Beyond Adversarial Discourse:
Searching for Common Ground
in the Education of Bilingual Students
Presentation to the California State Board of Education
February 9, 1998
by Jim Cummins
University of Toronto
As someone whose research and theory has influenced policy on the education
of bilingual students for more than 20 years, I have watched the growing
acrimony surrounding this issue with some dismay. The crucially important
debate regarding what types of educational interventions are likely to
reverse the underachievement of many bilingual students has degenerated
into the adversarial discourse of courtroom lawyers with each side trying
to "spin" the interpretation of research to fit its strongly
From the time of my initial publications on this topic, I have argued
that the research on bilingual education both in North America and from
around the world is highly consistent in what it shows. I have also suggested
that the research data can be largely accounted for by three theoretical
principles that permit accurate predictions regarding student outcomes
from any well-implemented bilingual program. I am therefore disturbed to
see what I have written sometimes misunderstood and misapplied by advocates
of bilingual education and almost invariably distorted beyond recognition
by opponents of bilingual education.
I have also argued (e.g. Cummins, 1981a, 1986) that bilingual education
by itself is no panacea. The reasons why some groups of culturally diverse
students experience long-term persistent underachievement have much more
to do with issues of status and power than with linguistic factors in isolation.
Thus, educational interventions that challenge the low status that has
been assigned to a linguistic or cultural group are much more likely to
be successful than those that reinforce this low status. It follows that
a major criterion for judging the likely efficacy of any form of bilingual
education or all-English program is the extent to which it generates a
sense of empowerment among culturally diverse students and communities
by challenging the devaluation of students' identities in the wider society.
In principle, the incorporation of students' primary language into the
instructional program should operate to challenge the devaluation of the
community in the wider society, and thus contribute to students' academic
engagement. Strong promotion of students' primary language literacy skills
not only develops a conceptual foundation for academic growth but also
communicates clearly to students the value of the cultural and linguistic
resources they bring to school. However, only a small proportion of bilingual
programs (specifically two-way bilingual immersion and developmental [late-exit]
programs) aspire to develop students' first language literacy skills and
it is therefore primarily these programs that would be expected to succeed
in reversing the underachievement of bilingual students.
In this paper I restate what my own empirical research and that of many
others is clearly saying and also outline the theoretical principles that
permit us to explain these findings and predict the outcomes of various
types of programs for bilingual students. Then I attempt to move beyond
the divisive discourse of courtroom lawyers to search for areas of agreement
in the perspectives and interpretations of both opponents and advocates
of bilingual education. I believe that there are many such areas of agreement
and focusing on them might provide a starting point for reconstructing
a viable research-based approach to reversing a legacy of school failure.
Research Findings on Language Learning and Bilingual Education
The research is unambiguous in relation to three issues: (a) the distinction
between conversational and academic skills in a language; (b) the positive
effects of bilingualism on children's awareness of language and cognitive
functioning; and (c) the close relationship between bilingual students'
academic development in their first and second languages (L1 and L2) in
situations where students are encouraged to develop both languages. 
Conversational and Academic Proficiency
Research studies since the early 1980s have shown that immigrant students
can quickly acquire considerable fluency in the target language when they
are exposed to it in the environment and at school but despite this rapid
growth in conversational fluency, it generally takes a minimum of about
five years (and frequently much longer) for them to catch up to native-speakers
in academic aspects of the language (Cummins, 1980, 1981b, 1984). 
During this period, especially for younger students, conversational fluency
in the home language tends to erode. This is frequently exacerbated by
the temptation for teachers to encourage students to give up their first
language and switch to English as their primary language of communication;
however, the research evidence suggests that this retards rather than expedites
academic progress in English (Cummins, 1991a; Dolson, 1985).
The major implication of these data is that we should be looking for
interventions that will sustain bilingual students' long-term academic
progress rather than expecting any short-term "quick-fix" solution
to students' academic underachievement in English.
The Positive Effects of Additive Bilingualism
There are well over 100 empirical studies carried out during the past
30 or so years that have reported a positive association between additive
bilingualism and students' linguistic, cognitive, or academic growth. The
term "additive bilingualism" refers to the form of bilingualism
that results when students add a second language to their intellectual
tool-kit while continuing to develop conceptually and academically in their
first language. My own studies of this issue have involved French-English
bilinguals, Irish-English bilinguals, and Ukrainian-English bilinguals
(Cummins, 1978a, 1978b; Cummins & Gulutsan, 1974; Cummins & Mulcahy,
The educational implication of these research studies is that the development
of literacy in two or more languages entails linguistic and academic benefits
for individual students in addition to preparing them for a working environment
in both domestic and international contexts that is increasingly characterized
by diversity and where knowledge of additional languages represents a significant
Interdependence of First and Second Languages
The interdependence principle has been stated as follows (Cummins, 1981a):
To the extent that instruction in Lx is effective in promoting proficiency
in Lx, transfer of this proficiency to Ly will occur provided there is
adequate exposure to Ly (either in school or environment) and adequate
motivation to learn Ly.
The term common underlying proficiency (CUP) has
also been used to refer to the cognitive/academic proficiency that underlies
academic performance in both languages.
