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What Is the Difference Between ESL and Bilingual Education?

When it comes to educating children whose first language is not English, there are two schools of thought. There is bilingual education, and then there is English as a Second Language (ESL). The difference stems from varying theories about how kids learn languages, and how this affects their learning in general, as well as their college and career prospects. Most master’s degrees for teachers teach both approaches to learning so graduates are fully prepared for a career in education. Many programs offer the students a choice of specializing in either bilingual education or ESL.

Bilingual Education Teachers Teach in Two Languages

The idea of bilingual education is to develop the child’s brain in both languages at once. The theory is that by continuing to teach in the student’s native tongue, you allow the student the opportunity to grasp complex ideas in a language he or she is familiar with rather than being hindered by the double obstacle of learning a subject such as science and dealing with a language barrier at the same time.

According to the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), bilingual education teachers use the native language of English Language Learners (ELL) for instruction. They cite the following goals:

  • Teach English
  • Improve academics
  • Help immigrants to acculturate
  • Preserve minority groups
  • Enable English speakers to learn a second language

Master’s degrees for teachers who want to work in bilingual education offer a core curriculum shared with students who are studying to become ESL teachers. Then, they diverge into specialized study for their area of concentration.

ESL Teachers Teach in English

The theories of teaching ESL are rooted in the idea that immersion is the best way to educate someone who needs to learn a new language. ESL teachers often don’t know how to speak in their students’ native tongues and quite often have a classroom full of diverse languages anyway.

That being said, the majority of ELL students in this country are Spanish speakers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of ELLs is higher in urbanized areas, especially in states like Texas, a state with one of the highest rates. Nationally, 2013-2014 data places the ELL makeup of public schools in urban areas at 14 percent.

Master’s degrees for teachers include courses designed to impart to future teachers and supervisors a solid foundation for both approaches to learning. With courses such as “Language Development and Acquisition,” each graduate learns the fundamentals for designing his or her own approach to teaching ELLs in our schools, whether it is rooted in bilingual education or English as a Second Language.

Learn more about the University of Texas of the Permian Basin online MA in Bilingual/ESL Education program.


National Association for Bilingual Education

National Center for Education Statistics: Fast Facts: English language learners

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