Discrimination in the classroom

Recently I have learned that bilingual websites are not allowed in some adult ESL classes for use in the computer labs. I am sure that part of the argument is that English Only must be used, as policy, despite the fact that nearly everyone admits that a bilingual approach is very beneficial for beginning students. At the very least a list of bilingual sites should be made available to the students.

In these discussion groups I have advocated for the inclusion of a bilingual approach so as to increase student enrollment and to reduce the drop-out rate. I look at it as a "coveyor belt', and know from my own experience that it is very successful. 






Hi Paul, and others who are interested in bilingual or biliteracy approaches,

A couple of decades ago years ago bilingual education came under attack in public schools across the country. It was outlawed in Massachusetts over 15 years ago, and this resulted in some public school systems that had been using a bilingual approach changing to an English only policy. In November, 2017 Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation that that allows school systems to teach students academic subjects in their first language while they gain fluency in English. Massachusetts is not unique. California, as you probably know, has also recently overturned English only.

"Last November, California voters repealed the state's English-only instruction law, allowing public schools across more power to operate bilingual and dual-language programs. With the passage of the Massachusetts law, Arizona is now the only state with English-only immersion education mandates written into law...."  http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning-the-language/2017/11/bilingual_education_to_return_massacusetts.html

Bilingual approaches are rarely used in adult ESL/ESOL but, for many years, Massachusetts has allowed them, and a few publicly-funded programs have used this approach. The challenge for adult ESL/ESOL programs in many Massachusetts communities is that adults who want to learn English have many different first languages. Where there is a predominant first language, such as Spanish, Haitian Creole, Chinese (Mandarin) or other native language, a bilingual approach may be possible. I am not aware of any federal policy that bans bilingual approaches, although I haven't specifically looked at WIOA/AEFLA Title II to see if that might be the case. Anyone know? 

Paul, do you -- or do others here -- have evidence from research that bilingual approaches for adults are effective? If so, could you share that here please?


David J. Rosen



David, about ten years ago I conducted my own investigation of the research and found no studies that showed the superiority of English Only and also none that actually discussed the bilingual approach vs. EO. 

Although state programs may not explicitly "ban" a bilingual method, I have found that there is basically a prejudice against using L1 in the classroom, again...based on no evidence. 

On the other hand I have lots of evidence from my own experience and from students' responses. 

It stands to reason that if a bilingual approach is popular among beginning students, then it should be used.


David and group members: concerning the point you made about "multi-lingual classes", actually with technoloy it is very easy to conduct bilingual classes for beginners no matter how many languages are spoken by the students. Below is an article I wrote a few years ago:

I have been teaching ESL to beginning adults for about 30 years and I have always used a bilingual method in my classes. The results have been very favorable, culminating in the creation of a website and program that has proven to be useful for Spanish speaking adult English learners (1).

I believe that adopting bilingual methods – or providing L1 support – would be very beneficial to any adult ESL program. Offering bilingual support would serve as a Transition to an English Only class, and, I believe, it would lead to a better retention rate. And, obviously, I am convinced that students would learn better and become more enthusiastic about learning English.

But, whenever I have presented my position here in LINCS over the years, I have been met with a variety of skeptics who have answered me with a laundry list of reasons why the bilingual method is not suitable in their classrooms. Often people agree that a bilingual method is better than English Only, but that it is impractical.

To illustrate, one of the more frequent criticisms of the bilingual method is the argument that it is imposible to implement in a multi-lingual class. To answer this criticism, I present an outline of how I would teach a multi-lingual class of beginning adults:

In a class of 25 or more students who speak five languages or so I would use copies of a Picture Dictionary, appropriate bilingual dictionaries, lined notebooks, Flashcards, CDs and 10  computers. The class would meet twice a week for 2 hours.

My Main Rule is that nobody can make fun of another student in class, but they can laugh at me and my jokes.

Students would be grouped according to their languages, and then we would begin the first class….with the alphabet.

I would stand in front of the class and with humor and exaggertion show them how to pronounce all the letters, focusing on the difficult letters, such as: G/J, L vs R, V, W, etc. I would also show them that they needed to write the phonetic spelling of the letter in their languages.

For example, Spanish – Aa  Ei

At this point I would introduce the question: How do you spell…your name? Each student would be given an  opportunity to practice spelling her or his name while looking at the phonetic spelling of each letter.