Consider the following research data that support this principle:
- In virtually every bilingual program that has ever been evaluated,
whether intended for linguistic majority or minority students, spending
instructional time teaching through the minority language entails no academic
costs for students' academic development in the majority language. This
is borne out in the review of research carried out by Rossell and Baker
(1996) as well as by the 30 chapters describing an extremely large number
of bilingual programs in countries around the globe in the volume edited
by Cummins and Corson (1998). (See also: Cummins, 1977, 1978c; Cummins
& Gulutsan, 1974; Lapkin & Cummins, 1981)
- Countless research studies have documented a moderately strong correlation
between bilingual students' first and second language literacy skills in
situations where students have the opportunity to develop literacy in both
languages (for a detailed review of these studies see Cummins, 1991b).
It is worth noting, as Genesee (1979) points out, that these findings also
apply to the relationships among very dissimilar languages in addition
to languages that are more closely related, although the strength of relationship
is often reduced (e.g. Japanese/English, Chinese/English, Basque/Spanish
– see Cummins et al., 1984; Cummins et al., 1990; Cummins, 1983; Gabina
et al., 1986; Lasagabaster Herrerte, 1997, in press; Sierra & Olaziregi,
Fitzgerald's (1995) comprehensive review of U.S. research on cognitive
reading processes among ESL learners concluded that this research consistently
supported the common underlying proficiency model:
...considerable evidence emerged to support the CUP model. United States
ESL readers used knowledge of their native language as they read in English.
This supports a prominent current view that native-language development
can enhance ESL reading. (p. 181)
The research data show clearly that within a bilingual program, instructional
time can be focused on developing students' literacy skills in their primary
language without adverse effects on the development of their literacy skills
in English. Furthermore, the relationship between first and second language
literacy skills suggests that effective development of primary language
literacy skills can provide a conceptual foundation for long-term growth
in English literacy skills.
Misconceptions and Distortions
The research data are very specific in what they are saying: to reiterate,
superficial conversational fluency is not a good indicator of long-term
academic growth in English. Thus, premature exit from a bilingual program
into a typical mainstream program is likely to result in underachievement
in both languages. Bilingual students will usually require most of the
elementary school years to bridge the gap between themselves and native
speakers of English; this is, in part, due to the obvious fact that native
speakers are naturally also progressing in their command of academic English
year by year. Bilingual students' prospects for long-term academic growth
in English will not be reduced in any way as a result of spending part
of the instructional day developing academic skills in the primary language.
In fact, the research suggests that students may experience some linguistic
and cognitive benefits as a result of developing literacy in both languages.
Misconceptions Among Some Bilingual Program Advocates
These psychoeducational data do not show, nor do they claim to show, that
all forms of bilingual education are more effective than all forms of all-English
instruction. In fact, I have argued for more then 20 years that quick-exit
transitional bilingual education is an inferior model based on an inadequate
theoretical assumption (what I have termed the linguistic mismatch
assumption) (Cummins, 1978, 1979, 1981a). Any adequate bilingual program
should strive to develop, to the extent possible, literacy in both languages;
transitional bilingual programs, however, almost by definition, aspire
to monolingualism rather than bilingualism. Such programs also generally
do little to address the causes of bilingual students' underachievement
which, as sketched above, are rooted in the subordination of the community
in the wider society.
The psychoeducational data also say nothing about the language in which
reading instruction should be introduced. A survey I conducted of bilingual
programs in Ireland (which catered both to Irish L1 and English L1 students)
showed that teachers were equally divided with respect to whether reading
should be taught first in L1, L2 or both simultaneously (Cummins, 1978d,
1979) and I would agree that under different circumstances all three of
these approaches are probably viable. For Spanish-speaking students, the
much greater regularity of phoneme/grapheme correspondence in Spanish in
comparison to English might suggest that this is a more logical language
in which to introduce reading. Thus, I would expect those who strongly
advocate direct instruction in phonics also to support initial reading
instruction in the native language for these students. For my part, however,
the promotion of literacy in bilingual students' two languages throughout
elementary school is far more important than the specific language in which
students are introduced to literacy.
A third misconception that may operate in a small number of bilingual
programs is the notion that English academic instruction should be delayed
for several grades until students' L1 literacy is well-established. This
approach can work well for bilingual students, as the data from two-way
bilingual immersion programs demonstrate (e.g. Dolson & Lindholm, 1995;
Christian et al., 1998; Porter, 1990). However, in these cases, there is
a coherent instructional program from kindergarten through grade 6 with
L1 literacy instruction continued through elementary school as the proportion
of English instruction increases. There is also direct contact with native
speakers of English who are in the same classes. What is much less likely
to work well is L1-only instruction (with some oral English) until grades
2 or 3 and then dropping students into all-English programs taught by mainstream
teachers who may have had minimal professional development in strategies
for supporting bilingual students' academic growth. I have argued that
a bilingual program should be a genuine bilingual program with coherence
across grade levels and a strong English language literacy development
syllabus built in to the overall plan (Cummins, 1996). Ideally, teachers
would work for two-way transfer across languages to amplify bilingual students'
awareness of language (e.g. through drawing attention to cognate connections,
student collaborative research projects focused on language, etc. [see
The final misconception that sometimes characterizes the implementation
of bilingual programs is the notion that bilingual education is a panacea
that by itself will miraculously elevate student achievement levels. I
have argued (Cummins, 1986, 1996) that no program will promote bilingual
students' academic achievement effectively unless there is a genuine school-wide
commitment (a) to promote, to the extent possible, an additive form
of bilingualism, (b) to collaborate with culturally diverse parents and
communities in order to involve them as partners in their children's education,
and (c) to instruct in ways that build on bilingual students' personal
and cultural experience (i.e. their cognitive schemata) and that promote
critical literacy; such instruction would focus on providing students with
opportunities to generate new knowledge, create literature and art, and
act on social realities (see Cummins and Sayers, 1995, for a discussion
of "transformative" pedagogy).
