At-Risk Learners and Bilingualism: Is It a Good Idea?

A woman helping a boy with his school work.

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Fred Genesee reviews what we know about the benefits of bilingualism, as well as the research about children with developmental disabilities who grow up bilingually and may be educated bilingually. He also looks at evidence on the effectiveness of dual language forms of education for students who are at-risk for academic difficulty and closes with some guidelines for the inclusion of at-risk learners in bilingual programs.

There is growing recognition of the advantages of raising and educating children bilingually. The benefits of bilingualism, well-documented by extensive research, are linked to children's immediate personal lives but also to schooling, socio-emotional and cognitive development, and globalization. Nevertheless, much of this research is based on children who follow typical development patterns. This raises the question of whether a bilingual environment is right for children who are at-risk for developmental disorders or academic difficulty. 

In this article, I want to review what we know about the benefits of bilingualism, as well as the research about children with developmental disabilities who grow up bilingually and may be educated bilingually; I also review evidence on the effectiveness of dual language forms of education for students who are at-risk for academic difficulty for socio-cultural and other non-clinical reasons, and I close with some guidelines for the inclusion of at-risk learners in bilingual programs.

The Benefits of Bilingualism

Connections to family and culture

From a personal perspective, many children grow up in families and communities where communication in more than one language is part of day-to-day life, such as Spanish-speaking children in the U.S. The ability to communicate in Spanish, or other languages in other communities, and English allows children to interact with all members of their immediate family and the community in which they live.  Children who do not develop and maintain proficiency in their home language may lose their ability to communicate with parents and family members and risk becoming estranged from their cultural and linguistic heritage (Wong-Fillmore, 1991). In contrast, minority language children and students who have a strong base in their first language and acquire high levels of English proficiency have the ability "to establish a strong cultural identity, to develop and sustain strong ties with their immediate and extended families, and thrive in a global multilingual world" (Espinosa, 2007, p. 2).

Academic success

When it comes to schooling, researchers are finding that there are multiple advantages to minority language students who maintain competence in their home languages as they acquire competence in English. For example, we know that strong home language skills, especially in areas related to literacy and academic language, facilitate the acquisition of literacy and academic language skills in English (August & Shanahan, 2006). In a related vein, bilingual Hispanic students have higher achievement scores, GPAs, and educational expectations than their monolingual English-speaking Hispanic peers (e.g., Lindholm-Leary, 2001; Rumberger & Larson, 1998). Lindholm-Leary and her colleagues (see Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2012, for details) have also found that former ELLs (i.e., reclassified Fluent English Proficient) were more likely to be bilingual and to score higher on standardized tests of Spanish achievement than current ELLs and that their English test scores were highly and significantly correlated with their scores on Spanish language tests.

The positive spin–off effects of bilingualism for ELLs in the U.S. go beyond language and academic achievement. Han (2010) found that bilingual ELLs had higher scores than English monolingual and non-English monolingual children on measures of socio-emotional development that included self-control, interpersonal skills, and internalizing and externalizing problems. Sam and colleagues (2006) found that immigrant adolescents whose ethnic identities integrate and embrace both majority and minority cultures tend to be more involved with both the majority and minority cultures and to show higher levels of psychological and sociological adaptation than both:

  • their immigrant peers who are monolingual in the majority language and have little involvement with members of their ethnic group, and
  • peers who reject the majority culture and limit their contacts to only their ethnic group peers.

Becoming a global citizen

Globalization has also put a premium on bi- and multilingual competence. In particular, globalization has enhanced opportunities for international travel, work, education, and interaction (among scientists and professionals, for example). Because English is presently undoubtedly the dominant language of business, science, and tourism, those who speak English can take full advantage of globalization. However, English is not the only important world language; there are others, such as Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and French.  It is estimated that there are more second language speakers of English than native-speakers (Crystal, 2003). This means that while knowing English is an advantage, knowing only English is not enough because many people who know English also know other languages.

