The Impact of English-Only Instructional Policies on English Learners

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Patricia Gándara discusses the emergence and outcomes of the English-only movement, as well as ideas for refocusing the debate around bilingual education in the future.

Bilingual Education: The Research

In the aftermath of the Bilingual Education Act (1968), and the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision (1974) that guaranteed English learners access to an equivalent curriculum as that offered to English speakers, there was a general presumption that bilingual education would be the method of choice to educate English learners (ELs) in our public schools. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s most states with large numbers of EL students adopted legislation requiring some form of bilingual instruction and the U.S. Department of Education promulgated rules that made bilingual instruction the default program for most children learning English.

However, almost immediately, there was push back from English-only advocates. They questioned why bilingual instruction should be used if it could not be shown to be superior to other forms of instruction, such as English immersion. To answer the critics, the federal government commissioned two major national studies to determine the effectiveness of various instructional programs for English learners.1

American Institutes for Research, 1978

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For a more detailed discussion related to the review of bilingual education research, see Bilingual Education: The Failed Experiment? by Drs. Patricia Gándara and Frances Contreras.

In the American Institutes for Research (AIR) study, released in 1978, the researchers concluded that there was no significant continuing impact of the Title VII bilingual programs on student outcomes. The study was attacked by supporters of bilingual instruction for not clearly specifying what constituted bilingual classrooms (program labels were accepted at face value) as well as for a host of other problems in the study design. So, the Department of Education commissioned another study with a similar goal.

The "Immersion Study," 1991

In 1991 the "Immersion study," as it came to be known, was released with somewhat equivocal findings as well. Although this study was much more carefully conducted, it suffered from problems of comparability of study sites and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences found that while students in the late-exit bilingual programs scored at or above the norm on standardized tests, too many confounding variables could not be accounted for, calling into question the source of these testing outcomes. They did, however, find that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the transitional bilingual program offered in the kindergarten to first grade had resulted in superior reading outcomes over the English-immersion program.

This finding has been consistent over a number of studies since that time.2 The latest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of program outcomes finds that students provided bilingual instruction in reading perform about .4 standard deviations better than those provided reading instruction in English only. This is approximately equivalent to the effect of having a reduced class size.3

To summarize the research up to the present, most studies that have examined the outcomes for English learners in different program types have looked solely at English proficiency or at reading (only occasionally math) scores in English. Very little attention has been given to students' academic growth in another language. Nonetheless, there is now consensus in the literature that students in strong English immersion and strong bilingual programs score about the same in English proficiency by 5th grade, and that those in bilingual programs outperform those in English-only programs in reading by a significant margin. Math outcomes are more equivocal.

Thus, one must question why, if there is no difference in English proficiency or mathematics outcomes, and there is a significant positive effect for reading outcomes, would anyone want to prevent English learners from being educated bilingually?

The English-Only Movement

Notwithstanding the research findings, a movement began in California in the late 1990s to legislate against bilingual programs. Proposition 227, or the "English for the Children" initiative, as it was called by its supporters, claimed that the poor academic performance of Spanish speakers was due to their placement in bilingual programs, and promised that these students would have superior academic outcomes if placed in English-only programs. The initiative sought to make English-only instruction the default program throughout the state, and in 1998 it passed.

The supporters of Proposition 227 in California went on to pass a similar initiative in Arizona in 2000, and then in Massachusetts in 2002. With many years of data on how English learners had fared in these states under the English-only law, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA commissioned a series of studies in each of the states to determine what the impact had been. These studies are published in a 2011 book entitled Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies.

Achievement outcomes

To briefly summarize the research that was conducted, all studies found that there was little difference in academic outcomes for students in the English-only programs over their performance prior to the passage of the laws; the achievement gaps were not closing in any of the states that had passed the English-only legislation. There was, however, evidence in Massachusetts that drop-out rates for English learners had risen, and in Arizona that more EL students were being placed in special education classes, two very negative outcomes.

The fact that there had not been dramatic changes in achievement scores was due to at least two factors:

  1. Most EL students in all three states were already in English-only programs before the passage of the laws (for example, in California 70% of ELs were in English-only programs prior to Proposition 227).
  2. States had changed their testing regimes so many times over the years it would have been difficult to pick up any differences in any case.

But in all cases, the gaps between English learner and English speaker achievement are large and are not abating.

Lessons learned

What can we say was learned from the experience of legislating English-only instruction for EL students in these three states?

First of all, no particular instructional program — whether it is English immersion or bilingual instruction — is a panacea. Without adequately prepared (bilingual) teachers, good curriculum, and programs that combat the effects of poverty and marginalization that the majority of these students face, there is little hope of significantly closing achievement gaps.

