As with so much in public education, the pandemic upended dual language immersion (DLI) programs across the country. While many of these programs’ struggles during the pandemic are similar to those faced by English-only schools, multilingual learning environments do face some unique challenges that arose or increased because of the switch to distance learning. In response, DLI programs around the country have launched a wide range of online bilingual education experiments. The Century Foundation reached out to DLI teachers and administrators to see what challenges this new landscape presented, and what innovations they made in response.


Dual language immersion, also referred to as dual language education (DLE), is an educational model in which students receive a portion of their education in a non-English “target” language—say, Spanish or Chinese—and a portion in English. The division between languages depends on the program, but most programs employ either a 90/10 model (students begin by learning 90 percent of the time in the target language and 10 percent in English, with the percentages shifting closer to an even split in later grades), or a 50/50 model (instruction is evenly balanced between the two languages throughout). Some DLI programs are “one-way,” educating primarily or exclusively one group of language learners—either native speakers of the target language, or English speakers; “two-way” DLI programs are designed for native speakers of the target language as well as native speakers of English. Research shows that these DLI programs are an effective model for English Learner (EL) students because they have access to content in their native language.

This practice is not new; the first dual language immersion program dates back to 1963. In Washington, D.C. for example, the first dual language school was established over forty years ago by a group of Salvadoran immigrants who wanted their children to have instruction in their native language. Meanwhile, two-way DLI has become increasingly popular among white, monolingual English-speaking families who want their children to be bilingual and value the diversity that this type of educational model can bring.

“It Seemed Like I Was New to Teaching”

Irene came from Spain many years ago to teach in DLI schools in Washington, D.C. One huge difference between the last school year and this one, Irene told me, is the shift from asynchronous to synchronous instruction. When her school went virtual last spring, instruction was 100 percent asynchronous—that is, Irene recorded and uploaded lessons for her pre-kindergarteners to view and complete at their own pace. By contrast, this year, Irene provides live (synchronous) instruction to her students via her school’s online video platform. “At the beginning,” she said, “it seemed like I was new to teaching.” She spoke of how she had to learn to teach online, create visuals to support her young learners, and create online slide presentations.

Irene said that her 18 kindergarten students have adjusted to virtual learning during the pandemic, and daily lessons are more engaging than they were at the beginning, but the model still presents challenges. Each day, Irene divides her students into two groups, delivering all of her planned instruction twice. For example, she does the morning meeting twice—same material, same routine, for two separate groups of nine students. She then does separate groups in literacy or math, each for twenty minutes, and a read-aloud session, where students listen to her read a book to them.

In some ways, virtual learning exacerbates classroom problems that Irene faced before the pandemic. Irene still lacks enough ready-made Spanish-language materials, and said she has to translate her read-aloud materials from English—a challenge that DLI teachers faced before the pandemic as well. The problem is even greater now, however, as she does not even have access to a building or library with materials that she could share with her students.

Irene reflected that, in the previous school year, teachers were stuck with inventing their approaches to pandemic learning on the fly. Like many other teachers at other schools, her colleagues thought they would only be online for a couple weeks, and so there was little preparation and guidance from leadership. The district mandated that instruction would be online lessons only, and delivered laptops, wifi, and other tech components necessary to online instruction, but left many of the subsequent planning and decision-making up to teachers and administrators. While she has an instructional aide who helps with intervention in phonics and letter sounds, Irene plans and prepares all of the small group work herself. Between the morning meeting, the small group sessions, the read aloud, and additional media presentations, she has a significant amount of planning and preparation—non-instructional work for her—requiring a greater time commitment than lesson planning before the pandemic.

Virtual learning also imposes a technological lift for teachers. Irene—who does not consider herself a technology person—has had to learn to navigate various online platforms, edit videos, upload items to a virtual site, and use her school’s online meeting platform. Irene said some teachers—and particularly the instructional aides—struggle with the various technologies as well. She said the school spent hours training instructional aides and some teachers on digital literacy—including email. Because of this challenge, some teachers volunteered to return to in-person instruction, and others resigned.

Another challenge was connecting with families who did not answer phone calls or respond to text or email messages. Without access to the school’s online family communication app, these families would miss communications from the school. These new digital learning and communications tools have, for a variety of reasons, proven to be uniquely difficult to access for families who do not speak English at home. Indeed, pandemic learning also deepened problems that EL families faced before the pandemic. Irene said that her students—most of whom are ELs—do come to her virtual classes, but there are a few who only show up occasionally. Irene said that some students do not have their own workspace, and thus have a difficult time finding a quiet space to connect with virtual learning.

When I spoke to Irene, her school had just started hybrid learning—a blend of virtual and in-person learning. The in-person kindergarten class typically would have ten students—at most—and because of this shift to in-person as well as virtual instruction, Irene’s already full instruction and planning load has grown even more.