In view of these global influences, educators around the world are increasingly taking responsibility to ensure that students have opportunities for early, sustained and high quality educational opportunities in more than one language so that, once they leave school, they are competitive in the global market place and can benefit personally from other opportunities afforded by globalization. A growing number of mainstream parents are opting for dual language forms of education and many families who speak a minority language at home are motivated to maintain support for that language by sending their children to schools that support development of both languages.

Cognitive advantages

There are yet other advantages to learning and knowing other languages. In particular, research has shown that bilingual individuals can enjoy certain neuro-cognitive advantages in comparison to monolinguals. A bilingual advantage has been demonstrated in the performance of tasks that tap into what are called executive functions (e.g., Bialystok, 2011). These cognitive abilities are related to focusing, inhibiting and switching attention during problem solving, for example, and are evident in both childhood and adulthood  (Bialystok, et al., 2004). The bilingual advantage is most evident in bilinguals who have relatively advanced levels of proficiency in two languages and who use their two languages actively on a regular basis. An early start to learning two languages makes it easier for individuals to acquire these high levels of bilingual competence. 

Quality matters

The last two decades has seen an explosion in research on early bilingualism. As a result, there is solid and growing evidence that, generally speaking, there are few, if any risks, to raising children bilingually (e.g., deHouwer, 2009; Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011) or educating them bilingually (e.g., Genesee & Fortune, 2014; Paradis et al., 2011; Goldenberg, 2008). It is important to emphasize that there is wide individual variation in outcomes among learners and that better learning outcomes, be it in language or academic domains, depend on the quality of the learning environment – learners who are given high quality, sustained, and substantial exposure to both languages achieve better outcomes.

Notwithstanding these reassuring findings, however, available evidence is based largely on studies of typically-developing children. This raises the question about the suitability of bilingualism for children who are at-risk for developmental disorders or academic difficulty – is a bilingual environment suitable for them? Let's start with children with developmental disabilities (DD).

Growing Up With Two Languages and Developmental Disabilities

I focus on three groups of bilingual children with DD:

  • Children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI): SLI refers to the presence of a language learning impairment in the absence of impairments in nonverbal intelligence, frank neurological difficulties, hearing problems, and oral-motor structure and function difficulties. SLI is also sometimes referred to as Language Impairment, Developmental Language Disorders, and Primary Language Impairment.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): ASD is a disorder of social interactions accompanied by restricted repetitive behaviors and often, but not always, is associated with intellectual disability and/or language impairments.
  • Down syndrome (DS): DS is a chromosomal disorder usually resulting in moderate ID, language impairment, and physiological, anatomical and health anomalies.  

I focus on these three groups because all have disorders of language and/or social interaction and, as a result, many people think that they should learn only one language. Moreover, there is a reasonable body of research on these learners (see Kay-Raining Bird, Genesee & Verhoeven, in press, for a more detailed review).

The following summary is based on a detailed review of research on these learners prepared by Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, Fred Genesee & Ludo Verhoeven (in press in the Journal of Communication Disorders). While there is not as much research on these groups as one would like, the available evidence provides encouraging and useful glimpses about children who grow up bilingually with these disabilities. Several general conclusions emerged from this review.

First, when compared to typically-developing monolingual controls without these disabilities, bilinguals in all three groups exhibited predictable communication difficulties, although it is important to point out that the specific difficulties of bilingual children with DD have been studied in detail only in bilinguals with SLI and DS. In both of these cases, the patterns of difficulty mirror those reported for monolinguals with the same disability. In other words, the bilingual children with DD did not exhibit unique patterns of difficulty, indicating that bilingualism did not appear to affect the children's general developmental trajectories beyond what one would see in monolingual children with the same disabilities.

Second, when the performance of bilinguals and monolinguals with the same disabilities was directly compared, simultaneous bilinguals in all three DD groups performed equivalently or better than the monolingual controls, indicating that bilingualism did not put the children at greater risk. The same was found for sequential bilinguals when tested in their dominant language or when both languages were taken into account. However, the second language performance of sequential bilinguals with DD was often, but not always, poorer than that of monolinguals with DD. However, these studies have only been done with children with SLI and these differences probably reflect the fact that the bilingual children were tested in their weaker language.  

