Preparing Your Child (and you) for a Dual Language Program

June 7, 2021

Schools in many parts of the United States are increasingly offering a dual language program for students. When describing a dual language program in this article, I’ll refer to English and Spanish, but of course there are many other combinations such as English/French, English/Chinese (Mandarin), English/German, etc.

The most common type of dual language class is the Two-Way approach. In the Two-Way approach, children from native English-speaking homes and children from native Spanish-speaking homes are placed together in a single classroom. Instruction is conducted in both English and Spanish.

These are not Spanish lessons or English lessons.  Instead, the content is taught in either one language or the other. For example, math may be taught in Spanish and history may be taught in English or vice versa. Typically Language Arts is taught in both languages. The percentage of instruction in English and Spanish varies from a 10/90 split to a 50/50 split.

Children and, more importantly, their parents must understand and be prepared for the commitment they are making to a dual language program. Since a child must be enrolled for at least four years to gain the full benefits of a dual language program, schools will want the student to participate until approximately fifth grade. This can be a scary decision.

While the benefits of teaching a young child a second language are widely known, offering your child the ability to be instructed in a second language in a school setting is even better than just learning a second language.

Benefits of enrolling your child in a dual language program

  • Studying two languages allows children to learn in one language and transfer those skills to a second language. Thus strengthening BOTH languages.
  • Pairing with children from another culture leads to open-mindedness, flexibility, and acceptance of others.
  • Children that grow up bilingual will have more opportunities later in life with travel, work, and learning a third or even fourth language.
  • Learning a second language builds the cognitive part of the brain. This increases abstract thinking, math, and logic skills, as well as problem solving skills. These are all higher-level thinking skills that lead to better school achievement.
  • Learning in two languages increases metalinguistic awareness (form and structure of language). This enables children to be literate in both languages – not simply bilingual.

Preparation for a dual language program

  • In all honesty, no preparation is necessary for the child.  Children are excited but nervous to go to school. This is the same for children entering a dual language program. It is a life transition just like entering a “regular” kindergarten would be.
  • Parents may question whether they have made the right choice. There are few (very few) children who do not thrive in a dual language classroom. Don’t second guess your decision. Believe you made the right choice; research shows you have!
  • Many children will feel more comfortable if they have some prior knowledge in Spanish but it is not necessary. As a family, begin to show a value for the second language.
  • Some families like to take advantage and begin learning Spanish together at home. Start by simply labeling some typical items around the house. Progress together a little at a time.
  • Understand language takes time to acquire. Don’t expect miracles. Remember how long it took your child to speak properly in English. Second language acquisition follows the same process. Your child will first begin using single words, then simple phrases. It will be a long time before they begin using complete sentences. Be patient.
  • Do not make your child a parrot. Ask him or her to use the new language in context, instead of something they have to do when asked. This embarrasses children and can hold them back from using their new language.

Fears and Questions from parents who considered dual language

What if I can’t help my child?

  • Most teachers have direct access to email from work and home. Keep the lines of communication open and be honest about your fears. If they have a website, ask the teacher if they can write important things on the website in both languages for parents. For parents who only know one language, the teacher should be able to accommodate your needs. Note: They will not do this on papers for the children since the children are working in both languages.
  • Your child will most likely know what the teacher wants them to do on any homework, even if the directions are in Spanish. If you can’t figure it out, help your child do their best and return it with a note to the teacher telling him/her you didn’t know what to do. Do NOT skip the homework because you aren’t sure what to do. This could send a bad message to your child and give them an out from doing other homework.

Will my child confuse the languages?

  • No, children know when the teacher is using Spanish and when the teacher is using English. Your child will switch back and forth in the same way as a completely bilingual adult without thinking about “which” language they are using.

Will my child understand what the teacher is saying?

  • Teachers in a dual language classroom are specially trained with at least 21 or more extra credit hours than a monolingual teacher. They are also second language learners so they understand your child’s situation.
  • Teachers in a dual language classroom use many techniques to teach; body language, visual cues, physical cues etc. to help students understand. And don’t forget about the other children in the class. They are learning together and are partners. As the children communicate together they are helping each other grow in both languages as well.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions. Teachers will be able to see in the students’ faces whether they are following a lesson or not but encourage your child to advocate for themself. If they don’t understand, teach them to ask.

How do I know my child is learning enough and how do I support him/her?

  • Many cognates (words that are spelled similarly) exist between languages. You will begin seeing these cognates in Social Studies and Science and you will be surprised at how much you will understand.
  • We trust our monolingual teachers to prepare our children for the next grade. Dual language teachers follow the same curriculum.
  • Support your child by asking him/her to share what they bring home every night. This will give you an idea of what they are learning. A simple conversation with your child regarding their school day will help you see that although the instruction may have been in Spanish they can tell you what they learned in English.
  • If you begin to see a lack of understanding or frustration contact the teacher. Quick intervention will take care of these issues.

Will my child fall behind academically because the teacher uses their non-native language?

  • Initially children in dual language classrooms may have lower standardized test scores but ultimately they not only score significantly higher than their monolingual peers, but they also acquired a second language for their lifelong use.

How will my school evaluate literacy in both languages?

  • Most school districts are using the same standardized tests that monolingual classrooms take in English. Special standardized tests are also available in Spanish. Since every state has different requirements, I can’t answer this question specifically but you will want to verify that they are evaluating reading and writing in both languages annually.

Will my child lose their Spanish when they stop the program?

  • Like any learned skill if it isn’t practiced your child may become “rusty” but they will not forget. If they decide later to take more Spanish they will simply need to reinforce what they already learned and it will return from their long-term memory.

How will my child continue their language learning after the program ends in middle school?

  • This is a very important question. Make sure you ask this question. You want to make sure your school district has a plan for dual language students as they move through the grades and on to high school. Some schools are now offering more advanced Spanish and the children take the rest of their classes in English. Some school districts are now offering dual language opportunities for their older students who have come through the dual language program.

Remember the benefits of a dual language classroom far outweigh any educational risks for your child. Jump in…believe in the program…support the program and you will raise a child with a great head start on their future.

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