It is doubtless much easier to promote students' bilingualism, involve
parents (who may speak little or no English), and build on students' background
experience, in the context of a genuine bilingual program than in a monolingual
program. A shared language between teachers, students, and parents clearly
facilitates communication. However, I would have no hesitation in choosing
a "monolingual" program where the entire school was striving
to implement these forms of pedagogy over a so-called "bilingual"
program where there was little commitment to these goals.
Distortions by Opponents of Bilingual Programs
A few examples from the Rossell and Baker (1996) paper will serve
to illustrate the frequent distortions both of my work and that of others
who have carried out research on immersion and bilingual programs.
Rossell and Baker characterize me (and virtually all others who have
evaluated bilingual or immersion programs) as a supporter of transitional
bilingual education despite the fact that I have argued strongly and consistently
for 20 years against transitional bilingual education and
its theoretical rationale.
They also attribute to me what they term "the facilitation theory"
despite the fact that I have never used this term. As noted above, in attempting
to account for the research on the relationship between L1 and L2, I have
employed the term interdependence to signify the consistent
positive relationship between L1 and L2 academic proficiency and the fact
that instruction through a minority language for a considerable period
of the day results in no adverse long-term effects on students' academic
development in the majority language.
Rossell and Baker do acknowledge that I have advanced a "'developmental
interdependence' hypothesis that states that the development of skills
in a second language is facilitated by skills already developed in the
first language" (p. 27). They go on to state that they are in agreement
with this principle: "..even though it is true that it is easier
to teach a second language to individuals who are literate in their native
tongue, this tells us nothing about how non-literate individuals should
be taught, nor the language in which they should be taught" (p. 30)
[emphasis added]. As I have outlined above, I fully agree that neither
the interdependence principle, nor the research data showing that students
taught bilingually suffer no adverse academic consequences in English,
demonstrate by themselves that bilingual instruction will lead to better
long-term achievement. What the research data and theory do show and what
Rossell and Baker apparently agree with is, to quote Rossell's commentary
on the Ramirez report, "large deficits in English language instruction
over several grades apparently make little or no difference in a student's
achievement" (1992, p. 183). Expressed more positively, promoting
literacy in students' primary language will provide a foundation for the
development of literacy in English such that no deficits in English language
development result as a consequence of spending less instructional time
through English. 
A final, more general, set of distortions in the Baker and Rossell article
can be noted. They cite ten research studies which they claim show structured
immersion to be superior to transitional bilingual education (TBE). Seven
of these studies were studies of French immersion programs in Canada. One
(Malherbe, 1946) was an extremely large-scale study of Afrikaans-English
bilingual education in South Africa involving 19,000 students. The other
two were carried out in the United States (Gersten, 1985; Pena-Hughes &
The Pena-Hughes and Solis program (labelled "structured immersion"
by Rossell and Baker) involved an hour of Spanish language arts per day
and was viewed as a form of bilingual education by the director of the
program (Willig, 1981/82). I would see the genuine promotion of L1 literacy
in this program as indicating a much more adequate model of bilingual education
than the quick-exit transitional bilingual program to which it was being
compared. Gersten's study involved an extremely small number of Asian-origin
students (12 immersion students in the first cohort and nine bilingual
program students, and 16 and seven in the second cohort) and hardly constitutes
an adequate sample upon which to base national policy.
Malherbe's study concluded that students instructed bilingually did
at least as well in each language as students instructed monolingually
despite much less time through each language. Malherbe argues strongly
for the benefits of bilingual education and his data are clearly consistent
with the interdependence principle.
So we come to the seven Canadian French immersion programs. First, it
is important to note that these are all fully bilingual programs, taught
by bilingual teachers, with the goal of promoting bilingualism and biliteracy.
It seems incongruous that Rossell and Baker use the success of such bilingual
programs to argue for monolingual immersion programs taught largely by
monolingual teachers with the goal of developing monolingualism.
More bizarre, however, is the fact that their account of the outcomes
of these programs is erroneous in the extreme. Consider the following quotation:
Both the middle class and working class English-speaking students who
were immersed in French in kindergarten and grade one were almost the equal
of native French-speaking students until the curriculum became bilingual
in grade two, at which point their French ability declined and continued
to decline as English was increased. The 'time-on-task' principle--that
is, the notion that the amount of time spent learning a subject is the
greatest predictor of achievement in that subject--holds across classes
in the Canadian programs. (p. 22)
Rossell and Baker seem oblivious of the fact that the "time-on-task"
principle is refuted by every evaluation of French immersion programs (and
there are hundreds) by virtue of the fact that there is no relationship
between the development of students' English proficiency and the amount
of time spent through English in the program. Consistent with the interdependence
principle, French immersion students who spend about two-thirds of their
instructional time in elementary school through French perform as well
in English as students who have had all of their instruction through English.
