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A UC3M research study analyzes the impact of bilingual elementary school programs


Students in bilingual elementary school programs achieve, on average, worse academic results in those subjects taught in English than those students who study all subjects in Spanish. This is one of the main conclusions of a study carried out by researchers from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) in collaboration with the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and the University College of London.

Los alumnos de educación bilingüe en Primaria presentan peores resultados, según un estudio de la UC3M

Bilingual education programs, in which a substantial part of the teaching is done in a language different from the mother tongue and from the language of the students’ surroundings, have been fully established for years in countries such as India, Spain and the United States. In order to analyze the effects of these programs, these researchers evaluated the program that the Autonomous Community of Madrid introduced in a group of public primary schools in 2004.

“We have found a negative effect on the level of competence and knowledge displayed by the students who have followed this bilingual program in those subjects that were taught in English,” states one of the researchers, Jesús Carro, of the UC3M Department of Mathematics. The study, which was recently published in the journal Economic Inquiry, uses data from the test of essential knowledge administered by the Community of Madrid when students complete their elementary education.

“These students and teachers are making an additional effort because they have to teach and learn the subjects in a language that is not theirs. They have to spend more time and make a greater effort to learn English, which can affect their learning of the specific material taught in subjects such as Science, History and Geography,” the researchers explain. Another consideration is that these students take the official exams in Spanish, given that the same test is administered to all the students in the Community of Madrid. “The results are still relevant, because as they progress through the Spanish educational system these students are going to be evaluated in Spanish, and they need to not only have certain knowledge, but to be able to express that knowledge in this language.”

The Parents’ Educational Level

This negative result is more pronounced in those students whose parents have a lower level of education, while the difference is hardly noticeable in students whose parents have a higher level of studies. “We can establish a number of hypotheses with the regard to the reasons behind this, such as that they receive more help at home, they have greater resources, they are more exposed to situations where other languages are used or that are linguistically richer,” comments Jesús Carro. “Because the negative effect is so localized in a specific group of students, it would be easy to establish a tutoring program to solve the problem,” he suggests. Moreover, he points out that none of the students in the bilingual program obtain worse results in the area of reading comprehension in Spanish.

This evaluation only refers to the bilingual program that has been carried out in public schools. “Over the years, a program that is similar to those employed in private charter schools has been implemented, but the results of this study cannot be extrapolated to those schools because it is not clear that they have the same level of teachers prepared to implement the program,” the professor states.

There are several important questions to examine, according to the researchers. The first is to find out what has happened to these students in the following stages of their education. “It’s possible that the negative effect that we have detected will disappear at that point, because in secondary school, the students have a higher level of English,” says Carro, who also proposes another topic to be analyzed:  find out what other factors can influence the program’s results, such a the importance of the teachers’ level of English. “This is relevant both in terms of finding out if that could improve the test results, as well as in terms of getting a better idea of what might be happening with the program in the years following the ones we are analyzing. Over the years, the program has expanded a great deal, and very quickly, in both public schools and charter schools, but it is not so clear that the same number of teachers who are prepared to implement the program are available now as there were during the first years the program was established in public schools. Nobody has studied this, as far as I know,” the professor concludes.  


Carro, JM. Cabrales, A. Anghel, B. (2016). Evaluating a bilingual education program in Spain: the impact beyond foreign language learning. Economic Inquiry. Vol. 54, No. 2, April 2016, 1202–1223. DOI:10.1111/ecin.12305.

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