Bilingual Education


As defined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the term bilingual education program refers to a program for students that have limited English-proficiency. The program:

  • Makes instructional use of both English and a student's native language;
  • Enables these students to achieve English proficiency, academic mastery of subject-matter content, and higher-order skills, including critical thinking;
  • May also develop native or ancestral language skills;
  • May include the participation of English-proficient students if the program is designed to enable all enrolled students to become proficient in English and a second language.


Nineteenth Century and Earlier

  • Bilingual education was used for schooling immigrant groups in the United States.

Late Nineteenth Century

  • As nativism became more widespread, the government mandated a movement toward a monolingual society.
  • After World War I, states began to require that all instruction take place in English.

Post-World War II

  • The revival of bilingual education arose partly from the civil rights movement and growing federal intervention in education.
  • Increasing immigration and diversity fueled both the need and the demand for bilingual education.

Title VII of the ESEA, the Bilingual Education Act (1968)

  • Many states instituted federally funded bilingual programs in their public schools.

Lau v. Nichols (1974)

  • According to this federal court decision, students that were taught in a language they could not understand (i.e., English) were being denied equal educational opportunity.
  • The decision required schools to remedy the situation by implementing programs.  

Transitional Bilingual Education Act

  •  Federal legislation amended Title VII.
  • Schools should teach enough English for children to progress in subject matter, with their native language used only when necessary.
  • Reauthorized in 1984, 1988, 1994, and 2001, the Bilingual Education Act sustained a federal program of discretionary and competitive grants.
  • Bilingual education faced strong opposition from groups that favor English-only instruction.

No Child Left Behind (2001)

  • The Bilingual Education Act was replaced by the English Language Acquisition Act.
  • The focus shifted toward support of English-only teaching.
  • The federal program of discretionary and competitive grants for bilingual education was replaced by a formula-grant program administered by the states.

Selected bibliography of published materials