Two-Way Immersion

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Today, there are a growing number of students in the United States whose first, or home language is a language other than English. Many of these students have limited English proficiency when they are enrolled in school. In an effort to help these students improve English proficiency, schools offer bilingual education and have implemented various programs that provide instruction in English as a second language (ESL). Although there are various bilingual and ESL programs, there is a distinct difference between the two. In ESL education, programs are designed to teach English to students whose native language is not English. ESL classrooms may consist of students who have different language backgrounds and does not require the teacher to know the native languages of all students. Instruction and content in ESL is taught only in English. In many cases, these students are forced to lose a part of their heritage when their primary language is suppressed. In bilingual education, all non-native English speakers have the same language background and instruction is given in both English and the second language. Bilingual education is more helpful and beneficial for non-native English speakers while it uses their primary language as a resource when learning English. Unlike ESL, some bilingual programs also serve English native speakers as they learn the primary language of the non-native English speakers. These programs are known as two-way immersion (TWI) or dual language bilingual programs. When determining the success of such programs and the impact they have on student lives, one must ask: how have these programs grown over time, what common characteristics do they share, how have schools implemented different variations of the model and what are the long-term effects?

Over the past decade, TWI programs have been steadily increasing. In the implementation of these programs there is considerable variability, including the population of students to be served, the ratio of Spanish instruction to English instruction in the primary grades, the content areas taught in each language, and the integration of students, staffing and instructional approaches  (Howard & Sugarman, 13; Christian, 1996). These variations are generally based on logistical, pedagogical, or political concerns, and any number of variations can be successful in a given context (Howard & Sugarman, 13). Drawing on multiple case studies for common long-term effects of TWI programs, I also use four schools to yield a better understanding of what factors appear to be the most influential for success. Alicia Chacon International School in El Paso, Texas, Barbieri Elementary in Framingham, Massachusetts, Inter-American Magnet School in Chicago, Illinois and Francis Scott Key Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia have all shown successful student language and literacy outcomes in multiple research studies. These four schools were also a part of a 7-year study of TWI programs by the Center for Applied Linguistics. When promoting bilingualism and biliteracy, all four programs highlight intellectualism, equity and leadership as key factors that lead to their success and effectiveness. Long term effects of TWI programs include language, reading and writing proficiency in English and the targeted language, an increase in academic achievement specifically in reading and math, and positive attitudes towards schooling. The TWI model represents one of the best teaching practices available to address the cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity in today’s classrooms (Lindholm-Leary, 59).

Two-way Immersion Programs

Bilingual education attempts to promote bilingualism and biliteracy through a number of programs that serve different goals. Different from TWI, transitional and maintenance programs are two frequently used programs in bilingual education. On the one hand, the goal of maintenance programs is to acquire a second language while students preserve and enhance their skills their native language. On the other hand, the goal of transitional programs is to help students transition to mainstream English classrooms. Both programs only serve language minority students. Unique in its model, TWI programs integrate native English speakers and native speakers of a different language for academic instruction through both languages. Two-way bilingual immersion education has great potential to promote skills that students will need for the changing global job market and to help eradicate the achievement gap between native English-speaking and English language-learning students (Lindholm-Leary, 56). The major goals of TWI programs are for students to develop high levels of oral language skills and literacy both English and the non-English language, attain academic achievement at or above grade level as measured in both languages, hold positive attitudes toward school and themselves, and exhibit knowledge about positive attitudes toward other cultures (Lindholm-Leary, 57). Even though most of the programs revolve around the Spanish/English language, other programs include French, Chinese, Korean, Navajo and Portuguese.

