing pages rather than the bottom or right), and with superficiality (when Spanish words are added just to give the text “flavor,” rather than build vocabulary).

“It seems like the books my students relate to best are the ones written by immigrants and by the children of immigrants,” Viertel says. “In other words, by people with experiences like their own.”

What about books like the ones Braden and Rodriguez identify that are diverse but still problematic? They suggest questions to foster dialogue about representation, even with young kids: “What other Spanish words could the author add to this picture book?” and “Why is it important that we place Spanish first on the page rather than English?” Others suggest questions such as “Are the characters in the story like you and your family?… Do the characters talk like you and your family do?” Monolingual librarians can display humility: “Does this seem accurate to you all? I’m not qualified to judge.”

A study in Central Texas describes how a bilingual teacher of second graders gathered picture books addressing immigration themes, including documentation challenges and missing those left behind. During pauses in classroom read-alouds, he shared his personal experiences and invited students to do the same. When asked to think critically in these ways, students see their own background and contributions as not just valid but also valuable.

The same process applies to digital materials and digital collection management, especially for post-secondary students. “There’s an imbalance between the digital materials that are available in Spanish and in English,” including ebooks and news aggregators, Viertel says. “We can’t just assume that the information is there,” adds Rossi-Felipe. “We have to make sure that we make it accessible to the children, especially when it comes to research and digital literacy.”


A lesson in progress at Marshall Elementary School in San Francisco, CA


4. Reject common myths

For a time, educators were afraid of using bilingual texts, says Rossi-Felipe. “We were like, ‘Oh no, we don’t like those bilingual books.’” But research shows that kids learn literacy skills most easily in the language they understand best and that those skills, including everything from phonological awareness to text-processing, transfer to a second language.

Rossi-Felipe says, “I found that those books do help our kids, because they see both languages, and at home the parents are able to read to them in the native language and then they get to see the English language as well.”

Experts also recommend questioning the assumption that kids have access to second-language materials in their homes and at public libraries. They must also keep in mind that Spanish isn’t just Spanish; there are many dialects, and a book published in Madrid might not be an easy read for a newcomer from Peru. One way to hedge against the problem with a book showing, say, the version of Día de los Muertos celebrated in Mexico when it looks different in Guatemala, is to use multiple texts on the same topic, recommends María G. Leija, a colleague of Lara and Sánchez at U.T. San Antonio.

5. Scaffold lessons and book selection

Supporting language learners, Viertel says, can often require scaffolding lessons. “We have to be excellent communicators in general, using hand gestures, predictable routines, exaggerated facial expressions, and tone of voice to make our meaning clear.”

With younger kids, singalongs can work wonders, but older kids also need opportunities for oral production, both structured (assigning a discussion between partners) and unstructured (requiring chitchat to occur in the language of instruction). Viertel also recommends getting students to act things out and using visual aids.

For Rossi-Felipe’s multi-level classes, that means having vocabulary words and pictures alongside definitions. She has used graphic organizers to provide sentence starters for those who can’t yet handle open-ended questions, and she always tries to include a language objective, such as writing in complete sentences during a lesson on note taking.

Monolingual librarians should learn the basic vocabulary of the library, perhaps spending a day figuring out which English phrases you use most often and then asking someone to help you learn to pronounce their translation in the second language. For read-alouds, YouTube videos are available that display authors reading their own work.

Scaffolding is also important for book selection in a bilingual setting. Access to books has been tied to increased reading proficiency, and it is also linked to quicker second-language development. Still, there’s a difference between having books on shelves and engaging with them. “We have children who might be at a higher reading level in one language and lower reading level in the other language,” Rossi-Felipe says. She recommends conversations about what a just-right book looks like. Picture a student holding a book that’s aspirational. “They might say, ‘Yeah, I’m interested in this book, and I understand that it may be a higher level but I have my parents, I have my brother that’s gonna help me read the book at home.’”

Library shelves at Marshall Elementary School

6. Be intentional about cataloging and shelving

Multiple experts highlight the importance of interfiling second language materials within the English collection rather than creating a stand-alone shelf or display. Color-coding spines will allow children to easily grab content in the language of their choice. Ideally, all books would be cataloged in both languages.

7. Make the most of community resources

There are many resources available to support this work. Visit other schools’ libraries as well as bilingual public ones. Ask questions in the Bilingual teachers/Dual language Facebook group or on listservs like Rossi-Felipe’s through the New York City Office of Library Services or through state library associations. Attend conferences and book fairs.

Some school districts offer translators and language tutors, and whoever oversees bilingual learning is worth tapping for additional resources. Invite a parent, local author, or community member to volunteer regularly to read aloud in another language or put on programming.

8. Facilitate collaboration with other educators

Viertel asks classroom educators what types of books they need in each language. An in-class project, like the one in Texas in which teacher, parents, and students explored Latinx immigrant experiences, can bridge into library lessons with, for example, research into proposed legislation and writing persuasive letters to policymakers.

Lastly, Agosto notes, one of the most important components is “the school librarian’s personal attitude.” Openly supportive librarians can even counteract systemic racism and the mistakes of other educators in the building—while providing students with exemplary service.

Gail Cornwall is a former teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a mother and freelance writer in San Francisco.

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