Finally, current frequency of exposure to language was an important predictor of language development in all groups of children with DD. This was especially true in the case of the weaker language and not necessarily in the stronger language. Thus, attention should be paid to ensuring adequate amounts of language exposure in the weaker language of bilinguals with DD.

At-Risk Students in Dual Language School Programs

It has been well-documented that typically-developing Spanish-L1 children in dual language programs in the U.S. attain the same levels of achievement, or better, in English and in academic domains as Spanish-L1 children in English-only programs (e.g., see Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2012, for a review; Goldenberg, 2008; Thomas & Collier, 2012). In addition, typically-developing English-L1 children in both the Canada and the U.S. who participate in dual language programs successfully acquire a high degree of fluency in a second language (be it French in Canada or Spanish in the U.S.) when immersed in that language without detrimental effects on their L1 or academic achievement (e.g., see Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2013, for a review of research in the U.S. and Canada). The question arises: How effective are dual language programs for students who are at-risk for academic difficulty in school?

The available research has examined students with a variety of risk characteristics, including low intellectual ability, poor first language abilities, low socio-economic status, minority group status, and special education needs. With the exception of students with poor first language abilities and some students with special education needs, most of the students who participated in these studies would not be considered to have a developmental disability.

Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, students with these learner characteristics and backgrounds often, although not always, underperform in school in comparison to students who do not have these characteristics. As well, there is often a bias to exclude or discourage students with these learner characteristics from participating in dual language forms of education on the assumption that they will struggle even more in a dual language program than in a monolingual program. For minority language students and even majority language students living in bilingual families or communities, exclusion from dual language programs has important consequences for their day-to-day lives because they are not given opportunities to fully develop both languages. 

Research has been carried out with these kinds of learners in both the U.S. and Canada. Since the risk factors and backgrounds of the students in the U.S. and Canadian studies are somewhat different, I discuss the results from each country separately, starting with the United States.

U.S. Programs

Studies in the U.S. have examined the performance of minority Spanish-L1 students and majority English-L1 students who were identified as having "special education needs." Students with special education needs can have a wide range of learner characteristics that put them at-risk for difficulty in school, including visual or hearing impairments, developmental delays, speech and language impairments, autism, mental retardation, and specific learning disabilities, among others. As a result, these students require additional services or specialized programs or placements to ensure that their educational needs are met.

Myers (2009) examined the performance of both native English-speaking and native Spanish-speaking students in two-way immersion programs in the U.S. who had been identified as having special education needs related to learning disability, developmental delay, emotional disturbance, and other health impairments. They were participating in 50:50 two-way immersion programs and were compared to students with similar special education needs in monolingual English-only programs. The students were in grades 3, 4 and 5 and were evaluated using criterion- and norm-referenced tests of reading, listening comprehension, writing, spelling, mathematics, science, and social science in English. Because the sample sizes of some groups were small, Myers was able to statistically analyze only two groups: children with learning disabilities and children with health impairments. She found no significant differences between the special-needs students in the two-way immersion programs and the special-needs students in the monolingual English-only programs at any grade level (see also Lindholm-Leary, 2005).

Thomas and Collier (2010) have also reported on the achievement of students in dual language programs who were receiving special education services. The students' performance in reading and mathematics was examined in grades 3 to 8 in six North Carolina school districts. The majority (90%) of these students were identified with specific learning disabilities or specific language impairment. Using criterion-referenced and end-of-grade state assessments, they found that the special needs students in the dual language programs outperformed their peers who were not in bilingual programs. As also noted in the Myers study, the sample was relatively small – a not uncommon problem in research with these students. Thus, some caution is called for when generalizing these results. Nevertheless, these results along with those of Myers support emerging evidence that dual language programs can benefit students with special educational needs.

