Becoming Bilingual in a Pre-K–5 Dual Language Program

Last Spring, I saw an article about the success of the Tulsa Public Schools Dual Language Academy for elementary-age children. I invited Laura Grisso, whom I met on Twitter, to write a guest blog about her district’s dual language program. Laura is the Director of English Language Development at the Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma. Here is her blog:

Oklahoma has long been a leader in early childhood education, so when Tulsa Public Schools designed a plan to launch the Dual Language Academy as a new elementary magnet school in 2011, we started with classes in prekindergarten and kindergarten. In school year 2016-2017, we will be at grade level capacity in offering instruction in English and Spanish to students in prekindergarten through fifth grade. The instructional framework follows a two-way dual language model in which half of the students are English-dominant and half of the students are Spanish-dominant. Our goal is to provide an enriched learning experience in which both English- and Spanish-speaking students develop bilingualism, biliteracy, and biculturalism as a highly valued asset for an increasingly diverse world.

Dual language instruction leads to success for students

In spring 2016, EdWeek featured a spotlight series on how schools are serving and supporting English learners across the nation. A portion of the series focused on best practices for serving English learners in early childhood at our Dual Language Academy. Students as early as prekindergarten receive instruction in language arts, math, science, and social studies in both English and Spanish. We are seeing great success for our students in this instructional model; Dual Language Academy was one of the district’s top five schools with the greatest increase in reading achievement for the 2015-2016 school year.
When we started this path 5 years ago, based on research of other successful programs and consultation with multiple language learning experts, we had a hypothesis that there were four factors in which we would see an increase in positive outcomes for a diverse group of English and Spanish speaking students participating in dual language instruction.

Factors leading to success in dual language programs

Today, we are seeing the results of those factors and are excited about the positive impacts of dual language instruction on the students, families, and communities we serve.

Student learning: Students participating in dual language instruction have shown great learning gains because of the language knowledge and capacities that they are contributing to the learning experience. Dual language instruction removes the initial barrier in academic learning that many students face when the content instruction is presented in a new language, whether that is English or Spanish.

Student engagement: In the two-way dual language classroom, students regularly work in bilingual pairs in all grade levels. This engagement provides an authentic motivator for students to find ways to communicate and interact with peers who may not speak the same language. It also provides students with the opportunity to be the language expert in the pair depending on language dominance.

Family empowerment: We have seen the explicit value and partnership that providing dual language instruction has communicated to all of the parents with whom we work. Often, in traditional schools, parents feel intimidated or ill-equipped to volunteer or participate due to education levels or language proficiency. In our dual language schools, we see a higher rate of volunteerism and participation from our Spanish-dominant families because we have provided a clear path for family partnership in education.

Community building: At many of our schools, but particularly at Dual Language Academy, we have observed a growing sense of community pride as well as the development of a common understanding among parents and community members who support the schools. The students have been the trail blazers in building these cross-cultural relationships and it is quite joyful to watch their parents, who are often not bilingual, forge ahead in family and community events in which the students are teaching the parents about language and cross-cultural communication.

To learn more about our dual language programs in Tulsa Public Schools, check out our website or this video, which shows our students and teachers learn, explore, and collaborate in English and Spanish.


Laura Grisso serves as the director of English language development at Tulsa Public Schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  She is a member of the Oklahoma Bilingual Education Hall of Fame and has served as the national liaison and vice president of the Oklahoma TESOL affiliate. 

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication “Essential Teacher” and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

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