Then I would show them how to make Flash Cards of the Alphabet so that they can practice with each other.

I would then show the students how to use the computer and their smart phones in order to study English bilingually.

Perhaps I would finish the class with my rendition of the ABC song, which always gets a big laugh.

All students would then be told that they can take the Picture Dictionary, the bilingual dictionary and the CDs home with them…for home work!!

For the first two months or so, I would teach the numbers up to one million, greetings and salutations, food and shopping, etc., etc. – a basic vocabulary of about 500 common words.

Each lesson would include various dialogues to practice out loud in class.

I teach most lessons in stages, which include an introduction with pronunciation, practice, a quiz, repetion, reminders and so on up until the students have learned the lesson well.

Often it takes a lot of repetion for the students to learn something, so I advocate and practice a lot of patience, observation and humor.

As part of building up a good vocabulary, I provide Graded Readers which I have written and which the students read out loud in class, taking turns.

In this way the students not only acquire a vocabulary of the most common words, but they also learn phrases and methods of learning English on their own.

Usually by the third month I introduce gramar, especially verb tenses.

The above is a summary of how I probably would approach a Multi-Lingual class using a Bilingal Method.

I look forward to your responses.


1. Pumarosa.com and inglesconprofepablo.com

Hello Paul and all, As you note, Paul, almost everyone understands the value of a bilingual approach, and I believe research in K12 has shown bilingual methods to be superior to English only.  Moreover, bilingual individuals tend to outperform all others in educational gains. Being bi- or multi-lingual has a great many benefits.

With regard to adult English learners, research conducted many years ago by Heide Spruck Wrigley and Larry Condelli showed that adult learners with limited literacy skills and low ability in aural/oral English made greater progress when the teacher drew upon the primary language in strategic ways. I've copied some excerpts below from an interview with Heide Wrigley in Focus on Basics in which she describes this aspect of the What Works for Adult ESL Students study.

"Judicious use of the native language made a difference in both reading and oral language skill acquisition as shown by results on standardized tests. We didn't have any native language literacy classes, and we didn't have any classes in which teachers did a great deal of translating for the students. But students had higher gains when the students in the class shared a language - (in our case, Spanish) - and the teacher was bilingual and used Spanish here and there, to give instructions, or to clarify, or to offer a quick translation of a difficult term. . .

The classes where the teacher used the native language here and there had higher gains. This makes sense, particularly for literacy students who had little English, because their brains are busy trying to speak, to figure out print, to understand what the teacher wants, all while dealing with a new language and a new culture. Many of the students had not been in a classroom since they were small children, so school tasks were new to them as well. In these cases, where you are cognitively taxed to your fullest extent, if someone comes in and explains it to you, it really frees up mental space to focus on the task itself. In ESOL classes that are all in English, so much of students' time and energy is spent trying to figure out what it is the teacher wants them to do. Once the instructions are clear, the task becomes manageable.. . In terms of the native language, we do need to rethink that 'English only' idea ..."

This is the only relevant study with adults that I know of, but I think the implications are clear, and I agree that teachers in multilingual classes can also work on drawing upon the primary language in strategic ways. I do so in my own class every day.

Thank goodness for bilingual picture dictionaries and for websites that provide bilingual support such as yours, Paul.  I know many classes have sets of bilingual picture dictionaries in a wide range of languages, including Arabic/English. By coincidence, just today I discovered a bilingual (Arabic/English) picture dictionary online

Thanks for sharing your resources, Paul. I invite all members to share any and all bilingual resources you and the learners you work with have found helpful. Sharing resources here is part of what makes LINCS so great!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Thanks, Susan, from my experience students like a bilingual method, relax more and are less likely to drop-out. On the other hand someone once mentioned to me that adult students really do not drop out, they just often have pressing family or life issues to deal with. That is why learning ESL classes should have more flexibility in attendance, etc....and more emphasis on the fact that learning English does involve "life-long learning."

There are many techniques and materials to utilze in a multi-lingual class, and I was wondering if you could sometime sponsor a workshop on bi-lingual, multi-lingual methods and materials. 

Susan and group, yes! We need to share resources – with our students too!!! In particular we need to make available to everyone a list of all the websites that can help them in their adult education goals. And we should do so as educators, not gatekeepers.

I say that because, as I mentioned in a previous post, I have learned that my website, Pumarosa, has actually been blocked in some ESL programs.

