Vol. 8. No. 1 R-12 June 2004
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Becoming biliterate. A study of two-way bilingual immersion education

Bertha Pérez (2004)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xxviii + 230
ISBN 0-8058-4678-6

If we had to give a brief summary of the book, we could say that it is an extraordinary descriptive field study, an outstanding piece of school-based research over an extended period of time, which provides a realistic perspective of what the implementation of two-way immersion (henceforth, TWI) programs is like.

Even though TWI programs were long ago pioneered in Canada in the 1960s, their original goal of serving minority language students to learn the school language has changed, and nowadays they are more widely applied, serving both minority and majority language students to learn a second language by a process of maximum exposure within the school context (McGroraty 2001: 348-349). No matter how regressive certain policies such as the English-only Proposition 227 (Freeman & Freeman 2001: 189-193) [1] may be, bilingual instruction is a non-stop phenomenon that caters and responds to the needs of a more diverse and multicultural student population.

Having myself been an immersion teacher for one year in a middle school in Montgomery County, Maryland (Roldán Tapia 2001), I appreciate the big effort that has been made in order to provide an accurate description of TWI, in these days when TWI programs are being regarded as an alternative to traditional foreign language teaching in school systems, at least in many monolingual countries in Europe. As a matter of fact, the European Centre for Modern Languages, in Gratz, Austria, has already carried out several seminars and meetings with the purpose of implementing bilingual instruction in European schools.

The book is divided into an opening section, nine chapters and a closing section. The first pages are devoted to a foreword, the preface, three pages for acknowledgments and the introduction. The nine chapters, which will be analysed immediately afterwards, cover issues related to the schooling of Latino and Mexican American children, testing, language policies, etc. The final pages include an appendix, the reference section, and two indexes: one for authors, one for subjects.

I would not like to get into the analysis of the different chapters without highlighting an issue that has been raised in the introduction (pp. xxvii-xxviii). As the author was an observer for the time when research was conducted, she makes a reflection on the observer's paradox, pointing out the unavoidable situation in which an observer is transformed, little by little, into a classroom participant, thus having an effect on the efforts and mechanisms she tried to set out in order to collect data in the most objective possible way. [-1-]

Chapter 1 provides a report on the type of program that is being implemented and also a good provision of data on the features of school populations. The program follows a typical TWI percentage of language use: 90% of classroom instruction in the second language (Spanish, in this case) when entering the program in kindergarten and 10% of instruction in the first language (English, in this case); by the end of 3rd grade, the second language was reduced to a 60%, whereas the first language occupied 40% of classroom time. Some statistics are also provided and figures are astonishing: in the city of San Antonio, where the two schools of the study are located, 59% of the population is Hispanic, with a 44% reporting their use of Spanish at home. It should also not be forgotten that the United States is ranked fourth in the world in terms of Spanish-speaking population: immediately after Spain, Mexico and Argentina. The chapter also includes a little history of bilingual education in Texas, dating back as far as1906, as well as a discussion about the differences between additive and subtractive approaches to bilingualism and a first approach to what TWI is.

Chapter 2 focuses on the school community and the context in which the program has been implemented in the two schools. Both of them are located in the San Antonio Independent Schools District, one of the 16 districts serving the city metropolitan area and the oldest inner-city district. Figures capture the reader's attention (p.29): 83% of students are Hispanic, 11% African American, 6% White and less than 0.5% Asian and Native American; 89% qualify for reduced-price meals, 17.5% immigrated within the last three years and 18% are LEP students with Spanish as mother tongue.

Both schools are so richly profiled that their actual location is even provided: Storm Elementary School is the centre of an isolated community demarked by freeways, railroad tracks and an industrial area. Bonham Elementary School is more integrated within the city landscape, surrounded by one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. Over the six years in which the study was carried out, a considerable improvement was observed in both schools in terms of standard tests results (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills): Storm moved from an 18.6 percentile in 1994 to the 80.4 percentile in 2000; Bonham evolved from the 50th percentile in 1994 to a score of 93 six years later.

The following chapter depicts the important role parents have played in the success of the program: whereas the 1995 and 1996 information and recruitment sessions were not easy, requiring external support from the university and immersed in uncountable questions and uncertainties, by the end of the study, in year 2000, parents had taken a leadership position, voicing their support to the program whenever and wherever they thought the program might be at risk.

The fourth chapter is a reflection of how oral language practice was implemented in both schools. In the author's own words, "the presence of students who were native speakers of each language stimulated students to communicate and assist each other in using and learning the second language" (p. 82). The teacher's roles in the development of oral practice were the provider of open-ended questions and the creator of cognitively demanding situations.

The development of literacy is the content of chapter 5. With the 90-10 model, students were taught to read and write in Spanish in kindergarten. Year by year, the exposure to varied sources of input in English anticipated the process of learning to read and write in English before the formal instruction to read in English began.

Whereas chapter 5 discusses developing literacy, chapter 6 has to do with academic biliteracy. In the upper grades of the program, students used all their literary skills in both languages to learn content. Teachers continued to maintain language separation but accepting students' choice to respond accurately in either language. A remarkable fact is that "the literacy behaviors of teachers and children incorporated many aspects of the hybridized cultural identity they shared" (p. 139). [-2-]

A sound description of the importance of testing is provided in chapter 7: the number and type of tests, the content of each test and the grade level in which they were administered, school performance on the different tests, etc. One of the most outstanding issues is the progression observed in the results obtained by both schools in the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) and other tests taken by students.

The teachers' role and impact are discussed next. Although principals in both schools provided the necessary leadership, according to their position, teachers took the leading position to activate students' acquisition of both languages and the appropriate literacy for the elementary level, to build up a TWI model of instruction and to assure success for their students, and also to defend the program and their practices through numerous policy reviews.

To conclude, chapter 9 closes with issues related to politics and language policy. It is rewarding to observe how the two school communities gained strength as years went past and they voiced their opinion regarding the program wherever it was needed, the students obtained achievement levels never expected before and the schools became an open space to develop culturally, assuming a leading position in the life of their community. All these changes are clearly worded in the following sentences: "...the teachers, parents, and administrators who had previously voiced notions of effective education, linguistic capital and enrichment with regard to two-way bilingual immersion education, began to reexamine their understanding of these constructs and also focused on other terms, such as linguistic rights, reclaiming language and cultural heritage, and value-added education" (p. 178).

I would like to add two final comments to the book. Certainly school systems differ considerably as they reflect the cultural components of each country, but the number and periodicity of tests students take is overwhelming to the eyes of some European educators. A similar book, written in Spain, for example, would not have devoted even a third of the extension that testing occupies in this volume. The second one is more a praise than a comment since I have felt that once the reader goes through the initial pages of this book, he/she finds him/herself immersed in the description of the process these schools have experienced.


[1] Freeman's book has also been reviewed in a previous issue of TESL-EJ. Please refer to Vol. 5 No. 4 (March 2002). See:http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej20/r5.html

Antonio R. Roldán Tapia
University of Córdoba, Spain


Freeman, D. E. & Freeman, Y. S. (2001). Between Worlds: access to second language acquisition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McGroarty, M. (2001): "Bilingual approaches to language learning", in Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.): Teaching English as a second or foreign language. Third edition. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle, pp. 345-356.

Roldán Tapia, A. R. (2001). "A Spanish teacher in the American school: a visiting teacher's reflection", Glosas Didácticas 6. [http://sedll.org/doc-es/publicaciones/glosas/].

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