Secondly, these laws impact ELs' access to qualified teachers. Arizona and California similarly saw a decline of about 50% in the numbers of their credentialed bilingual teachers as a result of the passage of these laws, further depleting the resources in schools for meeting the EL students' needs. A recent study of bilingual and monolingual teachers serving EL students in California, Arizona, and Texas found that the bilingual teachers were significantly more likely to reach out to the parents of EL students, and also used more research-based pedagogical strategies in the classrooms with these students.4 The loss of well-trained bilingual teachers may be the most profound legacy of this experiment in prohibiting bilingual instruction and we can say with certainty that these laws did not deliver on their promise of producing superior academic outcomes for these students.

Looking to the Future

As we think about how similar discussions about English-only education may unfold in other states, it's critical to keep in mind that such policies are not the product of rational or research-based considerations. As a result, rational discussion about their negative effects is not likely to convince most people who vote for these policies. Such policies tend to be pushed through during periods of high immigration when Americans feel they are under siege by other languages; we have seen this over and over throughout our history as a nation.

Perhaps as the country diversifies more and more, linguistic diversity will seem less unusual and more acceptable. In the meantime, however, well-educated, middle class families may be the most important answer. We have seen a surge in recent years in the growth of dual immersion programs. Middle class parents want their children to speak more than one language so that they will be competitive in this globalizing world, and two-way dual immersion programs offer this opportunity. So, English learners have a valuable asset to share with their monolingual English-speaking peers.

We need to make sure that educators are creating the opportunities for this to happen. It is instructive that when the anti-bilingual law was passed in Massachusetts, Cambridge parents of dual immersion students effectively lobbied against including their schools in the ban. Knowledgeable parents who want the asset of multilingualism for their children can play an important role in effectively countering these policies in the future.

About the Author

Patricia Gándara is Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA. She received her PhD in educational psychology from UCLA. She has been a bilingual school psychologist, a social scientist with the RAND Corporation, and a director of education research in the California State Legislature. Since 1990 she has been a professor of education in the University of California system. She also served as commissioner for postsecondary education for the State of California, associate director of the Linguistic Minority Research Institute, and the co-director of PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education. She is currently co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.

Dr. Gándara was recently named to President Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and is a fellow of the American Educational Research Association and recipient of its Presidential Citation at the 2011 AERA annual conference. Patricia is a past fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy, and the Educational Testing Service in Princeton. She was a French-American Foundation/Sciences Po visiting scholar at Sciences Po in Paris. In 2005, she was awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award from UC Davis and the Outstanding Researcher in Higher Education Award from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education.

She has written or edited six books and more than 100 articles and reports on educational equity for racial and linguistic minority students, school reform, access to higher education, the education of Latino students, and language policy. Her two most recent books are The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies (Harvard University Press, 2009) and Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies (Teachers College Press, 2010).


Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.



These two studies were Danoff M. et al (1978). Evaluation of the Impact of ESEA Title VII Spanish/English Bilingual Education Program. Palo Alto: American Institutes of Research; Ramirez, D. et al (1991). Final Report. Longitudinal Study of Structured English Immersion Strategy, Early Exit and Late Exit Bilingual Education Programs for Language Minority Students. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.


For a discussion of the foregoing, see Gándara, P. & Contreras, F. (2009). The Latino Education Crisis. Harvard University Press. Chapter 4: Is Language the problem?


See August, D., Goldenberg, C., & Rueda, R. (2011) Restrictive state language policies: Are they scientifically based? In Gándara, P. & Hopkins, M. (eds). Forbidden Language. English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies. New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 9.


Hopkins, M. (2011). Building on Our Teaching Assets: Bilingual Educators' Pedagogy and Policy Implementation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.


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I find the policy issues in the USA very interesting in regards to which direction to take ELL. I have been teaching children 2-7 in Prague for the past 10 years and many, if not most, of the private schools are English immersion. I have worked in both a bilingual program and an immersion program in this time and both programs are successful, but to varying degrees. In my experience, generally speaking, the students who go to English immersion schools do speak and comprehend English faster than the students in bilingual schools. They spend anywhere from 4 - 8 hours per day learning in English only. The problem arises when those students enter Czech public school. Upon entering, they have missed the early educational opportunities of their culture and thus, are behind. In this regard, bilingual education seems to be the appropriate route to take in order to educate children appropriately within the society they are being raised. Would that not be the case within Arizona/California/Mass's SEI programs in that the goals are to educate these children to function and communicate within the society that they are being raised, that being America? Both Bilingual education and SEI have similar goals that achieve different consequential outcomes. Shouldn't each program be offered and the choice be left to the parents to decide which direction and what is best for their children?

I would love to read your reply, I am not sure this site will send me a notification ..... my email is [email protected] All the best!

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