by Adela Solís, Ph.D.• IDRA Newsletter • April 2001

Bilingual education is a simple label, its formal definition not difficult to understand. However, it is not an education strategy that is easy to operationalize. A school that has not implemented a bilingual program before, or wants to improve its current bilingual education offerings to students, may engage in a search of the literature for a sensible-sounding, well-articulated model to adopt. Another school may actually visit program sites in search of the same. Both endeavors often yield frustrating results. The probable reason? The model is not understood or schools discover that its settings are drastically different.

A better approach to establish an appropriate program would be for educators to first engage in careful study of the key features and underlying principles of bilingual education models, noting specifically the non-negotiable aspects that must be in place in order to achieve the stated outcomes of the model.

Second, it would be useful to carefully assess and become very familiar with the local circumstances (requirements and aims of the school and community, resources, etc.) to determine which model would be most effective.

Finally, a model must not only be adopted but also adapted to the unique characteristics of the school. The challenge of this step is to shape a local program that is appropriate without violating the nonnegotiable or critical features of the model. This latter process is indeed a challenging one, as it involves bringing together diverse perspectives and understandings, but it must be accomplished in order to be true to the goals of bilingual education and bilingualism.

This article presents a refresher of bilingual education philosophy and models and, most importantly, lists resources that provide a more detailed and useful discussion of these models and their implementation. This can help educators who need a boost in understanding so as to facilitate better choices in planning for bilingual education.

Basically, bilingual education is an education program offered in two languages; thus, it is also referred to as dual language instruction. In the United States, and other parts of the world, there has always been some form of bilingual, even multi-lingual, education.

In this country bilingual education programs typically serve language-minority students, but in the past several years the trend has changed so that now there are programs serving all types of students. Even native English-speaking mainstream students, upon request or with approval from parents, are joining language-minority students in learning via two languages and developing or strengthening their bilingual skills.

Early descriptions of bilingual education portrayed a range of instructional models which were possible depending on such things as language teaching resources available in schools, the languages spoken in communities, and the status of the target languages (Mackey, 1970). Currently, descriptions and definitions of bilingual education are based specifically on the philosophy of or rationale for offering bilingual education.

Maintenance and Transitional Philosophies

Essentially, there are two philosophies of bilingual education: maintenance and transitional. The maintenance philosophy promotes developing, enriching and preserving the two languages and, as such, promotes additive bilingualism. This process involves adding second language skills to a person’s linguistic repertoire in a context where both the two languages and cultures are equally valued.

The transitional philosophy, on the other hand, allows the development and strengthening of the home language so that it can serve as a vehicle for learning subject matter, but the home language is de-emphasized and eventually abandoned as English skills are mastered. As such, transitional bilingual education promotes subtractive bilingualism, where only the dominant language and culture have prominence (Baker, 1993, Lessow-Hurley, 1990).

The bilingual skills that a person possesses in instances of subtractive bilingualism often are limited and not useful for either communicative or learning purposes. The box below summarizes the essential premises of these two programs and their inherent philosophies using Spanish and English as example languages.

Schools operate a variety of bilingual education programs; this variance has to do with the specific needs, goals, perspectives and resources that are available in the districts and communities. All varieties of bilingual education espouse either a maintenance or transitional philosophy.

Types of Bilingual Education Models

The table below delineates the most recent salient models of bilingual education that are possible and, in fact, functioning in schools. The design and philosophy of the program and the outcomes that can be expected from its implementation can also be discerned here (Baker, 1993, Genesee, 1987).

Why Bilingual Programs Look Different

Although, the definition and description of bilingual education seems straight forward, implementing the models is complex, as there is great variation in the manner in which the instruction is actually carried out.

Variation exists in such areas as classroom organization and scheduling, number and type of students served, staffing patterns, curriculum materials, methodology, and management style. Programs look different primarily because of differences in the philosophy and directives that govern the programs.

Consider these two scenarios. School A enrolls a majority of LEP students and thus, per statute, must implement a bilingual education program. Because school leaders in this school espouse an “English only” philosophy, they will commit to a Transitional Bilingual Education model. Faculty and parent support for the program, and available resources will further dictate whether this will be an early-exit or late-exit program.

The model in this school will focus on English learning. It will implement a specific schedule, use specific staffing patterns and specific materials as dictated by their specific circumstances.

School B, on the other hand, enrolls equal numbers of LEP and mainstream students. The mainstream students’ families value the language and culture of the minority (LEP) students and aspire for their children to learn a second language. This school has leaders and faculty that similarly value the language of the minority students and English. Furthermore, the school has resources, or knowledge of where to acquire resources, to implement a bilingual program for both student groups.

This model will focus on bilingualism aiming at full literacy development of English and the second language. Faculty and parent support for the program and available resources will determine whether this will be a bilingual immersion or a two-way bilingual model and whether this program will initially employ a 90/10, 80/20, 60/40 or 50/50 language use formula. The program time frame, schedule, staffing, curriculum materials and methodology also will be dictated by the characteristics in this school.

Which Models Should My School Use?

At a minimum, Texas, and other states, require that schools provide transitional bilingual education to elementary school students who have been assessed as being limited in their English skills. The use of the home language as a vehicle for learning the school curricula and intensive specialized instruction in English (English as a second language), is the minimum that schools can offer LEP students to be in compliance with the federal civil rights regulations and state statutes that protect the education rights of these students (IDRA, 1995). However, in many cases, schools are not prohibited, and in some cases, are even encouraged to go beyond this minimum bilingual education program.

