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Dual-Language Learning: A Former Principal's Advice for Schools

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There's a strong and growing demand for schools to provide instruction across grade levels and subjects that leads to students who are bilingual and biliterate. In this sixth installment on the growth in dual-language learning, a former principal touts the benefits of learning two languagesand two cultures.

If you haven't already, read the first four installments of our reporting on dual-language learning. There's our explainer on dual-language learning, our chat about how to start planning for new dual-language programs, an interview with an expert talking about how all students benefit from dual-language learning, a look at how dual-language learning can boost linguistic and cultural diversity, and an exploration of why should schools should focus on what students and their families need from dual-language programs.


Education Week has talked with several regional and national dual-language education experts, who offer insights into what it takes to launch dual-language programs and strengthen existing ones. Now you can dive into our conversation with Elena Izquierdo, an associate professor of bilingual and English-language learner education at the University of Texas, El Paso. Her research focuses on two-way dual-language education, biliteracy, and supporting districts in efforts to improve education for English-learners.

Izquierdo is a former principal of what is now Oyster Adams Bilingual School in the District of Columbia. During her time in Washington, she also served as director of language minority affairs in the D.C. schools and as an administrator in the U.S. Department of Education's office of bilingual education.

Education Week edited the questions and responses for clarity and length.

Question: What was your experience in working with dual-language education as a principal?

Answer: We were working with children that were coming in with very low literacy skills, and my teachers were the ones that came to me and said, 'What if we teach them their math in Spanish so they can understand it?' And it started working really well.

Then they said, 'What if we start doing literacy in Spanish, and then they can transfer all this. According to the research, that's what it says to do.' And it was doing really well.

So it was really grassroots. It was all really focused on making the full curriculum accessible to English-learners and helping them become literate. It really involved the understanding of the leadership that is in that school or district, that really understands the whole background to dual language, the best practice and best research [for] working with English-learners.

But then you look at it the other way around. For any child that speaks English, of course the benefits of learning a new language, and new culture, and all of that is great.

Q: How did you explain the purpose of dual-language education and how it works to parents?

A: My English-speaking parents would come to me and say, 'Well, we want our children to learn some Spanish. So we want him in the program.' And then I would say to them, 'Well, he's not learning some Spanish. He's learning in Spanish.' And what's when the flags went up. Oh my god, is he going to understand the content? Is he going to get behind? And that's very normal and expected of parents to feel this way, because they have to understand what dual is.

Dual language really looks at both (languages) in the beginning, and both are important, and both languages feed off one another, making sure that whatever you learn in one language is preparing you for the continuation of what you're learning in the other language. So both languages become extremely important to one another.

Q: How does a school strike the right balance in prioritizing two languages?

A: Many schools have very large numbers of English-learners. So, what does this mean? Well, this means that you're going to need teachers that are very knowledgeable about how to make instruction comprehensible in the other language, going both ways.

Ideally, you want a class that has both English speakers and Spanish speakers. Because it gives them a purpose to use both languages. For the English speakers, they recognize the value of what it is to learn another language, another culture, and it levels the playing field for your Spanish speaker or other speakers of other languages. They also see their language, their culture, their background is just as important, which is probably the most important piece of education these children graduate with.

That's the one we pay least attention to because we're so worried about language-proficiency levels, and test achievement, and how we're doing there. We forget that one of the most important ones is understanding what it does for a child when they leave these programs and how it's opened up a whole new world for them, a whole new way of looking at things and thinking. When implementation is good, your test scores are going to blow everybody else out of the water.

Photo Credit: Pre-kindergarten students work on an alphabet puzzle at the Toussaint L'Ouverture Academy, a Haitian Creole dual-language program at Mattahunt Elementary school in Boston. --Gretchen Ertl for Education Week

Related Reading on Dual-Language Learning

Dual-Language Learning: 6 Key Insights for Schools

Will Every State Offer Special Recognition for Its Bilingual Graduates?

Dual-Language Programs Boost Student Achievement in English, Study Finds

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