Rossell and Baker also seem oblivious to the fact that by the end of
grade one French immersion students are still at very early stages in their
acquisition of French. Despite good progress in learning French (particularly
receptive skills) during the initial two years of the program, they are
still far from native-like in virtually all aspects of proficiency – speaking,
listening, reading, and writing. Most grade 1 and 2 French immersion students
are still incapable of carrying on even an elementary conversation in French
without major errors and insertions of English.  To
claim that two years of immersion in French in kindergarten and grade 1
results in almost native-like proficiency in French in a context where
there is virtually no French exposure in the environment or in school outside
the classroom flies in the face of a massive amount of research data.
Similarly, it is ludicrous to claim, as Baker and Rossell do, that the
French proficiency of grade 6 immersion students is more poorly developed
than that of grade 1 students and to attribute this to the fact that L1
instruction has been incorporated in the program. Significantly, Rossell
and Baker cite no specific study to back up these claims. The validity
of the claims can be assessed from Swain and Lapkin's (1982) overview of
the French immersion research conducted in Ontario:
even by grade 1 or 2, the immersion students were scoring as well as
about one-third of native French-speaking students in Montreal, and by
grade 6 as well as one-half of the Montreal comparison group. (pp. 41-42)
These data refer to performance on a standardized achievement measure;
Swain and Lapkin point out that there are major differences at all grade
levels in the productive skills of speaking and writing (see also Swain,
Lambert & Tucker (1972) similarly report highly significant differences
between grade 1 immersion and native French-speaking students on a variety
of vocabulary, grammatical and expressive skills in French, despite the
fact that no differences were found in some of the sub-skills of reading
such as word discrimination. By the end of grade four, however, (after
3 years of English [L1] language arts instruction), the immersion students
have caught up with the French controls in vocabulary knowledge and listening
comprehension, although differences still remain in speaking ability.
In short, the French immersion data are the opposite of what Rossell
and Baker claim. There are very significant differences between the immersion
students and native French-speaking controls at the end of grade 1 (after
two years of monolingual total immersion) but the immersion students catch
up in French listening and reading in the later grades of elementary school
after the program becomes bilingual (and obviously after they have had
several more years of learning French!).
Rossell and Baker's discussion of the French immersion data is presumably
meant to imply that two years of "structured immersion" in English
should be sufficient for limited English proficient students to come close
to grade norms in English. The fact that the one large-scale "methodologically
acceptable" study that investigated this issue (Ramirez, 1992) found
that early-grade students in "structured immersion" were very
far from grade norms in English even after four years of immersion does
not seem to disturb them.
The significance of these points is that the empirical basis of Rossell
and Baker's entire argument rests, according to their own admission, on
the performance in French of English-background students in the first two
years of Canadian French immersion programs. Not only are a large majority
of the programs they cite as evidence for "structured immersion"
Canadian French immersion programs, but Rossell (in response to critiques
from Kathy Escamilla and Susan Dicker) suggests that:
In the first two years, the program is one of total immersion, and evaluations
conducted at that point are considered to be evaluations of "structured
immersion." It is really not important that, in later years, the program
becomes bilingual if the evaluation is being conducted while it is still
and always has been a structured immersion program. (1996, p. 383)
Rossell and Baker's argument thus rests on their claim that students
in monolingual "structured immersion" programs (Canadian French
immersion programs in kindergarten and grade 1) come close to grade norms
while the program is monolingual in L2 but lose ground in comparison to
native speakers when the program becomes bilingual in later grades. As
we have seen, the data show exactly the opposite: there are major gaps
between immersion students and native French speakers after the initial
two years of monolingual L2 instruction but students catch up with native
speakers after instruction in their L1 (English) is introduced and the
program has become fully bilingual.
Based on their own premises and interpretation of the data, it is clear
that Rossell and Baker should be arguing for bilingual instruction
rather than against it.  
Reconciling Differences: Investing in Quality Education
It seems clear that if only because of the shortage of bilingual teachers,
at least 70% of limited English proficient students will continue to be
taught in English-only programs. However, for the 30% who might continue
to be in some form of bilingual program, the perspectives of those who
ostensibly oppose bilingual education are instructive in highlighting directions
for implementing quality bilingual programs.
I look briefly at some of the arguments made by four of the most prominent
opponents of bilingual education (Keith Baker, Charles Glenn, Rosalie Pedalino
Porter, and Christine Rossell) and suggest that both their interpretation
of the research data and their stated educational philosophies in relation
to bilingual students provide ample overlap with the positions I (and many
others) have advocated. With the possible exception of Rossell, all have
endorsed high quality "dual immersion" or "two-way bilingual
immersion" programs as a highly effective way to promote both bilingualism
and English academic achievement among bilingual students. This is exactly
the type of optimal program that is implied by the theoretical principles
I have outlined earlier.
