Bilingual Middle School Programs: Filling the Void


Bilingual Middle School Programs: Filling the Void

Austin Independent School District (AISD) has extended the Spanish/English dual-Language program to three middle schools beginning this academic year. The schools are Fulmore MS, Paredes MS and Burnet MS; and depending on space available, all three currently allow for transfers.  This is welcoming news for many of the bilingual students who have completed one of the many dual-language elementary programs throughout AISD.  However, it also addresses a bigger issue–the lack of bilingual educational programs for middle school students.

If you peruse Think Bilingual Austin’s directory, you can find an assortment of preschool bilingual programs throughout the community.  As a child get’s into Elementary school, you are still likely to find a bilingual program to keep your child engaged. Yet, once your child gets into middle school, the options seem to almost disappear.

After-school bilingual programs for middle school students are few.  If you are lucky, your child’s middle school will offer world language classes.  Yet, these classes are mostly designed for those who have no prior language experience in a second language; and, thus are not ideal for those who have already developed a level of proficiency in the language. (I even had one mother tell me that her daughter’s middle school would not even allow first year middle school students to take a foreign language class, further delaying her daughter’s chance to keep what she did know fresh). Moreover, the majority of bilingual programs that do exist in middle schools primarily serve English Language Learners (ELLs) so that they can become proficient in English as quickly as possible. While this is very important; most of these programs are not designed to enable ELLs to also continue to strengthen knowledge and understanding in their native language.

The lack of programs for learning a second languages is seen throughout the United States.  An article published in Forbes, America’s Foreign Language Deficit, highlights the overall decline in investment in secondary language instruction across all educational institutions at a time when the need for students to become bilingual to compete in the global economy is increasing. It reveals the decline in foreign language instruction for middle schools alone went from 75% in 1997 to 53% in 2008.  In contrast, other countries around the world usually begin instruction in a second language in elementary school and continue to increase that instruction during the middle school years; thereby creating proficiency in a second language by the time a student graduates(2).


Why is Middle School Second Language Instruction Important?

  • Middle school students are at a prime age for second language acquisition.
    • Middle school students are still young enough for immersion based learning to be quite effective.  However, they are also old enough to begin higher analytical thinking about the constructs of the language such as grammatical differences (1).
  • Middle school students begin thinking about their world more autonomously.
    • Students in middle school are at an age when they seek more autonomy in their life while also seeking to better understand how they fit in society and the world around them.  Becoming bilingual and multicultural gives this age group a better grasp of the world and society at large and how they can be a part of it.
  • Perfect time to begin developing needed skills for their future.
    • Studying a foreign language or learning a second language develops important intellectual skills such as creative thinking, problem solving, and effective communication, all of which are transferable skills to other disciplines.
    • Moreover, learning a language in middle school and continuing the study of that language would enable a level of proficiency to be attained by the time the student graduates high school and enters college or the workforce (2,3).


Why are Middle School Second Language Programs Scarce and What Can Be Done?

  • Reduction in allocated funds. This likely reflects general attitudes by the public and education administrators.
    • Greater public awareness of the importance of bilingual education to better equip our future workforce for the global economy can spur efforts to grow support for such programs and put pressure back on administrators to better fund these programs.
  • An increased reliance on online language courses to teach middle schools. This goes hand in hand with the general lack of funding for foreign language programs.  However, research has shown that technology does not replace personal human interaction in language acquisition.
    • Online language courses can be used as a useful supplementary tool for language learning but not as a replacement.  We humans use so many subtle cues with varying expressions, gestures and tones when we communicate. By learning from personal interaction, we receive more engaging feedback for how to more effectively communicate in a second language.
  • Too many competing interests.  Middle school is a wonderful time to explore different subject areas and interests.  Because second language classes are often offered as an elective, it is forced to compete with so many other areas of interest. Yet, to become proficient in a second language a student must dedicate a considerable amount of time.  With so many options available, studying a secondary language may not be perceived as a worthwhile investment given the perceived more immediate rewards of studying something else.
    • By incorporating second language study into the core units of studies through an interdisciplinary approach, schools can prioritize second language acquisition more effectively (1, 2).
  • Secondary language instruction may be less meaningful.  Unfortunately, most programs in middle schools only offer basic introductory courses for those with no prior language study background.  The instruction of a second language in isolation does not provide a meaningful or purposeful experience for most students.  For those who are already bilingual or proficient in a second language, such classes may feel like a waste of time.
    • To be meaningful, middle school second language programs need to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach to facilitate effective communication of ideas, feelings, understanding and knowledge in both a written and oral format and provide  a scaffolding model for continued language development based on level of proficiency (1).


1) Sandrock, Paul, & Elizabeth Webb. (April 15, 2003). Learning Languages in Middle Schools. National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages.

2) Pufahl, I., Rohodes, N., & Christian, D. (2000). Foreign Language Teaching: What the United States Can Learn from Other Countries.  Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

3) Education Network of the European Commission (2000). The Position of Foreign Languages in European Education Systems (1999/2000). Brussels, Belgium.