The primary goal of bilingual education in the United States is to teach English to students who don't speak English or have limited English proficiency (LEP). Several approaches are used to teach LEP students, some of which borrow methodology from or overlap with others:
Transitional bilingual education (TBE) aims to move LEP students into mainstream classes within two or three years. Such programs teach students subject matter in their native language as needed for them to keep up with their English-speaking peers while enrolling them in special classes that teach them English as a second language (ESL). Teacher skills and program designs determine how much native-language instruction students receive.
Most bilingual classes are taught using the transitional method, which does not aim to preserve or enhance students' native language while teaching them English. But bilingual proponents who prefer developmental bilingual education (DBE) call the transitional approach “subtractive” because it doesn't maintain a student's native language. Such critics prefer DBE because it is designed to increase the student's native-language skills by teaching the student in his or her native language plus English at least through the sixth grade. The idea, they say, is to teach additive bilingualism, which makes students fluent in two languages while making them more nimble learners.
Educators who prefer this approach argue that it is the best way to help students achieve what is called cognitive-academic language proficiency over a period of five to seven years. Supporters say this method is superior to learning basic interpersonal communication skills (“playground English”), which they argue is essentially what students learn in transitional classes.
The most sophisticated developmental approach is called two-way bilingual education. It mixes non-native English-speaking students with roughly an equal number of native-English speakers in the same classroom where, generally, students are taught in one language in the morning and the other language in the afternoon. This approach aims to make both sets of students bilingual at levels of fluency that allow each to advance to or above grade level in learning languages and other subjects. Such programs are rare, but where they exist, and where they have well-trained bilingual teachers (teachers fluent in both languages and who use interactive or group-learning techniques), most researchers and observers say that students perform better at every level of learning than their peers, no matter what kind of instruction the non-two-way students receive.
Immersion education sits near the other end of the bilingual- teaching spectrum. In these classes - broadly known as special alternative instructional programs, the most popular of which is structured immersion - students learn their second language from instructors who teach them subject matter presented in the new language. Teaching is geared toward the child's ability to comprehend the lessons based on clues instructors give to coax the students through their lessons. Ideally, the students absorb or learn grammar as well as vocabulary in the process. While immersion is based on instruction in the student's second language, it is not what is generally called “sink-or-swim” - in which teachers offer no special help in learning the new language and which the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lau v. Nichols (1974), declared a violation of federal civil rights law.
One popular offshoot of immersion education is called alternate immersion - also known as sheltered English or sheltered subject- matter instruction. In sheltered classes, children learn their second language first by studying subjects, such as math, that are less language-intensive. As they learn more English, they move to more language-intensive subjects such as social studies. This approach sometimes involves the preview-review method, in which a lesson is taught once in the first language and then again in the second language (frequently by a different teacher) with a lag between the two lessons of as much as a full day.
Concurrent translation is a popular alternative to sheltered English, although researchers have found that its effectiveness is limited. That's because, they say, children tend only to absorb what is said in their first language and teachers tend to favor one language over the other, which causes the instruction to be unbalanced.
Because there is a severe shortage of qualified bilingual teachers, and because in some schools the variety of languages students speak is so great, ESL instruction - which generally means offering “pull-out classes” for language minority students a few times a week - is used widely.
The most basic ESL instruction encourages students to learn grammar and translation through memorization, writing and other drills. Another approach, communication-based ESL, emphasizes learning language in context at a level where the student is most likely to comprehend the teacher's speech when combined with physical cues about the content of the lesson being taught. In communication-based ESL, teachers ease students toward an understanding of their second language by creating a non-threatening classroom atmosphere and involving reluctant students gradually.
When Congress reauthorized the Bilingual Education Act in 1994, it also collapsed its 1984 definition of transitional bilingual and developmental bilingual education into a single category and added a provision for special alternative instructional programs as well.
Gone is a TBE provision mandating that teachers in schools that receive federal bilingual funds “incorporate the cultural heritage of [LEP] children and of other children in American society,” since the new wording focuses on language alone.
Under the 1994 provisions, bilingual education instructs LEP students in English and their native languages; is geared toward making them proficient in English while mastering subject matter at the appropriate grade level; allows for development of native or ancestral languages of LEP students along with special groups of people including American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians; and sanctions two-way bilingual programs.
Congress also added special alternative instructional programs (SAIP) for LEP students, which allow English-only instruction in schools where there are few such students or students speak many different languages, or where there is a shortage of qualified bilingual education teachers.
As these final changes suggest, the trend in federal bilingual- education legislation has evolved from simply guaranteeing equal access to public education to ensuring native-language instruction and the teaching of LEP students' cultural heritage to approval of a wider variety of approaches. These allow for, among other things, English- only instruction, teaching LEP students' in both English and their native languages and encouraging language maintenance and bilingual learning among LEP and native-English speakers enrolled together in two-way classes.