According to James Crawford, one of the earliest two-way immersion programs was initiated in 1971 at the Oyster Elementary School in Washington D.C. Adopting a fully bilingual curriculum for grades K through 6, Oyster Elementary wanted to avoid the segregation of Spanish-speaking students and hoped to turn the school’s linguistic diversity into an enrichment experience for all students (Crawford, 168). Similar in its pedagogical approach to many bilingual programs today, Oyster is unique in having both a Spanish-speaking and English-speaking teacher in each classroom instead of one bilingual teacher. The results of the program which initially started as an experiment were favorable to the school. By the third grade, children at Oyster were reading two years above national norms in English. In 1987 they ranked at the 90th percentile in language and the 95th percentile in mathematics on the Comprehensive Test of basic skills (Crawford, 168). Today, Oyster continues to serve as a bilingual school changing its name to Oyster-Adams Bilingual School.

Since then, the number of TWI programs has been constantly increasing. According to national experts, the numbers of dual-language immersion programs have been steadily growing in public schools over the past decade or so, rising to more than 2,000 in 2011-2012 (Maxwell, Education Week 2012). According to Elizabeth Howard and Julie Sugarman, researchers for the Center of Applied Linguistics, the number of schools offering TWI programs has grown from 30 schools in the late 1980s to 330 schools in 2006 and even more schools today. The growth of these schools have been motivated by multiple factors including the documented success of the program model, increased attention to the low academic performance and high dropout rate of Hispanic students and increasing interest in developing multilingualism in American students to help them success in the global economy (Howard & Sugarman, 4). That growth has come even as the numbers of transitional-bilingual-education programs shrank in the aftermath of heated, politically charged ballot initiatives pushing English immersion in states like Arizona, Massachusetts, and California (Maxwell, Education Week 2012).

The Four Focal Schools: Intellectualism, Equity & Leadership

Conclusions of the 7-year study show that highly effective TWI programs like those in Alicia Chacon, Barbieri Elementary, the Inter-American Magnet School and Francis Scott Key Elementary promote bilingualism and biliteracy through cultures of intellectualism, equity and leadership. A culture of intellectualism is defined by a key factor in any context that supports learning, that of both the adults and the students in the building (Howard & Sugarman, 61). All four schools demonstrate this culture through a number of ways. First, they share a commitment to ongoing learning. The school’s environments are highly reflective as students and adults continually examine how things are going and brainstorm ideas for improvement. Mistakes are not viewed negatively and instead are OK to make since they allow students to learn from themselves and one another. It is encouraged for everyone to share high expectations of themselves and others and for students to reflect on their work in order to make any changes if necessary. Second, teachers in all schools collaborate with each other and often exchange ideas. They may plan together or share any challenges and successes that they have encountered. Also, students are encouraged to collaborate with one another by working in pairs or cooperative groups. Third, independence is valued. Teachers are allowed to choose or self-initiate curriculum designs and instructional activities. They also teach students strategies that will them work independently. In classrooms, students are allowed to choose their topics and study and approached to accomplishing a task. Lastly, all schools promote higher order thinking by meeting regularly to discuss issues within the program and how to solve them. They also foster critical thinking through a variety of activities, such as project-based instruction and open-ended questions (Howard & Sugarman, 83).

Like intellectualism, a culture of equity was demonstrated in many ways. First, all schools valued and protected time for the partner language and its associated cultures. All languages and cultures in the classroom are integrated within the curriculum. These schools attempt to have equal numbers of students from each language background and conduct assessments in both languages. Second, bilingualism is also promoted for students with special needs. These schools allow students with special needs to enroll in the program and provide any support needed for students with special learning needs. Third, they balance the needs of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. One way to do this is by attending to balance and appropriate implementation of language arts in two languages. Fourth, all four schools foster an appreciation for multiculturalism. Unlike most public schools where classrooms and curriculums are Eurocentric, these schools promote awareness and pride in the multiple cultures represented within the program. They also promote integration of language and content instruction through cultural themes (Howard & Sugarman, 104).