Pumarosa is free and easy to navigate and is also very helpful as a tool to learn English. It is part of STARFALL and has been online for 14 years and has a large following. There is no reason to block it.

I have built my program around Pumarosa, and now also include another free website that includes E-Texts and videos - inglesconprofepablo.com. I urge all teachers who have Spanish-speaking students to at least let them know about my programs.

Thank you.

Paul Rogers




Hello again Paul,

I'm not sure if I mentioned in any of my previous posts but wanted to let you know that several of my Hispanic students use your pumarosa website and have commented how very helpful it is for them, especially when they miss class attendance due to work or family issues. They have asked me to send you thanks for your help and support!

Hi Paul,

Without exaggeration, my bilingual teaching methods are almost identical to those in the order in which you listed them. Periodically, I must adapt depending on day-to-day attendance but on the whole, I believe in introducing the foundations of the alphabet focusing on pronunciation, teaching greetings, and so on. One strategy that I repeat almost every 3 to 4 weeks is introductions. From the beginning, I wanted to help my adult ESL students to slowly gain confidence talking in English and speaking in front of an audience. Little by little, I watch my students mature as speakers, listening to more detailed orations from them as they become more comfortable working through their struggles with tremendous support from their peers. Likewise, I use so many of the other strategies you mention from Picture Dictionaries to Flash Cards to the list of Most Common English Words. Most especially, I conduct many of my lesson plans using humor, rhythm and literally breaking out into song. I strongly believe that if we do not balance fun with learning we are fighting a very tough battle. 


Hi, Vicky! I am very glad you were able to show your students Pumarosa. Some lessons are also good for speakers of other languages, especially those that focus on pronunciation such as lesson 15 in Level 1. At the same time I have written many more texts and made some videos which can all be seen on my other website, inglesconprofepablo.com. And I put almost my whole course on a USB port / thumbdrive so that it is not necessary to have an internet connection. In the meantime I am in the process of revamping this site.

My students are all very busy adult with kids and jobs, so  I send lessons and videos  via WhasApp or Messenger.

The most important development in my program is the addition of Home Visits. Actually I am also going to teach a class in a Beautty Salon next week!! I should call my course ENGLISH ON WHEELS / INGLES SOBRE RUEDAS.

I like what you said about humor and song!!!! This to me is the most important ingredient. Learning English can be very frustrating and takes time. So when we have a pleasant atmosphere in the class, well, things get a lot better. 

If you would like me to send you some of my CDs and DVDs, please email me: pumarosa21@yahoo.com. 



Paul and all who have enriched this discussion with your ideas and resources, you make excellent points. The debate over English-only vs bilingual instruction has been raging for many years, with good arguments on both sides for that coin, in the US and throughout  Canada. I suspect that it will continue to rage.   Over the years, I have had many promising monolingual English speakers tell me, "I would loooove to teach ESL, but I don't speak Spanish, or ________ (Fill in the language). My answer is always, "Of course you can! Don't let that stop you! There are many excellent ways to teach ESL to different populations without knowing their native language. I do it all of the time when the need arises."  I have known many absolutely outstanding ESL teachers who don't speak the native languages of their students.   All to say that, as with all instruction, it is important for us to respect the needs, desires, and abilities of both instructors and different student populations.   Since I speak Spanish and Portuguese fluently, I have used bilingual approaches in my long ESL-instruction career when working with students whose native language is one of those two. However, when teaching college credit ESL classes to students at all levels, from rank beginners to more advanced, who don't share a common language (35 students in one class daily, who speak Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese, Russian, and other languages), I have successfully used English-only approaches. "Successfully" means that students managed to enter and pass Freshman English composition classes within two years or even one(!) of intensive instruction, depending on their native-language academic proficiency. Students with low literacy skills in their native languages took longer, of course. Side note: Interestingly, we used to find that when ESL students reached intermediate-level English proficiency, they often dropped out of our program because they had achieved the language skills necessary for them to get many jobs! We used to say, "Let's not call them 'drop-outs' but 'workplace drop-ins!' " :)))) Leecy

Leecy, your article is very thought provoking and covers a wide ranges of issues associated with the question of bilingual methods vs. English Only. Let me try to give a response to some of the issues you mention.

First – in my opinion there has been no real debate at all. I have written about my experiences and opinion on these pages often during the past ten or more years, and rarely has there been a meaningful discussion. People have raised their objections to my ideas and I have usually replied with good responses, such as what to do in a multi-lingual class. But instead of a discussion, my answers were usually met with silence.

