Bilingual/Immersion education: Indicators of good practice

Publication Details

Based on a review of national and international research on bilingualism and bilingual/immersion education, this report explores effective approaches for bilingual education. While the focus was on Māori-medium education, the indicators of good practice can also be applied to other bilingual contexts in Aotearoa/New Zealand, such as Pasifika bilingual education.

Author(s): Stephen May, Richard Hill and Sarah Tiakiwai, University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: 2004

Executive Summary

This Report is submitted by the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research (WMIER), School of Education, University of Waikato. The Project Director was Professor Stephen May and the Principal Researcher was Richard Hill. Sarah Jane Tiakiwai contributed to Part 1 of the Report as a project writer.

The Report provides an overview of the international and national research literature on bilingualism and bilingual/immersion education. The aim of the overview is to situate Māori-medium education in relation to attested research and practice on bilingual/immersion education worldwide and, from that, to highlight indicators of good practice for the further development of Māori-medium education. These indicators of good practice can also be applied more broadly to other bilingual education contexts in Aotearoa/New Zealand, such as Pasifika bilingual education.

The Report is divided into two principal sections. Part 1 discusses the research literature on bilingualism - focusing on the debates about the cognitive, social and educational effects of bilingualism. It concludes that existing research points unequivocally to the cognitive, social and educational advantages of bilingualism when an additive approach to bilingualism is taken. An additive approach to bilingualism presupposes that bilingualism is a benefit and resource, both for individuals and the wider society, which should be maintained and fostered. In contrast, when a subtractive view of bilingualism is taken - one that presupposes that bilingualism is a problem and/or an obstacle to be overcome - negative cognitive, social, and educational consequences invariably ensue. This latter context occurs most often when bilingual students are required to learn an additional language, such as English, at the specific expense of their first language. This is still the most common experience for bilingual students in the world today and helps to explain why bilingual students, particularly those from minority language communities, are disproportionately represented in the lowest levels of English literacy achievement and wider school success.

Part 2 examines the most effective approaches to bilingual education, in light of the conclusions reached in Part 1. In other words, it explores which educational approaches are most effective in promoting long-term bilingualism and biliteracy. For a full understanding, it should be read in conjunction with Part 1, but it can also be read independently of it.

Drawing on the international research and evaluation literature on educational programmes for bilingual students, Part 2 concludes that non-bilingual programmes are unequivocally less effective than bilingual programmes for bilingual students. This is because they not only atrophy students' bilingualism but also result in the most delimited educational outcomes for such students. English-only, or English submersion programmes, are the least effective programmes for bilingual students in this regard, followed by ESL withdrawal programmes. Integrated ESL programmes are more effective, but still less so than the majority of bilingual education programmes. These conclusions are of considerable concern, given the ongoing dominance of English-only and ESL withdrawal programmes as the dominant/default educational experience for bilingual students in Aotearoa/New Zealand schools.

In contrast, bilingual education programmes are consistently more effective, although the degree of effectiveness varies, depending on the particular programme. Transitional bilingual programmes, which aim to transfer students from their first language (L1) to a dominant language such as English, are the least effective of the bilingual programmes, given their subtractive bilingual approach. Maintenance and enrichment programmes, which are additive programmes that aim to foster bilingualism and biliteracy, are the most effective. Heritage language programmes, of which Māori-medium is one example, are clearly situated at the maintenance/enrichment end of the continuum.

Despite the attested effectiveness of maintenance/enrichment bilingual programmes, examination of the Aotearoa/New Zealand research highlights consistent concerns about bilingual/immersion programmes here. These concerns include:

  • The long-standing and ongoing under-resourcing of Māori-medium education.
  • The lack of sufficient specialist preservice and inservice teacher training in bilingual/immersion education.
  • Ongoing concern about teacher fluency in te reo Māori.
  • The lack of sufficient Māori language assessment resources.
  • The lack of a coordinated national policy on bilingual/immersion education (including the continued absence of a Pasifika bilingual education plan).
  • Ongoing, and widely held, public misunderstandings about bilingualism and bilingual/immersion education.

As a consequence, key issues that need to be urgently addressed include:

For teachers:
  • The need to continue to improve the fluency of teachers in Māori-medium education.
  • The particular challenges of teaching in a medium that is a 2nd language (L2) for many students (requiring teacher knowledge of 2nd language acquisition and 2nd language teaching and learning strategies).
  • Further access to, and training in, Māori-medium language assessment resources.
  • Further access to specialist preservice and inservice training in bilingual/immersion education.
For programmes:
  • The promotion of additive and long-term bilingual/immersion programmes.
  • Recognizing that a 50% level of immersion is the minimum level of immersion for an effective bilingual/immersion programme.
  • Consistently using Māori as an instructional (not just organisational) language.
  • The need to teach academic English language proficiency specifically at some point in Māori-medium programmes, irrespective of the level of immersion.
  • Keeping languages of instruction separate.
For policy:
  • The greater equalization of funding for Level 1 and 2 Māori-medium programmes, given that both reach the minimum threshold necessary for effective bilingual/immersion programmes.
  • The possible redesignation of Level 3 and Level 4 programmes as non-bilingual programmes.
  • The possible adoption of school profiling as a basis for the future funding of bilingual/immersion programmes.
  • The promotion of bilingual/immersion programmes for other language groups (particularly Pasifika).
  • The need for specialist teacher training in bilingual/immersion education that combines language proficiency training in te reo Māori with specialist training in bilingual/immersion education and 2nd language acquisition.
  • The need to encourage/inform parents and whānau to keep their children in bilingual/immersion programmes for a minimum of 6 years in order to achieve bilingualism and biliteracy successfully.
  • A wider information strategy that provides parents, whānau, teachers and policy makers with accurate, research-based, evidence on the considerable advantages of bilingual/immersion education.
  • Further qualitative research/case-study based evidence of existing good practices in bilingual/immersion education in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

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