According to Porter (1990), a two-way or dual immersion program is "particularly
appealing because it not only enhances the prestige of the minority language
but also offers a rich opportunity for expanding genuine bilingualism to
the majority population" (p. 154). Such programs promise "mutual
learning, enrichment, and respect" (p. 154) and "are also considered
to be the best possible vehicles for integration of language minority students,
since these students are grouped with English-speakers for natural and
equal exchange of skills" (p. 154). She goes on to argue that two-way
programs are "the best opportunity for families that are seriously
committed to genuine bilingualism for their children" and these programs
"do not cost any more than the average single-language classes to
maintain" (p. 156). She points out, however, that probably the maximum
proportion of language minority students such programs could serve would
be about ten per cent (p. 157). Since only about 30 per cent of limited
English proficient students are in any form of bilingual program at this
point in time (University of California Minority Research Institute Education
Policy Center, 1997), and a large proportion of those are in questionable
forms of quick-exit transitional bilingual program, aspiring towards a
ten per cent coverage for dual immersion programs would be a worthy goal
that obviously Porter and I would strongly agree on. As is evident from
the quotations above, Porter does not appear at all concerned that in dual
immersion programs, generally between 50% and 90% of instructional time
in the early grades is devoted to instruction through the minority language,
and language arts instruction in this language is continued throughout
schooling, despite the fact that this appears to contradict the "time-on-task"
principle that she advocates elsewhere in her book.
Keith Baker (1992) has similarly endorsed dual immersion programs, ironically
in an extremely critical review of Porter's book Forked Tongue.
He repudiates Porter's interpretation of dual immersion program evaluations
in El Paso and San Diego as representing support for English-only immersion:
She summarizes a report from El Paso (1987) as finding that an all-English
immersion program was superior to bilingual education programs. The El
Paso report has no such finding. What Porter describes as an all-English
immersion program in El Paso is, in fact, a Spanish-English dual immersion
program. The El Paso study supports the claims of bilingual education advocates
that most bilingual education programs do not use enough of the native
language. It does not support Porter's claims that they should use less.
Like El Paso, San Diego has an extensive two-language program. Like
El Paso, there is evidence that the extensive bilingual education program
worked better than the typical bilingual education program. Like El Paso,
the results of the San Diego study argue for more bilingual education programs,
not fewer as Porter maintains. (p. 6)
It is worth noting that the El Paso (1987, 1992) study is one of those
considered methodologically acceptable by Rossell and Baker (1996), so
presumably Rossell also would regard dual immersion programs as a promising
model to implement. This is particularly so in view of the fact that another
"methodologically acceptable" study, Legarretta (1979), also
reported that a 50% L1, 50% L2 model resulted in more English language
acquisition than models with less L1 instruction. Yet another "methodologically
acceptable" study (Pena-Hughes & Solis, 1980) showed that a program
with consistent L1 literacy instruction (for 25% of the school day) aimed
at promoting students' Spanish literacy worked better than a program that
did not aim to promote Spanish literacy.
It seems clear that Rossell and Baker could have constructed a far more
convincing case for the efficacy of dual immersion or two-way bilingual
immersion than the case they attempt to construct for English-only "structured
immersion." Nine of the ten studies they cite as supporting monolingual
"structured immersion" are in fact bilingual programs and almost
all of these were conducted outside the United States with students very
different from those who are currently underachieving in U.S. schools.
On the basis of their own review of the literature and Baker's published
statements endorsing the El Paso and San Diego models, they would surely
have to agree with Porter and me that dual immersion is a model with demonstrated
success in promoting bilingual students' academic achievement and that
this model should be promoted as vigorously as possible.
Charles Glenn's review of the National Research Council (1997) report
on schooling for language-minority children similarly appears highly critical
of bilingual education, at least on the surface. Glenn views as "one
of the central articles of faith of bilingual education" that children
must be taught to read first in the language which they speak at home.
As I noted above, I have argued for more than 20 years against this simplistic
"linguistic mismatch" assumption underlying early bilingual programs
in the United States. I fully agree with Glenn's concluding statement which
demonstrates his personal support for bilingual education as a means of
developing children's bilingualism:
What cannot be justified, however, is to continue substituting a preoccupation
with the language of instruction for the essential concern that instruction
be effective. Bilingual education, it has become clear, is not of itself
a solution to the under-achievement of any group of poor children. It is
time that those of us who support bilingual education – in my case, by
sending five of my children to an inner-city bilingual school – insist
upon honesty about its goals and its limits. Bilingual education is a way
to teach children to be bilingual, but it possesses no magic answer to
the challenge of educating children at risk. Bilingualism is a very good
thing indeed, but what language-minority children need most is schools
that expect and enable them to succeed through providing a demanding academic
program, taught very well and without compromise, schools which respect
the ways in which children differ but insist that these differences must
not be barriers to equal opportunity. (1997, p. 15)
Glenn concurs with the NRC report's recommendation of three components
that should characterize any effective program:
- Some native-language instruction, especially initially
- For most students, a relatively early phasing in of English instruction
- Teachers specially trained in instructing English-language learners
To this list I would add the goal of genuinely promoting literacy in
students' L1, where possible and to the extent possible, and continuation
of L1 literacy development throughout elementary school. Glenn approvingly
cites the common European (and Canadian) practice of providing immigrant
students with the opportunity to continue to study the heritage language
and culture as an elective, so presumably he would endorse the goal of
L1 literacy development for bilingual students in the United States, at
least for Spanish-speaking students where numbers and concentration make
this goal administratively feasible.
Glenn, however, is clearly concerned that, in his view, many bilingual
programs segregate students and retain them too long outside the mainstream,
with newcomers "simply dumped into a bilingual class of the appropriate
age level" (p. 7). In addition, he suggests that these programs may
lack coherent, cognitively challenging opportunities for students to develop
higher order English literacy skills.