State regulations in Texas, for instance, permit schools to submit “local plans” that incorporate what the law requires but that further employ “innovative approaches” to meet the “affective, linguistic, and cognitive needs of limited English proficient students” (Texas Register 5700, 1996). Furthermore, Texas permits and supports the bilingual learning of mainstream students who are placed within the district’s state-mandated bilingual program.

In this context, schools in Texas can and do implement a range of program models. A growing number of schools across the state have been implementing voluntary programs that educate and develop bilingual skills in native English-speaking students that clearly go beyond what the state requires.

Some schools may separately operate the required programs for LEP students and the voluntary programs for other students. Others creatively combine all students in one bilingual program, usually a two-way dual language program. This flexibility in program options also exists in a number of other states and should be explored further by schools desiring to exercise these options.

Comparative Features of Two Bilingual Education Programs and Their Philosophies

Transitional Bilingual Education


Maintenance Bilingual Education


Teaching through the home language (Spanish) until student is proficient enough in the majority language (English) to cope with all-English instruction. Teaching the curriculum through both majority and minority language (English and Spanish).
Intensive instruction in the majority language (English) using second language methodology. Intensive instruction in the majority language (English) using second language methodology.
Amount of time in home language (Spanish) instruction is determined by level of proficiency in the majority language (English), until a “threshold” level of proficiency is acquired which predicts success in all English instruction. Strengthening the home language (Spanish) through strong language arts instruction.

Equal amounts of majority and home language continues throughout elementary school years or longer.

Aim is to increase use of the majority language (English) while proportionally decreasing the use of the home language (Spanish). Aim is maintenance of high levels of language skills in both languages. Home language (Spanish) is equally protected and developed.
Ultimate goal is monolingualism. Ultimate goal is bilingualism.
It is a process of subtractive bilingualism. It is a process of additive bilingualism.
Considered “assimilationist”. Considered “pluralistic”.

Salient Bilingual Education Models

Type of Model





Language Learning Outcome



Transitional Bilingual Education


Primary language is used as the medium of instruction until such time as students sufficiently master English. Focus is on English proficiency.



Early-exit offers initial instruction in primary language, usually limited to initial reading instruction and used as support for clarification of English. All other instruction is in English. Primary instruction is phased out and mainstreamed into English  usually at the end of two years. Early-exit – English literacy. Subtractive bilingualism occurs, as it does not permit complete development of primary language



Late-exit offers a minimum of 40 percent of their instructional time in the primary language in language arts, reading and core subject areas – math, science, social studies Sixty percent of English instruction students typically are offered bilingual instruction through grade six unless the English proficiency goal is met before then. Late-exit – English literacy, but supportive of additive bilingualism if students’ home language skills are fully developed to the level of English by grade six.literacy;



Program offered to support and encourage learning in two languages and to develop proficiency in both languages. Bilingualism, including biliteracy, is the goal and both languages are valued. Some consider the program to be maintenance only when there is a K-12 program in place. Others consider it a maintenance program if it affords full development of bilingual skills  literacy in both languages at any reasonable point. Additive bilingualism; Biliteracy

Bilingual Immersion


Dual language instruction that promotes biliteracy by immersing second language learners into content instruction in the two languages. Typically a minimum of 50 percent of the school day is devoted to each of the two languages, for example, Spanish immersion occurs in the morning and English immersion in the afternoon. Some models vary the balance of language use to primary language/English (Spanish/English) ratios of 90/10, 80/20, and 60/40. Additive Bilingualism and Biliteracy. It allows for fully developing literacy in both languages.

Two-Way Dual Language


This model resembles bilingual immersion but differs in that, instead of student groups learning separately, classes have mixed enrollment of native speakers and second language learners. For example, the class may be made up of LEP students who are native speakers of Spanish and native English speakers who are learning Spanish as a second language. The design calls for students to be language models for each other and engages them in helping the other master the language. LEP students who participate in two-way programs received structured intensive ESL instruction; native English speakers receive the typical English language arts. Bilingualism and Biliteracy, in both groups of learners. It allows for fully developing literacy in both languages

Resources on Bilingual Education Models

The list below identifies some key resources providing a more detailed and useful discussion of these models and their implementation which can aid educators’ understanding and use of bilingual education.

Books and Web Sites

Colin Baker. (1993). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Clevedon, Avon, England, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: Multilingual Matters.

James Crawford. (1999, 4th ed.). Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory and Practice. Los Angeles, California: Educational Services, Inc.

Cheryl A. Roberts (1995). Bilingual Education Program Models: A Framework for Understanding. The Bilingual Research Journal, Summer/Fall, Vol. 19 nos.3&4, pp. 369-378.

J.D. Williams and Grace C. Snipper, (1990). Literacy and Bilingualism. New York: Longman.

Intercultural Development Research Association

Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence

Office of English Language Acquisition


Baker. C. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (Clevedon Avon, England, Philadelphia, PA, USA: Multilingual Matters, 1993).

Subchapter BB. Commissioner’s Rules Concerning State Plan for Educating Limited English Proficient (LEP) Students, (19TAC Sect. 89-1201-89.1265) 1996.

Genesee, F. Learning through Two Languages: Studies of Immersion and Bilingual Education (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1987).

Intercultural Development Research Association. Federal Statutes and Directives Regarding National Origin Students (Technical Assistance Module). (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995).

Lessow-Hurley, J. The Foundations of Dual Language Instruction. (New York: Longman, 1990).

Mackey, W.F., (1970). “A typology of bilingual education,” Foreign Language Annals 3, 596-608.

Adela Solís, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]