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Bilingual Education Act: Serving second language learners in American schools

Bilingual Education
Bilingual Education
Sara Renae Mattson

Introduced by Texas Senator, Ralph Yarborough, in 1967, the Bilingual Education Act brought awareness to the insurmountable obstacles facing Second Language Learners in America’s school system (Stewner-Manzanares, 1998). Providing English Language Learners (ELLs) with services to help them make the transition from their native language to English became an urgent issue for many schools and districts. Today, there are a multitude of programs to serve second language learners, all falling on one of two sides of the same coin: additive approaches and subtractive approaches.

Additive Approaches to Second Language Learning

Additive approaches to teaching ELLs embrace the learner’s native language, teaching English while supporting the students through their first language. Some of the programs considered additive include:

• Maintenance Bilingual Education (MBE): In MBE, ELLs are taught in their native language and English concurrently, throughout their elementary year, the goal being bilingualism

• Dual-Immersion Programs: In this program, majority and minority language students in the elementary years are taught together, half instruction in English and half in the second language, typically Spanish, resulting in bilingualism and bi-literacy.

Subtractive Approaches to Second Language Learning

Subtractive approaches to serving ELLs present the curriculum in English only. Through the following programs, the goal is for second language learners to master English as quickly as possible, without the support of learning in their native languages:

• English as a Second Language (ESL): Under this program, second language learners receive classroom instruction in English, but are pulled out to receive English instruction.

• Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE): This program provides limited instruction in a student’s native language but for only one to three years; students are quickly transitioned to all English instruction.

• Structured English Immersion (SEI): Another pull-out program that separates second language learners from their English-speaking peers SEI isolates ELLs during English instruction.

• Sheltered/Content Instruction: Under this program, the curriculum is altered and simplified to make instructional materials more accessible to ELLs. Teaching in English only, this program neglects a student’s first language in favor of English.

As is apparent by the number of programs falling under each approach, subtractive methods of teaching ELLs have been much more popular in American schools. Many factors, such as economics and available resources, play a role in what program a school or district chooses. One consideration should outweigh all others, though, and that is, what is in the best interest of the students?


Stewner-Manzanares, G. (1998). The Bilingual Education Act: Twenty Years Later. ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. Retrieved from http://The Bilingual Education Act: Twenty Years Later

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