As noted earlier, these concerns may certainly be justified in the case
of a proportion of poorly-implemented bilingual programs; however, concerns
about segregation, low teacher expectations, and cognitively undemanding
"drill and practice" instruction equally characterize the English-only
programs attended by about 70 per cent of limited English proficient students.
Segregation in schools is primarily a function of housing and neighborhood
ghettoization and will exist regardless of the language of instruction.
A major advantage of two-way bilingual programs, as noted above, is that
they overcome segregation in a planned program that aims to enrich the
learning opportunities of both minority and majority language students.
However, even in segregated, low-income, inner city contexts, the findings
of Ramirez (1992) and Beykont (1994) show that well-implemented developmental
(late-exit) bilingual programs can achieve remarkable success in promoting
grade-level academic success for bilingual students.
A final point of agreement in relation to Glenn's analysis is his statement
that "the under-achievement of Hispanics in the United States and
of Turks and Moroccans in northwestern Europe, I suggested in my recent
book, may have less to do with language differences than with their status
in the society and how they come to terms with that status" (p. 10).
I have elaborated on essentially the same point in many publications (Cummins,
1979, 1981, 1982, 1986, 1996) drawing on John Ogbu's (1978) initial distinction
between "caste" and "immigrant" minorities and attempting
to work out how status and power differentials in the wider society are
played out in the interactions between educators and students in school.
The distinction that Glenn draws between "language differences"
and "status in society" implies an "either-or" logic
that suggests that if underachievement is related to status and power differentials
then it has nothing to do with language. Clearly, this is absurd. As Glenn
knows better than most, the subordinated status of colonized and stigmatized
minority groups in countries around the world has been reinforced in the
school by punishing students for speaking their home language and making
them feel ashamed of their language, culture and religion. In other words,
the interactions that subordinated group students experience in school
have reinforced the inferior status that the minority community has experienced
in the wider society.
It seems obvious that if one diagnoses that the roots of the problem
of minority student underachievement are to be found in the low status
of the subordinated group in the wider society (as Glenn appears to do),
then surely one would acknowledge that a significant rationale for promoting
students' primary language in school through bilingual education is to
challenge this subordinated status and the coercive power relations that
gave rise to it. The evidence is overwhelming that strong promotion of
literacy in the primary language will result in no adverse consequences
for literacy in English (provided there is also an equally strong program
for literacy promotion in English which any well-implemented bilingual
program will have). Promotion of literacy in the L1 for subordinated group
students is obviously not by itself a total solution, but it can certainly
make an important contribution to academic achievement for many bilingual
I have suggested that when the adversarial screen of courtroom discourse
is lifted, there is actually much that advocates and opponents of bilingual
education can agree on. Opponents consistently acknowledge the value of
bilingualism and their endorsement of dual immersion or two-way bilingual
programs ranges from implicit in the case of Rossell (through citing considerably
more U.S. examples of successful dual immersion programs than successful
structured immersion programs) to explicit and enthusiastic in the case
of Porter and Baker. Glenn is also clearly a strong advocate of using bilingual
education to develop students' bilingualism, although highly critical of
the way in which many bilingual education programs in the United States
have been implemented (as are virtually all academic advocates of bilingual
education – see, for example, Krashen, 1996; Wong Fillmore, 1992).
The challenge for opponents and advocates is to create an ideological
space to collaborate in planning quality programs for bilingual students
in view of the fact that (a) there appears to be consensus on the desirability
of promoting students' individual bilingualism (and the linguistic resources
of the nation) and (b) as acknowledged by Rossell in her analysis of the
Ramirez report, there is clear evidence in virtually all the research data
(reviewed by Rossell and Baker and many others) that promotion of bilingual
students' primary language, in itself, will not in any way impede the development
of English academic proficiency.
Working together to disseminate information on the effectiveness of
two-way bilingual immersion programs, as advocated by Porter, would be
a good place to start. Another initiative would be to defuse the acrimony
regarding the language of instruction issue by acknowledging that the deep
structure of interactions between educators and students is a primary determinant
of students' academic engagement or withdrawal; these interactions are
much more likely to be effective in promoting student engagement when they
challenge explicitly the low status that has been assigned to the subordinated
group in the wider society (as implied by Glenn's analysis). Instructional
models that explicitly challenge what Glenn terms the "demoralized
underclass" status of the group are likely to vary with respect to
the amount of L1 and L2 instruction depending on the context, parental
wishes, and the availability of bilingual teachers; but all will have in
common a deep structure that affirms the value of students' cultural and
linguistic identity and offers students opportunities to develop powerful
intellectual and linguistic tools to act on the social realities that affect
1. In support of these principles, I will cite primarily
my own empirical research studies since the claim has been made by Christine
Rossell that I have carried out virtually no research in support of the
theoretical principles I have advanced. This claim was made in a presentation
at the California State Department of Education, January 13, 1996. Her
exact words are as follows:
By the way, I often hear people talk about Jim Cummins' research. Jim
Cummins doesn't do research on bilingual education. He has not done a single
study of bilingual education. He has done one study of how long it takes
kids to learn a second language. That's it. That study can tell you nothing
about what language they should be taught in while they're learning the
second language. So he doesn't do research.
Nevertheless, he does do theories. And his theory that he came up with
to try and reconcile these findings – that transitional bilingual education
was not superior and often was inferior to doing nothing, not even getting
any help at all - his theory was the facilitation theory. He came up with
the facilitation theory. It has two parts, the threshold effect and the
interdependence of skills.