Actually, recently I posted a detailed reply to that question here.

Other than that I have seen no debate.

On the contrary, the issue of “English Only” has been “settled” so that English Only is almost a rule. And now, as I said in my first post to open this discussion, my bilingual website, Pumarosa, is blocked in many places!  In general, I have had a lot of opposition to my program and recently it seems to have increased.  

One of the main problems I tried to address was the fact that in beginning adult ESL classes the drop-out rate was high and caused chaos at times, and that only a small percentage of people went on to a second year. My thesis was that a bilingual approach would decrease the dropout rate. I call it a Transition approach.

So far there has been no interest in this idea.

Well, to finish this post, the real issue is how to best provide English instruction to adult immigrants who usually work at low-paying jobs and have families, and who are usually women.  In that light I would wholeheartedly welcome a discussion, not necessarily a debate.

Well, let’s see what happens!!!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Paul. I wasn't referring to raging battles in our CoPs but among ESL teachers everywhere for a very long time. I still hear debates on this among ESL instructors that I come across during the year.

I hope that teachers will simply feel comfortable using the method that best suits their own abilities and needs among students who have their own preferences and needs. Perhaps you'll agree that there are valid opinions on both sides of this issue. I hope people will consider "What Works the Best" for them and their students. Different strokes for different folks!  :) Leecy

Leecy, you raise some more interesting points, which I will try to address briefly.

And, again, I am focusing on beginning students who know little or no English.  The classes I target are those in “Formal programs, i.e. at community colleges, etc., funded by the government and governed by certain rules.

First, I think the concept of “Different strokes for different folks” is great and we would live in a better world if we all followed this adage. Ahhh, Leecy, we are dating ourselves!!!!!

BUT the reality is that there is no equality between English Only teachers and Bilingual teachers. The latter either will not get hired or will sooner or later get fired.  That is why the title of my original post is Discrimination in the class.

Second  - again my focus is on the problems that exist in these beginning classes, namely the high dropout rate and low level of learning.

And my advocacy for a bilingual methodology is aimed at ameliorating these problems.

We have to focus on what is best for the students first and foremost. How can any teacher know what is best unless he or she has the opportunity to examine all the alternatives? And I am quite sure that bilingual methods are not explored very well.

In any case, I advocate for the development of what I call Bilingual Transition classes for beginners for all programs. This may involve a change in policy, which is needed a lot.

And it would be great if we actually could have a “debate” on this issue here in LINCS.  Actually I prefer a discussion based on examining evidence and practice and also aimed at solving problems. Can we do this?

Hello Paul and all, There is no question that being bi- or multilingual has enormous benefits. I would agree with you, Paul, that offering bilingual instruction at the beginning levels is not only beneficial but more effective than an English only approach. There is little disagreement on that point.

For a super interesting article on the history of bilingual education in the US, check out this American Educator piece by researchers Claude Goldenberg and Kirsten Wagner, "Bilingual Education: Reviving an American Tradition." There are many sections of this article that I'd like to quote, but here is one excerpt that seems especially relevant to our discussion here. Keep in mind that the context for the studies referenced by Goldenberg and Wagner are K12, but the overall message is relevant to everyone.

Goldenberg and Wagner (2015) write: "Far from being a problem, bilingualism is an asset both to individuals and to society. Bilingual education (a means) can help us take advantage of this asset by promoting bilingualism (a goal) both for English speakers and for students who come from non-English backgrounds.

Apart from the obvious intellectual and cultural advantages of speaking two or more languages, bilingualism has been linked to a number of other positive outcomes. In a comprehensive review of 63 studies, researchers from Washington State University found that bilingualism is associated with cognitive benefits such as increased control over attention, improved working memory, greater awareness of the structure and form of language, and better abstract and symbolic representation skills.23 Other research, widely publicized when it first appeared, has even shown that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.24"

23. Olusola O. Adesope, Tracy Lavin, Terri Thompson, and Charles Ungerleider, “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive Correlates of Bilingualism,” Review of Educational Research 80 (2010): 207–245.

24. Ellen Bialystok, “Reshaping the Mind: The Benefits of Bilingualism,” Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale 65 (2011): 229–235.

Hurray for programs that support learning in more than one language! Let's continue this important discussion!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP