• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. and Adela Solís, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 1998 • Dr. Adela SolisDr. Abelardo Villarreal

Good bilingual programs upgrade the quality of instructional programming for limited-English-proficient (LEP) students, while at the same time providing a quality instructional program that embraces bilingualism as an advantage. Research has shown that campuses with such bilingual education programs are successful for all students. Research has also identified characteristics that appear to be present in the majority of successful campuses.

The purpose of this article is to briefly describe the lessons IDRA has learned from the research and in working with numerous bilingual education programs for many years. These lessons are described as reflections on key characteristics and are clustered around 13 major areas (see checklist below).

Vision and Goals

This area is of utmost significance when the stakeholders (administrators, teachers, parents and students) provide the connection between vision and action and constantly remind themselves of the importance of keeping these links “alive.”

Peter Senge reminds us that “our vision is an image of what we want to become” (1990). Only action in relation to that vision can create the reality of successful bilingual education programs within all schools.

Program Leadership

This second area refers to the priority and importance that bilingualism is given at all levels of the school organization. Leadership occurs at all levels. Students provide leadership by aspiring to become bilingual. Parents become community voices and create a support network that sustains and nurtures the valuable role schools play in promoting bilingualism. Teachers create learning opportunities for children to experience the benefits of bilingualism. Administrators are the pro-active and informed voices in the community responsible for orchestrating the resources that make bilingualism a reality on a school campus. The absence of leadership on a campus dooms the bilingual program to distress and, ultimately, to failure.

Linkages to Central Office Staff

A feeling of “loneliness in the wilderness” is evident on a school campus that strives to implement an effective bilingual education program when everyone knows that the central administration is ambivalent and provides little or no support for the program. It is even worse when the central administration is antagonistic and misinformed about the benefits of the program.

Our experience in working with a number of schools reveals that campuses operating in this environment must generate strength from within and must make an extraordinary effort to celebrate publicly their successes with the community. The message is that support from central administration can facilitate and accelerate the success of the bilingual education program.

Program Articulation

The key to program success is clear articulation of the components by everyone involved. Campus stakeholders must understand and “buy into” the critical elements of the bilingual program. Many successful schools articulate instructional programs using the following process:

  • Align the instructional program with the campus vision and goals. In other words, keep the campus vision and goals in mind when designing the program.
  • Create a “map” that defines student characteristics and the paths that will be taken to reach the vision and goals.
  • Consult the research to identify the key principles and framework that will guide the identification of program components and strategies.
  • Package the program so that all stakeholders can see relationships among program components.
  • Select appropriate materials to include sufficient student reading materials in the library and classrooms.

Student Assessment and Progress Monitoring

When teachers sense that students are progressing academically and socially, they tend to do more for students. To reach this point, teachers must be supported by a system that continuously provides student data on the students’ proficiency levels in the first language and English.

Furthermore, teachers must have information on students’ growth in the content areas. This data should be acquired through a formal and informal system. Teachers must reflect on the data, activities and strategies they used during a certain period of time. Decisions must be made to adjust instruction on the basis of this information. Teachers learn to rely on this system to inform the instructional decision-making process.

Classroom and School Organization

The ideal classroom organization is one in which the teacher capitalizes on the most efficient use of available resources, both material and human. There is always an effort to expand and enhance resources, but limitations (such as shortage of books or lack of commercial Spanish materials) do not inhibit good teaching.

Space and materials utilization and arrangement must be based on the most efficient way of maximizing the impact of the classroom. For example, a self-contained classroom of 30 students without a teaching assistant may be arranged so that students have easy access to guidance and support not just from the teacher but from their peers (by sitting in close proximity) and from media equipment (such as a computer) that is set up for students to manipulate independently.

An effective way to organize the school involves the creation of small organizational arrangements (e.g., families, academic teams) to increase communication and support among teachers. Maximizing teacher interaction in this manner addresses teachers’ professional developmental needs and the need for providing students the most focused adult attention.

Classroom and School Climate and Environment

The ideal classroom and school climate is one in which high expectations are concretely communicated to all students. In this climate, each student knows specifically what is expected of him or her and, most importantly, that this expectation involves learning at his or her maximum level. Such high expectations connect students with the teachers’ belief in students’ ability to succeed academically.

A prevalent relationship among all personnel that is based on genuine trust produces a positive environment. A high level of trust is overtly nurtured daily by all staff at successful schools during meetings and as they go about their teaching and learning responsibilities. These campuses are effective because decision-making responsibilities are shared concerning how to improve the quality of instruction and how to establish a climate where instruction consistently benefits all students.

Furthermore, LEP students flourish when they and their teachers feel safe and cared for. As with other students, LEP students succeed on campuses that are orderly, disciplined and maintained in a caring and dignified way. The ideal classrooms and schools provide for special language needs by adding special programs or certain instructional components, carefully calculating how these are to be integrated into the existing curricula.

Use of Both Languages and Cultural Diversity

On the campuses where effective bilingual programs operate, there is campus-wide respect for the cultural differences of students. Teachers – bilingual, English as a second language (ESL) and mainstream – use cross-cultural interactions (where students and teachers learn from each other and about each other in deep and meaningful ways) and publicly display value for students’ native languages.

The specific instruction of LEP students is characterized by a structured use of the two languages. The amount of language use is based firmly on the assessment of language proficiency in English and the native language. Students learn language arts and content areas in both languages following a plan for transitioning gradually to all-English language and content instruction. Native language and academic instruction are based on the knowledge of first and second language acquisition.