When promoting bilingualism and biliteracy, a culture of leadership is key. Again, all four schools demonstrate this culture though a number of ways. First, they promote both students and teachers to take initiative. They promote agency by allowing students to make choices about who they work with, what topics they investigate, and how they go about accomplishing a given task (Howard & Sugarman, 120). Second, teachers and students are encouraged to and do conduct public presentations. Teachers may present effective instructional strategies at local and national conferences while students are encouraged to present their work to the class to motivate them to their best work and take risks with their second language (Howard & Sugarman, 120). Third, all schools demonstrate that teachers and students often respond to the needs of others. They promote collaboration or mentoring among teachers and support the use and development of the second language through peer editing and other cooperative activities (Howard & Sugarman, 120). Although all four programs successfully manage to foster cultures of intellectualism, equity and leadership, they all share differences in implementation.

Variations in Implementation

All striving for dual language proficiency and academic achievement, schools have implemented different variations of two-way bilingual immersion programs. There are differences in language, student population and enrollment, and program features and designs. In TWI programs, there are two common instructional designs: 50:50 and 90:10. In the 50:50 model, instructional time is evenly divided between the two languages across all grade levels. Usually in the first or second year of instruction, in the 90:10 model, students spend 90 percent of their instructional day with content delivered through the partner language. Over the course of primary grades, instruction in the second language decreases while instruction in English increases. For both the 90:10 model and the 50:50 model, the content area taught in each language depend on the available curriculum and resource materials and on particular needs at each school site (Lindholm-Leary, 57). Although the 50:50 and the 90:10 models are the two common models for instructional design, the precise ratio may vary from school to school.

Although Spanish is the most prevalent second language, programs differ in target languages and in the proportion of students who speak both languages. Ideally, these programs work best when the numbers of language majority and language minority students are balanced. There are different implementations of this model that may or may not maintain this balance amongst the students. For example, programs with a first come, first served policy does not guarantee this balance because it may enroll more language majority than language minority students or vice versa.

Programs also differ in how they enroll students. Some may consider language background and proficiency while others may screen students for other characteristics like learning disabilities. Many of these programs set an upper limit and prevent newcomers from joining the program at upper level grades. Neighborhood based programs and magnet schools attract specifics groups of students. While neighborhood based programs only enroll students from the local neighborhood, magnet schools enroll students throughout the district. Other variable features stemming from local policy or budget decisions include staffing, special resources, summer sessions and language classes for parents (Christian, 70). Amongst all differences, programs vary in design choices and can be grouped as either allocation of languages or student integration. The allocation of languages design focuses on the distribution of both languages while the student integration design focuses on integrating language majority and language minority students rather than separating them.

Although the four schools in the CAL study share common characteristics, there are differences. At the Alicia Chacon International School, enrolled students are selected by lottery from all over the district. Alicia Chacon’s program model is unusual in that it includes a third language component – Mandarin Chinese, German, Japanese, or Russian – for 10% of the school day at all grade levels from K-8 (Howard & Sugarman, 7). Because the school is predominately Latino, in early grades, 80% of the instruction is in Spanish while the remaining 10% is in English. The ratio of English-to-Spanish instruction gradually increases until roughly equal proportions of instructional time are provided in each of the two languages by fifth grade (Howard & Sugarman, 7).

Serving half White and half Latino students, Barbieri Elementary does not use either of the 50:50 or 90:10 models. Instead, the TWI program gives different amounts of Spanish instruction to students depending on their native language. This “differentiated” program model at Barbieri separates students by native language for some language arts and content instruction (Howard & Sugarman, 8). Math is taught in English while Science and Social Studies alternate languages by unit.

Housing one of the oldest TWI programs (1975), the Inter-American Magnet School has a multiracial student body. It began as a 50:50 program but later changed to an 80:20 program in which students receive 80% of their instruction in Spanish in the early grades, with English instruction increasing each year until a 50/50 ratio is reached by sixth grade (Howard & Sugarman, 8). Because of a desegregation court ruling, the program is mandated to conduct its enrollment lottery by race/ethnicity rather than by native language, so there tend to be more native English speakers than native Spanish speakers (Howard & Sugarman, 8).

