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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Students learning bilingually: investigating learning experiences and personal outcomes

Janet Beck
Assistant Principal, Richmond West Primary School

Richmond West Primary School in Melbourne operates bilingual programs in English/Mandarin Chinese and English/Vietnamese. The programs support and encourage children in the development of Chinese or Vietnamese as a first language, as well as English as a second language, while also offering a strong start to second language learning for students from English-speaking backgrounds. The programs have been the subject of two articles in The Age newspaper, and bilingual classes have been observed by overseas delegations organised by Victoria's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD).

Earlier this year Richmond West initiated an evaluation of bilingual education at the school, with support from DEECD's Research Grants to Schools program.

Richmond West Primary School

Richmond West Primary School is located in a public housing estate in inner-eastern Melbourne. The school caters for students from a wide variety of cultural and economic backgrounds, although most are considered to be economically and socially disadvantaged. As of 2008 there were 162 students enrolled: 86% of the students are from families of LOTE-speaking backgrounds and 68% of families are eligible to receive the EMA. The predominant ethnic groups are Chinese, East Timorese and Vietnamese. Since 2005 a small number of students from north Africa have been enrolled.

The school's 2008 NAPLAN test data shows very strong results at both Year 3 and Year 5 across all tested areas. Teacher judgements against VELS showed that at Years 5 and 6 the school's means were equal to, or above, the Victorian average in all three areas of English – Reading, Writing and Speaking & Listening (in each of the P–4 years, the number of students assessed was too small to constitute a valid cohort for comparative purposes).

The bilingual program

Bilingual education has been a feature of Richmond West for more than 20 years, in various forms. As well as catering to students who speak Chinese or Vietnamese as a first language, the bilingual programs have begun to attract a number of students from English-speaking backgrounds living in other suburbs.

The school currently uses a dual-strand bilingual education program in Chinese-English and Vietnamese-English. The English/Chinese bilingual program operates in Years P–4 and the English/Vietnamese program in Years P–2. The children are fully immersed in each language for half the week throughout the school year. Both bilingual programs are taken by fully trained teachers who speak Chinese or Vietnamese as a first language. They are supported by specific Chinese and Vietnamese language software available on the computers in the bilingual program classrooms.

In the later grades, Chinese and Vietnamese are taught as community languages for two hours per week, but the school plans to extend the Chinese bilingual program to Years 5 and 6 in 2010.

Evaluation of the program

The evaluation sought to identify the educational and personal outcomes for students participating in the programs, and give staff a richer picture of their impact. The evaluation explored students' use of language, their self-perceived levels of proficiency in each of the languages of instruction, and students' beliefs about the benefits and challenges of learning bilingually. Students' levels of academic achievement, across all languages of instruction, were analysed alongside this evidence.

Evidence was collected through questionnaire and group interview data from students, student classroom writing samples, and student achievement data. All students with at least three years' experience of the schools' bilingual programs were invited to participate, approximately 50 in all; 30 volunteered to take part and had parental permission to do so. At the time of the study they were in Years 3–6.

The school engaged University of Melbourne academic Dr Paul Molyneux to conduct the research. Dr Molyneux's involvement linked to a broader research project he was conducting at schools offering bilingual education for linguistically and culturally diverse student populations. A collaborative approach to the collection and analysis of the data characterised the project, with the school leadership team, bilingual program staff and University of Melbourne staff all playing significant roles at different stages.


The research results underscored the way that bilingual learning is heavily embedded in students' out-of-school lives. These students inhabit highly multilingual life worlds where the language and literacy skills they develop at school are put to use in family, friendship and community contexts. Linguistic choices, code switching, transfer and interpreting are part of both their in-school and out-of-school lives. The following table reports on the types of literacy-related practices for which students reported using English and the languages other than English that they learn in the school's bilingual program.

Student use of multilingual literacies

Literacy practice

Percentage of students reporting two or more languages for this literacy practice

Watching TV/DVDs


Talking on the phone


Independent writing


Talking with friends


Computer use


Independent reading


Talking with parents


Listening to music




Talking with siblings


Doing number work


Students were found to hold very positive views about language learning at Richmond West. In general, they perceived their abilities in English to be stronger than in Vietnamese or Chinese, but across the dimensions of speaking, listening, reading and writing, students expressed confidence and pride in their developing bilingual skills and levels of proficiency. In terms of listening/understanding, speaking, reading and writing, the vast majority of students perceived themselves as able to do either most things or everything they wanted to in both languages of instruction.

Bilingually educated students at Richmond West were able to articulate a number of benefits in learning two languages, related to family and social communications, future education and current studies. All of the students said they believed learning two languages helped rather than hindered learning; 86.7% stated that bilingual learning has made them more interested in learning additional languages. 

The academic achievement of students participating in the survey was examined through an analysis of their VELS and NAPLAN results. The analysis indicated that their achievements in language learning have not come at the expense of English-language development.

Teachers identified benefits from team planning, and the analysis of students' language and literacy through writing sample analysis across the three languages of instruction enabled teachers to better understand the aspects of written language the students had control over, or needed to develop further. The school's bilingual teachers also identified opportunities for more explicit teaching and modelling of particular structures and features within each language.

Importantly, the research highlighted the students' strongly bilingual, biliterate self-identities. It demonstrated that learning bilingually can enhance outcomes for students of all social and economic family backgrounds including those identified among the most disadvantaged in Victorian schools, and it has provided an insight into how to equip students to be global citizens in the future.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Language and languages
Languages other than English (LOTE)
English language teaching
English as an additional language
Socially disadvantaged