The threshold effect says – I've got it – the reason why some of these
programs don't have kids who come out with superior achievement is they
weren't taught long enough in their native tongue. It must be that you
have to be taught for a long time in your native tongue and you have to
reach a threshold in that native tongue before you can be transitioned
to English. He did no research to support that. I've read all his research
so I can say with full confidence there's not an ounce, and anyone who
says "Jim Cummins' research" I simply say show it to me.
Rossell here totally misrepresents the "threshold hypothesis"
which was advanced to account for apparently contradictory research data
concerning the effects of bilingualism (not bilingual education)
on cognition. It suggested that the levels of proficiency bilinguals attain
in their two languages may act as an intervening variable in mediating
the effects of bilingualism on their cognitive functioning. The threshold
hypothesis says nothing directly about bilingual education - in fact the
term "transitional bilingual education" had scarcely entered
the lexicon of public debate when the threshold hypothesis was first advanced
(Cummins, 1976). It is worth noting that in addition to my own research
which is consistent with the notion of "threshold effects" (Cummins,
1974, 1978a, 1978b, Cummins & Mulcahy, 1978) several more recent studies
have also supported the notion (e.g. Lasagabaster Herrarte, 1997, in press;
Lee & Schallert, 1997; Mohanty, 1994; Ricciardelli, 1992). Particularly
interesting is Beykont's (1994) analysis of Site E grades 3-6 longitudinal
data from the Ramirez (1992) study which showed that academic progress
in English reading was faster for those students whose initial (grade 3)
Spanish reading scores were high and slower for those with low initial
Spanish reading scores. Beykont also observed a strong relationship between
English and Spanish reading at the grade 3 level, a finding predicted by
the interdependence hypothesis.
In order to correct the claim that Jim Cummins "doesn't do research,"
I have asterisked papers in the bibliography that report original research
that I have carried out related to bilingualism, bilingual education, and
second language learning.
2. Collier's (1987) research among middle-class immigrant
students taught exclusively through English in the Fairfax County district
suggested that a period of 5-10 years was required for students to catch
up. Recent data from the Santa Ana district in California suggest that
even longer periods (average 10 years) are required. The Ramirez Report
data illustrate the pattern (Ramirez, 1992): after four years of instruction,
grade 3 students in both structured immersion (English-only) and early
exit bilingual programs were still far from grade norms in English achievement.
Grade 6 students in late-exit programs who had consistently received about
40% of their instruction through their primary language were beginning
to approach grade norms (see also Beykont, 1994).
3. Rossell and Baker's use of the term "facilitation
hypothesis" to describe my theoretical constructs is just one of many
distortions in their paper. It permits them, however, to claim that the
results of studies such as the large-scale evaluation of programs for minority
francophones in Manitoba conducted by Hébert (1976) are contrary
to the "facilitation hypothesis" (pp. 28-29). Hébert's
study showed that French L1 students taught primarily through French throughout
their schooling were doing just as well in English as similar students
taught primarily in English. This study not only refutes Rossell and Baker's
"time-on-task" principal (as do all of the other evaluations
they cite) but it also provides direct support for the interdependence
principle. Rossell and Baker, however, argue that it is inconsistent with
the "facilitation hypothesis" because the minority students instructed
through the minority language did not do better in English than
those with less instruction through English. Thus, in their version of
the "facilitation hypothesis" (which they inaccurately attribute
to me) minority students taught through their L1 should always perform
better in English than students taught exclusively through English regardless
of the conditions or sociocultural context. This is a very different prediction
than that which derives from the interdependence hypothesis which is that
the transfer of conceptual and linguistic knoweldge across languages can
compensate for the significantly reduced instructional time through the
majority language. Rossell and Baker's version of the "facilitation
hypothesis" makes linguistic and instructional factors independent
variables, whose effects can be predicted in isolation, rather than intervening
variables whose effects will be significantly influenced by sociocultural
and sociopolitical conditions. I have consistently argued (e.g., Cummins,
1979) that linguistic factors cannot be considered in isolation from the
social context and Rossell and Baker's inability or unwillingness to acknowledge
this is extremely surprising. As articulated above, bilingual programs
have considerably more potential to reverse historical patterns of underachievement
than monolingual English programs, but whether or not any bilingual program
will do so depends on the interaction of a variety of linguistic and non-linguistic
4. The same pattern is reported by Christian et al.
(1997) for English L1 students in U.S. two-way immersion programs. They
report, for example, that in the River Glen program in San Jose, 60% of
the English-L1 students were rated as fluent in Spanish by the end of grade
1 (compared to 100% of the Spanish L1 speakers) but students had bridged
the gap by fifth grade where 100% of the English-L1 students were rated
as fluent. Students had also caught up to grade norms in Spanish reading
by this stage.
5. The lack of credibility of the claims in Rossell
and Baker's review (e.g. in comparisons of reading performance in TBE versus
Structured Immersion, no difference was found in 17% and TBE was worse
in 83%) can be gauged from even a superficial examination of the programs
that are being compared. They state that they had to "translate"
the French immersion programs into United States terminology. This means
labelling as "transitional bilingual education" programs for
majority English native language speakers that were 100% minority language
(French – students' L2) in kindergarten, and 50% French, 50% English from
grades 1-6. "Structured immersion" programs were those that were
100% French (students' L2) from K-grade 1, with English (L1) being gradually
increased to 50% between grades 2 and 6. In other words both programs are
fully bilingual and are intended to develop bilingualism. Surely it stretches
credibility to label as "transitional bilingual education" a
program intended for majority rather than minority language speakers and
in which there is no transition from one language to another.
If the foregoing appears confusing, consider the fact that two of the
evaluations considered to demonstrate the superiority of monolingual English-only
structured immersion programs were actually evaluations of trilingual
programs (Hebrew, French, English) which demonstrated clearly that such
programs were highly feasible (Genesee & Lambert, 1983; Genesee et
In reporting the superiority of "monolingual" (structured
immersion) programs over "bilingual" (TBE) programs by a spread
of 83% to 17%, research ethics might have dictated to many scholars that
they inform their readers that 90% of these ten studies demonstrate the
effectiveness of certain forms of either bilingual or trilingual education.
Furthermore, all the authors of these studies are strong advocates of bilingual
and trilingual education on the basis of the research they have carried
6. It is worth highlighting an additional point in relation
to the Rossell and Baker review. In designating evaluations of many examples
of apparently successful bilingual education programs as "methodologically
unacceptable," Rossell and Baker rejected all studies that did not
compare "students in bilingual education to similar students not in
bilingual education" (p. 15) (although as noted above, this criterion
was not observed in the comparisons between different forms of French immersion
programs, all of which are fully bilingual or trilingual). The designation
of only one type of research study as relevant to policy totally ignores
the role of theory in understanding what works and what doesn't work. Prediction
of the outcomes of any particular program is dependent on which theoretical
principles have been supported by research and which have been refuted
by research. I have suggested in many publications (e.g. Cummins, 1979,
1981a) that the research clearly refutes both the "time-on-task"
hypothesis (what I have termed the "maximum exposure" assumption)
and the "linguistic mismatch" hypothesis. The former (endorsed
by most opponents of bilingual education) argues that the instructional
time spent through English (the majority language) will be directly proportional
to achievement in that language. As noted above, the research from all
of the evaluations of bilingual education (including French immersion programs
in Canada) totally refute this hypothesis. The "linguistic mismatch"
hypothesis was invoked by some proponents of bilingual education in order
to argue that instruction through a second language would invariably result
in academic retardation on the grounds that students could not learn effectively
through a language they did not understand. This is also clearly refuted
by the research (e.g. the French immersion data). The interdependence hypothesis
is, by contrast, supported by virtually all the research data from bilingual
programs for both minority and majority language students from around the
Let us take a hypothetical example to illustrate the role of theory
in policy making decisions. Suppose that dual language or two-way bilingual
immersion programs (which usually have between 50% and 90% minority language
instruction in the early grades) were to show consistently the pattern
that most of those that have been evaluated to this date apparently do
show: by grade 6 students from majority language backgrounds in these programs
develop high levels of biliteracy skills at no cost to their English (L1)
academic development; students from minority language backgrounds by grade
6 show above average Spanish (L1) literacy development and attain or come
close to grade norms in English (L2) academic skills. Let us suppose, hypothetically,
that we have 100 such programs demonstrating this pattern from around the
United States and the few programs that do not demonstrate this pattern
can be shown to have been poorly implemented or not to have followed the
prescribed model in some important respects. However, none of these programs
have acceptable control groups for comparison purposes, if only because
they were freely chosen by parents (as is the case for all French immersion
programs) whereas students in comparison programs just enrolled in their
Do these 100 programs demonstrating a consistent pattern of achievement
in relation to grade norms tell us anything that is policy relevant? Rossell
and Baker say no - this pattern is totally irrelevant to policy decisions
regarding the efficacy of any form of bilingual education because no control
group is present.
I have argued, by contrast, that such a pattern would be directly relevant
to policy because it permits us to test certain theoretical predictions
against the research data. The fact that the research data may be from
case studies and report students' achievement levels in relation to standard
scores is not an impediment to examining the consistency of the data with
theoretical predictions. Thus, the hypothetical pattern described for both
minority and majority students would clearly refute the "time-on-task"
hypothesis because students instructed through the minority language for
significant parts of the school day (or as Rossell  has expressed
it, experiencing "large deficits" in amount of English language
instruction) suffered no adverse effects in English language academic development.
These data would also refute the linguistic mismatch hypothesis since majority
language students instructed through Spanish experienced no long-term difficulty
learning to read through their second language. The data, however, would
be consistent with the interdependence hypothesis since transfer of conceptual
and linguistic knowledge across languages is clearly implied by the fact
that less instructional time through English (for both groups) resulted
in no academic deficits in English academic development.
In short, Rossell and Baker's review of research on bilingual education
is highly misleading. Not only are 90% of the studies they claim demonstrate
the superiority of monolingual English education over bilingual education
in fact fully bilingual or trilingual programs, but the premises underlying
the review totally obscure the role of theory in policy-making.
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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Reprinted by permission of
Jim Cummins. This article will appear as a chapter in Carlos Ovando and
Peter McLaren, eds., The Politics of Multiculturalism: Students
and Teachers in the Crossfire (McGraw-Hill, forthcoming). Copyright
© 1998 by Jim Cummins. All rights reserved.