Michael Bacon, the director of Portland (Oregon) Public Schools’ DLI programs, told me that the transition to virtual models last spring was deeply challenging for the district, and that he was concerned that schools weren’t meaningfully delivering language immersion in their programs. He said that the uniqueness of the programs’ mix of students and languages limited his ability to go to an external vendor for a new, virtual curriculum, and so teachers would need to create their own, tailored to their classes. To do so, some teachers went on “special assignment” to help design these new materials. He said the district did invest in new digital tools, such as Imagine Español, Seesaw, and Canvas, to support the new curricula.

The particular challenge of the Portland Public School (PPS) system, Michael said, is that it has sixteen DLI programs, spanning five different languages: Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. The diversity of languages and programmatic structures of the models (that is, 90/10 and 50/50) create unique circumstances and learning cultures in different PPS programs, which makes the job of coordinating them for virtual learning all the more complex.

Continuing Challenges with Silver Linings

Very few kindergarteners can spend twenty minutes attentively viewing a slide presentation, so Irene’s team has been sharing resources and aligning materials to make virtual learning more developmentally friendly. She said the students are adjusting, too: when teachers use puppets in their lessons, the students use stuffed animals to do “turn and talks,” or ask questions. Irene also has students move around the house, compare objects, and do other activities that involve movement and items that students easily have on hand at home. Students love to share their toys, their new clothes, and their pets with their classmates. While these activities may not be unique to the DLI setting, they are especially important for it: student talk is particularly important for language learners because they need opportunities to practice the target language.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Michael shared that it can be difficult to create a rich language setting in a virtual DLI environment, not only in terms of instruction from the teacher, but also the sociocultural interactions for the students, formally and informally. For example, how can teachers make sure language development is happening in both languages of instruction? Should they do it through watching videos? Targeted breakout room conversations? Michael said that it’s not clear that there’s one right answer to any of these questions.

Michael worries that the youngest learners—particularly those who live in an environment where the non-English target language isn’t spoken—have a difficult time with language gains because they only get the target language through online school. He said that he is pessimistic about all students’ linguistic gains this year, so he is focusing on how to accelerate their learning when schools return to in-person instruction.

Assessing Progress

Public debate about assessment in the virtual environment is extremely active at present. For DLI programs, these decisions are particularly critical, since they rely heavily on tests to gauge and measure how students are doing in developing their second language.

In Portland, the district has used the pandemic as an opportunity to shift their programs’ approach. Michael acknowledged the importance of using data to drive instruction, but also said that he’d long worried about assessments being something that are done “to kids or to teachers,” rather for them, and so he welcomed the opportunity to try something new. Distance learning had already led PPS to cancel a cycle of testing, and the pandemic was further driving shifts in how the district’s DLI schools approached assessment. District officials, Michael said, were using the pandemic as an opportunity to shift away from traditional assessment tests to new proficiency assessment tasks, created with teachers.

One tool seeing increased use is portfolio assessments—typically, a collection of student work used to evaluate their understanding of concepts and class materials. Portfolio assessments are, perhaps paradoxically, more manageable in the distance learning environment because they do not rely on an outside assessor, as a standardized test does. For example, to ensure reliability in assessing a student’s portfolio, two teachers can more easily collaborate on scoring or rating a student’s work in a digital environment;; in cases where there is a disagreement in rating, a third teacher can review the portfolio.

The portfolio model offers teachers additional collaboration opportunities as well. This collaboration is particularly valuable to Portland’s DLI programs, which are distributed across the entire district, sharing space with English-only programs in district schools. This wide distribution means that DLI teachers often may not have grade-level colleagues in the same building. Therefore, the new portfolio assessments not only breaks up the isolation that teachers experience, but also provides teachers with the opportunity to interact with colleagues that they would not have known otherwise.

Looking Toward the Future

As more districts open and teachers go back to in-person school, the nature of instruction will shift. Schools and classrooms will open, and with warmer weather, we may see teachers outdoors with their students. That said, there are certain aspects—such as the collaborative nature of Irene’s kindergarten team, and Portland’s language teachers Zooming together across the district—that may translate into teaching practices post-pandemic. Teacher collaboration is always critical, but it is particularly important for DLI programs as they navigate multiple languages. Teachers must have the time to work with each other—both in and across languages—to ensure they are providing targeted materials and support for their students. As teaching once again shifts between distance and in-person instruction, it is important for administrators to ask themselves, do teachers of both languages have time to discuss the progress, status, and challenges with each other?

In addition, DLI programs will need to find ways to determine their students’ linguistic and academic progress during the pandemic—what did students learn, and where do they need additional instruction? This screening effort must span both languages and offer guidance to families and teachers alike on how to foster students’ bilingualism and demonstrate the inherent value of their progress in both languages. The district, school administrators, and teachers will need to evaluate and reconsider the learning technologies they relied upon during the pandemic to see which are worth retaining as schools reopen. In essence, DLI programs will need to attend carefully to the specific issues that make them unique—which will help ensure their success as the crisis winds down.

header photo: A student works on a computer at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Provo, Utah. source: George Frey/Getty Images