The Benefits of English Immersion - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

December 1, 1999

The Benefits of English Immersion

A powerful movement in bilingual education, spearheaded in California, advocates the integration of limited-English proficient students into English-instruction classes.

The threshold of a new year, a new century, and a new millennium is a natural time for taking stock of the current status of social trends. This coincides with a dramatic reconsideration of the 30-year policy called bilingual education. A review of events leading to federal and state legislation and court cases on behalf of non-English-speaking students, the policies and practices intended to help these students, and the results of these initiatives gives us an informed view of bilingual education today.

Background of Bilingual Education

The years of heaviest immigration to the United States, from the late 1880s through the 1960s, might be characterized as the "Early Stone Age" of education policy for immigrant children. There was no policy. Children were left to sink or swim, to make progress, unassisted, in learning the common language of the school and the community. People believed that young children naturally pick up a new language without any help. Those who did learn English well enough and soon enough proceeded with their schooling; those who were not so adept at language acquisition dropped out of school and went to work in factories or on farms.

Beginning in 1968 with the passage of the Bilingual Education Act, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a new era of official concern for immigrant, migrant, refugee, and native-born non-English-speaking children prompted official action. From 1968 to 1998, the movement to help these children learn English for an equal educational opportunity was quickly turned into the state-mandated reliance on a one-size-fits-all experiment called Transitional Bilingual Education—what might be termed the "Iron Age" of bureaucratic heavy-handedness. The pendulum veered sharply from offering no special help at all to creating separate and largely segregated schooling for the close to 4 million students who did not have a sufficient command of the English language to do ordinary school work in English. The new theory, based on no objective data or practical experience, dictated teaching limited-English proficient (LEP) students all their school subjects in their primary language and providing English lessons over several years.

What We Have Learned in 30 Years

The expectations for bilingual schooling were threefold: better and more rapid learning of English; better mastery of school subjects; and higher self-esteem among students, which could lead to higher academic achievement and fewer school dropouts. Unfortunately, none of these goals was achieved. Though the research is open to interpretation, there is no evidence for the superiority of native-language teaching programs for students' better or more rapid learning either of English or of subject matter. Neither is there proof of higher academic achievement or higher self-esteem among students in bilingual schools (Gersten, Keating, & Brengelman, 1995; Gersten, Baker, & Keating, 1998; Rothfarb, Ariza, & Urrutia, 1987). Most disturbing of all, the high school dropout rates for Latino students (Spanish speakers) have not improved in the past quarter century (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). Two-thirds of the LEP students in U.S. public schools are Spanish speakers, the group most involved in native-language instruction programs.

The New Activism of the 1990s

Discouragement with the results of bilingual education programs has grown slowly but steadily among educators and parents of bilingual children, but large-scale opposition began in the 1990s. Until this decade, programs that focused on early and intensive learning of English and the teaching of school subjects in English with a modified curriculum received little or no funding at state and federal levels, were outlawed in 11 states, and were harshly criticized by advocates of bilingual programs. Several factors have come together in the 1990s, promising a new "Age of Enlightenment" for bilingual children: the accountability movement, initiatives taken by individual school districts and by groups of parents, the publication of a 30-year review of bilingual education research, and now the overturning of the bilingual education requirement in California.

The school reform and accountability movement is pouring new money into school districts to improve teaching and learning, to develop more challenging curriculums and higher standards for student achievement, and to measure student progress with rigorous assessments. Interested educators finally noticed that bilingual students are largely left out of state assessments that are administered routinely to all other students. Very little objective data had been collected to show the benefits of native-language instruction programs—neither in California, the state with 43 percent of the LEP students in the United States, 1.4 million children (Rossier, 1995), nor in Massachusetts, the first state to pass in 1971 a strict bilingual education law that requires annual student assessments (Massachusetts Bilingual Education Commission, 1994).

Across the United States, some school administrators tried alternative English programs where state laws allowed, and others challenged the bilingual restrictions in court when necessary. A representative example occurred in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

In 1992, Bethlehem Area Public Schools Superintendent Thomas J. Doluisio led his district in discarding its 15-year-old Spanish bilingual program for a new English-Acquisition Program. School administrators tactfully brought the professional staff and the Hispanic community into the planning process. Each year, the district has documented the benefits of its English-Acquisition Program not only in more rapid and better English-language learning, but also in the complete integration of limited-English students with their mainstream classmates (Simons-Turner, Connelly, & Goldberg, 1995; Goldberg, 1997; Goldberg, 1998). Most noteworthy, Doluisio has taken a visible, public position to explain Bethlehem's actions (Miller, 1996).

In 1997, the National Academy of Sciences published a comprehensive review of 30 years of bilingual education research. Among its crucial findings were these: There is no conclusive evidence that native-language programs are superior to English-immersion or English-as-a-second-language programs; teaching children to read and write in English without first developing literacy in their native language does not have negative effects (August & Hakuta, 1997). These findings confirmed the strong suspicions of bilingual education critics that no one method of teaching limited-English children is superior.

California: The Revolutionary State

California is now the state where most changes in instruction for LEP children are taking place. In June 1998, 61 percent of voters approved initiative petition 227, "English for the Children." Overnight, the new law required that all limited-English children be provided an English-immersion program for one year or longer if necessary, depending on each student's progress. The law allows schools to continue native-language instruction programs if enough parents request this option.

Suddenly, after 20 years of state-enforced Spanish-language instruction programs, the law requires students to be given special help in English, immediately on entering public school. The goal is threefold: early literacy development in English, subject matter instruction in English with a special curriculum, and early inclusion of LEP students in mainstream classrooms for maximum exposure to native speakers of English and for greater integration of diverse student populations.

By example, California affects education policies, textbook selection, curriculum innovations, and assessments nationwide. The state's experience with the widespread implementation of intensive English-language programs for immigrant children will have an inevitable impact on other states. After one year of this new policy, the state-administered Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program reported improved performance for limited-English students at all grade levels. For example, the reading scores for LEP 2nd graders across the state rose from the 19th to the 23rd percentile, and all students increased scores from the 39th to the 43rd percentile (Hakuta, 1999). There is room for improvement, but the dire predictions that bilingual children in English-language classrooms would fall behind have not come true.

Certainly, one year's results are not proof positive of the effectiveness of English immersion. But they are a preliminary indication that early English-language teaching does not hurt students' school achievement. As each year's test scores come in, we will have longitudinal evidence for the effectiveness of different approaches. At last, California is allowing a large enough demonstration of the English-immersion model to provide lessons for other states with large enrollments of limited-English students.

Lessons from California

Many feature articles in the California press during the past school year have reported that teachers and administrators are amazed at the way that bilingual children are learning English rapidly and are using English in math and other subjects.

In the Orange County Register, Elizabeth Chey and John Gittelsohn (1999) commented on the lessons of Proposition 227. The authors observed classrooms, conducted interviews, and reviewed test data. They report that based on test scores, school language census reports and interviews with teachers, parents and students, Prop. 227 did not devastate bilingual students as critics feared, or leave them without support. To the surprise of many teachers, students adjusted quickly to English immersion. (P. 1)

The five "lessons" that the writers set forth could well apply to the rest of the state: (1) One year of special help in English may not be enough for most children; (2) teachers in English-immersion classrooms see positive results that they had not anticipated; (3) students in bilingual and English-immersion classes showed equal levels of improvement; (4) teacher training in English immersion is essential; and (5) parents did exercise their legal option to have Spanish bilingual programs continue in some schools. The gloom-and-doom fears after the Proposition 227 vote—that bilingual students would be devastated academically, that native-language teaching would be forbidden, and that parents would lose their right to choose—have not been realized.

  • Learning the common language, English, for academic and social purposes shares the highest priority with learning school subjects and gives LEP students access to the same curriculum as mainstream, English-speaking children.

  • Accountability for student progress is the nonnegotiable measure of program effectiveness; that is, we need to focus on student-learning outcomes and drop the emphasis on process.

In practical terms, what educational innovations will best serve the growing population of limited-English students who will enroll in U.S. classrooms in almost all states in the next decade? Beyond the temporary disadvantages of lacking both English-language skills and a familiarity with a new country, far more serious is a lack of background knowledge for school learning that often typifies the disadvantaged child. A large percentage of students who start school without full fluency in English are from families of poverty. Often, their parents do not know English, have not completed many years of formal schooling, and are forced to move the family frequently to find a better living (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994).

These factors have a negative effect on a child's ability to reach his or her highest academic potential, no matter what kind of special program a school provides. The challenge for U.S. educators is to give these students extra help so that they can fully benefit from their school experience.

From my own experience as a Spanish/English bilingual teacher, as the director of a citywide program, and as the assistant superintendent in the Newton, Massachusetts, Public Schools, I make a fundamental distinction between two types of programs. One type focuses on the immediate needs of limited-English children for language skills, access to the core curriculum, and inclusion in the mainstream school and community. The other type has a far broader mission: developing balanced bilingualism, or full literacy in two languages; maintaining the language and culture of the family; and teaching another language to English speakers. The goals of the latter may be worthy, but they are not easily attainable, require long years of special schooling, and are, at best, of interest to a very small percentage of parents. We must separate these different approaches, give parents honest information about choices, and honor community wishes.

What Do the Parents of Bilingual Children Want?

Throughout the 1980s, I interviewed hundreds of bilingual parents every year when they enrolled their children in school. Newton Public Schools had a policy to inform parents about the English-immersion program and about the state-mandated, native-language teaching approach for the mainly Hispanic, Italian, Chinese, and Vietnamese children. Parents favored the English-language emphasis, and Newton honored that choice even though it earned the ire of the State Department of Education (Porter, 1990, 1995).

The aspirations of bilingual parents are receiving attention in schools and in the press. A recent national survey conducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan organization, reports that 75 percent of foreign-born parents say that the school's first priority should be to teach English quickly, even if it means that their children fall behind in other subjects. In a Zogby International poll, New York City residents were asked whether non-English-speaking children should be placed in a one-year English-immersion program instead of the present bilingual classes. Seventy-five percent responded "yes" (Tierney, 1999).

Hispanic parents are taking dramatic steps to direct their children's education, giving lie to the popular notion that immigrant and non-English-speaking parents clamor for bilingual classes. In 1995, the Bushwick Parents' Organization sued the New York State Board of Education. Members protested the wrongful placement of children with Hispanic surnames in Spanish bilingual classes, even when the students knew little or no Spanish, and the near impossibility of removing these children from the bilingual program even after six years or longer. In Los Angeles, the parents of Mexican-American children in the Ninth Street School staged a boycott, keeping their children out of school for several days in 1996 to protest the school principal's unwillingness to increase the amount of English-language instruction after appeals by the parents. In Arizona, Latino activist Maria Mendoza is leading the campaign to place an "English for the Children" initiative on the year 2000 election ballot. Mendoza has tried for 25 years to move the state's education system away from bilingual teaching, asserting that students in bilingual classes are being discriminated against by not being taught English (Gorman, 1999).

Back to the Future

  • If the district has not already done so, take stock of the language-minority population; that is, find out how many different languages are spoken by how many limited-English students at which grade levels and with what previous education backgrounds (years of schooling in the land of origin and years of English).

  • Depending on district demographics and resources, define district priorities, taking into account the wishes of local parents of bilingual children. (Do they favor the rapid learning of English and integration into mainstream classrooms or a dual-literacy program lasting five or more years?) Get out of the cultural maintenance business: The school day and the school year are too short for such activities. Encourage community groups and families to maintain family customs, languages, and ethnic histories outside of school time.

  • Elementary. Either a total immersion program (the California model), with substantially separate classrooms for one year, or the Newton pull-out English-language development approach, which takes up to three years but provides early integration of limited-English students into mainstream classrooms most of the school day. Each approach assumes that beyond the mastery of English-language literacy, some students with learning or academic deficits will need further support or special services.

  • Junior and senior high school. Two to three periods a day of intensive English classes in speaking, reading, and writing that are based on such content as math, science, and social studies, plus whatever electives are appropriate.

English-immersion programs promise to fulfill the original intent of bilingual education laws and court decisions: leveling the playing field by removing the language barrier to an equal education. Even before the California revolution, school districts across the country implemented such programs successfully, notably in Fairfax, Virginia; Dade County, Florida; and Seattle, Washington.

Retraining bilingual teachers, providing workshops for all school personnel to understand the needs of bilingual children, bringing bilingual parents into the school as partners in their children's education—all these activities need attention. If we direct the effort and the funding that have been invested in bilingual teaching programs for the past 30 years toward the improvement of English-language-based education—and if we carefully monitor student achievement—we will begin to make good on the 1968 promise of equal access to educational opportunity.


August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.). (1997). Improving schooling for language-minority children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Chey, E., & Gittelsohn, J. (1999, August 8). Educators review lessons of Prop. 227. Orange County Register, p. 1.

Gersten, R., Baker, S., & Keating, T. (1998). El Paso programs for English language learners: A longitudinal follow-up study. READ Perspectives, 5(1), 4–28.

Gersten, R., Keating, T., & Brengelman, S. (1995). Toward an understanding of effective instructional practices for language minority students: Findings from a naturalistic research study. READ Perspectives, 2(1), 55–82.

Goldberg, A. (1997). Follow-up study on the Bethlehem, PA, School District's English acquisition program. READ Perspectives, 4(1), 59–94.

Goldberg, A. (1998). Four year longitudinal report for the English acquisition program in the Bethlehem Area School District. READ Perspectives, 5(2), 65–80.

Gorman, S. (1999, July 31). California's language wars, part II. National Journal, 2238–2239.

Hakuta, K. (1999, July 23). What legitimate inferences can be made from the 1999 release of SAT-9 scores with respect to the impact of Proposition 227 on the performance of LEP students? Unpublished paper.

Massachusetts Bilingual Education Commission. (1994). Striving for success: The education of bilingual pupils. Boston: Executive Office of Education.

Miller, J. (1996, May). Muchas gracias, Mr. Doluisio. Policy Review, 77, 46–49.

Porter, R. P. (1990, March). The Newton alternative to bilingual education. The Annals—Journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 508, 147–160.

Porter, R. P. (1995). Forked tongue: The politics of bilingual education (2nd ed.). Somerset, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Rossier, R. E. (1995). A critique of California's evaluation of programs for students of limited-English proficiency. READ Perspectives, 2(1), 27–51.

Rothfarb, S., Ariza, M., & Urrutia, R. (1987). Evaluation of the bilingual curriculum project: Final report of a three-year study. Miami, FL: Dade County Public Schools.

Simons-Turner, J., Connelly, M., & Goldberg, A. (1995). The Bethlehem, PA, School District's English acquisition program: A blueprint for change.READ Perspectives, 2(2), 53–121.

Tierney, J. (1999, August 16). A many-tongued city hears a cry for English. The New York Times, p. 20.

U.S. Department of Education. (1998, February). No more excuses: The final report of the Hispanic dropout project (Executive summary). Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. General Accounting Office. (1994). Limited-English proficiency: A growing and costly educational challenge facing many school districts. Washington, DC: Author.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?