Francis Scott Key Elementary fosters a TWI program that follows the 50:50 model at all grade levels and integrates native Spanish and English speakers 100% of the time. Like Barbieri and the Inter-American Magnet School, Spanish is the second language of instruction. Also similar to the Inter-American Magnet School, there are slightly more native English speakers than native Spanish speakers. I am not clear on Key Elementary’s enrollment process for students. The TWI programs at Francis Scott Key, Alicia Chacon, and the Inter-American Magnet School are all whole-school programs, while the TWI in Barbieri is only a strand within the school. Despite different implementation models, all four schools shelter cultures of intellectualism, equity and leadership which make these exemplary models of TWI programs.

Long-term Effects

Emerging results from program evaluations around the country point to their effectiveness in promoting academic achievement for minority and majority students, along with high levels of bilingual proficiency for both groups (Christian, 72). In a study of school districts in California using two-way immersion, Lindholm and Gavlek (1994) found that in four schools where the program operates through at least fifth or sixth grade, 75% to 92% of the non-native-English speaking fifth or sixth graders were rated as fluent in English on a teacher rating instrument called the Student Oral Language Observation Matrix or SOLOM (Christian, 72).

There have been many studies conducted to analyze the achievement test scores of students in TWI programs. The results demonstrated large gains over time in the reading and math achievement test scores of both English language learners and native English speakers. By middle school, both groups scored at or well above grade level in reading and math when measured in both languages (Lindholm-Leary, 58). by 5th grade, both groups showed academic achievement at comparable or superior levels to the achievement of peers who spoke the same native language but had not gone through a bilingual immersion program (Lindholm-Leary, 58).

Students who study in these programs have expressed positive attitudes toward school and their program. These programs also challenged them more, gave them more confidence, and gave them a better education than a standard school model would have done (Lindholm-Leary, 58). Today, Latino students have the highest dropout rate in the United States. In one study of Latino high school students, many credited the program with keeping them in school. Although these long-term effects have been studied and reported, there remains concern for different program implementations and factors responsible for variations in student outcome (Christian, 73).


With a peak of TWI programs within the last decade, the demand for these programs in schools continue grow. Although there is variation in implementation, many programs still succeed in promoting bilingualism and biliteracy. Fostering high levels of bilingualism and biliteracy among all students can be challenging but as seen through the examples of TWI in the four schools mentioned above, it is possible when committed teachers, administrators and parents come together to support student learning in an environment that empowers everyone through the cultures of intellectualism, equity and leadership (Howard & Sugarman, 150). These programs turn a landscape of inequality for English language learners and frustration for many teachers into a win-win situation for both schools and students (Lindholm-Leary, 59). Not only is academic achievement boosted for all, but U.S. students also gain skills to survive and thrive in a country of many cultures (Lindholm-Leary, 59).

Works Cited

  • Christian, Donna. “Two‐Way Immersion Education: Students Learning Through Two Languages.” The Modern Language Journal 80, no. 1 (March 1, 1996): 66–76.
  • Crawford, James. Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice. 4th ed. Bilingual Education Serv, 1995.
  • Howard, Elizabeth R., and Julie Sugarman. Realizing the Vision of Two-Way Immersion: Fostering Effective Programs and Classrooms. Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Publishing Company, 2007.
  • Lindholm-Leary, Kathryn J. “The Rich Promise of Two-Way Immersion.” Educational Leadership 62, no. 4: 56–59.
  • Maxwell, Lesli A. “Momentum Builds for Dual-Language Learning.” Education Week, March 28, 2012.
  • Senesac, Barbara V. Kirk. “Two-Way Bilingual Immersion: A Portrait of Quality Schooling.” Bilingual Research Journal 26, no. 1 (2002).