Canadian Programs

Turning now to research in Canada, Canadian researchers have examined the performance of English-L1 students who were participating in French immersion programs and who had the following learner and background characteristics which often, although not always, put them at a disadvantage in school (see Genesee, 2007, for a review):  (a) low academic ability, (b) low socio-economic status, (c) poor first language abilities, and (d) minority ethnic group status. These studies found consistently that majority English-speaking students who were at risk for academic difficulty for the above reasons attained the same levels of first language competence and academic achievement in immersion programs as comparable at-risk students in monolingual programs. The at-risk students in immersion generally performed less well than students who are not at-risk, but they were not at greater risk in the dual language program than similar students in monolingual programs. At the same time, the at-risk students benefited from immersion by acquiring advanced levels of functional proficiency in the second language.

Summary and Conclusions

I have gone into the results of these studies in some detail because many of these findings are counterintuitive. Here are my primary conclusions:

1. At-risk learners can thrive in bilingual environments.

Reviewing carefully-conducted research that has consistently found that at-risk children and students can thrive and benefit in dual language learning environments is important to drive home the point that bilingualism is possible for such learners.

2. We need more research.

We clearly need much more detailed research on all of these groups of learners as well as on learners who have not yet been examined, including children with visual and hearing difficulties and children with attention deficit disorders.

3. At present, there is no evidence to suggest that children with development disorders should be excluded from bilingual programs.

In the meantime, the available evidence indicates that young learners' capacity for language learning is so powerful that they are capable of acquiring dual language competence within the limits of their ability even in the face of significant developmental and other challenges. At present, there is also no evidence to indicate that children who are at risk owing to developmental disorders or other risk factors reviewed here cannot become bilingual.  In other words, there is no scientific evidence to date to justify the recommendation that children with DDs be limited to learning only one language during the pre-school years or that school-age learners who might be at risk for academic difficulty should be systematically excluded from dual language education options.

4. In fact, there are many reasons to support bilingualism broadly.

To the contrary, there are a number of reasons to create opportunities for most children to become bilingual – the ability to communicate in two languages, maintenance of ties with family and community members who speak another language, future job and personal opportunities associated with our increasingly multilingual, global world, and others. Dual language learning should be encouraged especially in the case of minority language children because there is growing evidence that strong home language skills (in Spanish, for example) support the development of strong English language skills (e.g., August & Shanahan, 2006), promotes academic achievement (e.g., Lindholm-Leary, 2001), and a greater sense of well-being and attachment to family (e.g., Han, 2010; Sam et al., 2006).

5. It is always important to remember that each child's development and supports needed (particularly from relatives, specialists, and caregivers) are unique.

Having said that, it is also important to emphasize that each child should be considered individually to decide whether the bilingual route is the best route for her or him. Individual children may simply not like or be able to manage the challenges of dual language learning. It is especially important to consider each child's need to learn two languages. Children who live in bilingual families or communities have a greater need than children who live in monolingual families and communities. Children with DDs or who are at-risk for academic difficulty require additional supports, including the services of specialists in some cases. To be effective, additional support is often needed from parents, other caregivers, and specialists as well as from educators in the case of school-age learners.

Therefore, consideration must be given to whether appropriate additional supports are available in both languages and whether parents, other caregivers, educators and specialists are available and prepared to provide the support these learners' need for an extended period of time.  Whether or not it is advisable to raise a child bilingually or educate him or her bilingually may be influenced by these issues.

In conclusion, although researchers still have a lot of work to do, the best evidence available at present suggests that many, if not all, learners who are at-risk for the reasons discussed here are capable of becoming bilingual. Whether or not at-risk children achieve such competence will depend to a great extent on the level of commitment and availability of the adults who care for them.

To help in that effort, here are some guidelines for deciding if and how to include at-risk learners in dual language programs.



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Genesee, F., & Fortune, T. (2014). Bilingual education and at-risk students. Journal of  Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 2(2), 165-180.

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Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning (2nd Edit.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

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Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V.P. (2010). English learners in North Carolina 2009. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V.P. (2012). Dual language education for a transformed world. Albuquerque, NM: Fuente Press.

Wong-Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6(3), 323-346.


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