Availability of Books

The most successful classrooms are print-rich. There are many books in dual languages. In effective schools, these books represent the best available and those that are the most linguistically and culturally appropriate for the school’s student population. In some classrooms, there are state-adopted basals for Spanish language arts and ESL as well as other supplemental materials supplied by the school and teachers. Books in the classrooms should be used extensively by students and teachers.


The instructional strategies employed by effective bilingual teachers mirror strategies used by effective language arts teachers. Additionally, they include specific methods targeted to LEP students. The instruction comprises part of a “comprehensive program” designed to meet their needs. It gradually introduces content instruction in English using a “sheltered approach.” The program should be designed so that students always have additional opportunities to master critical skills.

Teachers in effective classrooms follow a general process that addresses a variety of learning styles. They stress hands-on activities that are active, collaborative, and of high interest and relevance to all students. The most successful classrooms also integrate the use of technology and make it available to students in both languages. Although students in the bilingual program receive specialized instruction, they should have opportunities to participate in the core curricular activities of the school in various ways.

Staff Selection and Development

Successful programs have teachers who feel at ease with the students’ first language and English. They are literate in both languages. The school provides classes in the first language for teachers who want to become proficient in specific content areas. For example, the social studies themes addressed in their classrooms are used as the content for language development class. Teachers are given the opportunity to develop vocabulary related to the theme and are provided opportunities to facilitate a discussion on the topic with other peers. Effective teachers feel that expanding their vocabulary is essential.

In successful schools teachers receive staff development that

  • values their knowledge and experience,
  • uses the collective knowledge of the teachers to develop solutions,
  • provides new knowledge and skills that support the instructional programs they are implementing,
  • supports teachers with on-site technical assistance such as classroom modeling and mentoring,
  • celebrates successes teachers experience with other teachers, and
  • pairs teachers with presenters in planning workshops and other training activities.

It is important to have a teaching staff that is knowledgeable on effective content teaching and language development practices. In other words, the bilingual education classrooms are “cutting-edge” in content area methodology and language acquisition and development.

Parent Involvement

In effective schools, the parents of LEP students are well informed about the bilingual program as well as the general curricula and other activities in which the students participate. The correspondence sent home to parents is always in the home language, as is the information they receive in the school.

In successful schools, parents of LEP students always feel welcome and encouraged to interact with the school, even by parents of English-dominant children. Their involvement in school varies. They are encouraged to help at home and in the classroom, as well as to have input in the various decisions the school has to make, from how many computers to purchase to how much homework students should have.


Successful campuses have a well-defined system of accountability for administrators, teachers, parents and students. Administrators know their roles and responsibilities in seeing that LEP students are progressing academically and that the necessary resources are available. Teachers know what is expected of them in terms of instructional programming, continuous assessment measures, and curriculum and instructional adjustments. Teachers know that their responsibility is to observe benchmarks for students to reach within a certain period of time. Having students reach these benchmarks is celebrated in the classroom and on the campus level.

In effective schools, parents meet with teachers and administrators to discuss their individual and team responsibilities. Collectively the team provides support to ensure that students reach the goals established for all students.

On the other hand, students outline the ways in which they will be responsible for their learning. These responsibilities are shared with parents. Students, parents and teachers discuss and reinforce the importance of meeting these responsibilities in ensuring success.

Effective Bilingual Education Program Checklist

  1. Vision and goals exist, are communicated to students, and guide the instruction.
  2. Program leaders are well-informed on the rationale for bilingual education and share an active commitment to bilingualism. They pro-actively involve the community and private sector in the design and development of the bilingual program.
  3. Linkages to central office staff are facilitated by clear roles and responsibilities of central staff. The central office staff provide leadership, credibility and respect for the program.
  4. Program articulation indicates that there is a common program of instruction across grade levels that has been aligned with developmentally appropriate practices and student language proficiency levels in English and students’ first language.
  5. Student assessment and progress monitoring uses baseline student data on language and content knowledge to plan and adjust instruction.
  6. Classroom and school organization is based on the most efficient way of maximizing the impact of instruction. It creates small organizational arrangements (e.g., families, academic teams) to increase communication among teachers.
  7. Classroom and school climate and environment communicates, in concrete ways, high expectations to LEP students, a sense of family, a high level of trust among all school personnel, and shared responsibility and decision making.
  8. The program shows respect for a diversity of cultures. All languages used for instruction share equal status. Their use is determined by students’ proficiency levels, and the students’ first language is used to teach content areas.
  9. Sufficient and appropriate books and instructional materials are available in all languages used for instruction.
  10. Instruction is interactive, hands-on, collaborative and meaningful to students. It is innovative and uses a variety of techniques that respond to different learning styles. Instruction integrates the use of technology for both languages. It uses a “sheltered approach” to gradually introduce content area instruction in English.
  11. Staff selection and development includes screening to ensure proficiency in both languages, training for teachers to become action researchers and adjusting the program to ensure that all teachers are able to serve LEP students. Teachers feel supported and free to innovate.
  12. Parents feel welcome and play different roles (leadership, decision making, resource) in the educational process. The school provides opportunities for parents who do not speak English to participate.
  13. Accountability is improved when responsibilities for student success are clear and have been shared with all school personnel.


Senge, P.M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York, N.Y.: Bantam Doubleday, 1990).

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the division director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Adela Solís, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1998 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.]