Have you heard the term "additive bilingualism" before? Even if it's not familiar, chances are you can figure out the meaning. In additive bilingual programs, students are encouraged to build their literacy in two (or theoretically more) languages. Students learn content in both languages. For English Language Learners, the goal is fluency in both the student's native language and English. Some additive bilingual programs are run as dual-language programs starting in kindergarten with the idea that children will gain fluency at a young age.

The reverse, unsurprisingly, is "subtractive bilingualism," where a new language replaces a student's native language, and no instruction is offered in the native language. This is the theory that underlies much "English-only" and "immersion" instruction, though some programs do include additive elements.

Many researchers argue that additive bilingual programs produce stronger student language acquisition and growth. The classic "Threshold Theory" argues that there must be certain thresholds of language proficiency reached in order for students to experience the cognitive benefits of bilingualism (Cummins, 2001). If a student develops their first language to the point of linguistic proficiency, then they are able to transfer much of that ability to their new language. This form of positive transfer, researchers find, includes such major literacy skills as phonological awareness, reading decoding and comprehension, spelling, and writing (Melzi, 2009). For those students who have attained that threshold of first language proficiency, the transfer is beneficial to their linguistic development in both languages and gains a higher sociocultural value.

Politically, bilingual education programs are controversial in some areas. However, a recent article by Natalie Gross for The Atlantic reported the rise of dual-language programs intended to promote additive bilingualism.


Such programs are growing in popularity all across the country. In 2000, then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley called for the number of dual-language programs in the U.S. to grow from an estimated 260 to 1,000 by 2005. The federal Education Department was unable to provide an exact number of such programs operating in schools today, but according to a 2011 article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it’s estimated that the number has reached 2,000.


A joint U.S. Department of Education-American Institutes for Research report shows 39 states and Washington, D.C., offered dual-language education during the 2012-13 school year, with Spanish and Chinese programs cited as the most common.

Gross's article can be found here. Though political questions remain, it looks hopeful that more schools are recognizing the importance of dual-language. Our concern, however, must be to ensure that such attitudes toward bilingualism are also applied to English Language Learners.

There are, of course, challenges to running an ELL program through an additive lens. For one, it requires instruction, content, and/or resources in native languages. However, even just altering the way we talk about bilingualism and ELL toward an additive lens is a good first step.

Bilingualism is an asset, and the more we are able to structure our programs and schools toward additive bilingualism, the better we will serve our students.



Cummins, J. (2001). Language, power, and pedagogy:  bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Gross, N. (2016, August 4). The new bilingualism. The Atlantic. Retrived from http://www.theatlantic.com/

Melzi, G. (2009). Language and literacy in the school years. The development of language   (7th ed., pp. 391-435). Boston: Pearson.

Wilson, D.M. (2011) Dual language programs on the rise. Harvard Education Letter, 27(2). Retrieved from http://hepg.org/

US Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition, (2015) Dual language education programs: Current state policies and practices. Washington, D.C.

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