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Thinking beyond language: Empowering emergent bilingual learners

By Elizabeth Jiménez Salinas, Bilingual Education Advocate and Author

When I first began working as a bilingual teacher, a colleague asked me to join her parent conference as an interpreter. During the conference, my colleague told the parent that her third-grade son was performing at a first-grade level. The parent got confused and asked, “Then why isn’t he in first grade?” My colleague was perplexed by this question.

Having attended school in Costa Rica, I understood immediately and explained that globally, students are often retained in the same grade until they pass that grade level’s curriculum. So, in the US, when a student annually advances to the next grade, parents assume their child is performing on grade-level, based on their own school experience. US educators may not be aware of this difference, so part of our work is to share this information with students, their families, and our colleagues.

I begin with this story because it highlights the important distinction between language proficiency and cultural intelligence. When discussing emergent bilingual learners, it’s common to speak about these students’ English language proficiency—in fact, “ELP level” is a common acronym. In many schools, it’s far less common to hear educators discussing their own cultural intelligence, meaning their appreciation and understanding of students’ and their families’ backgrounds and language assets. As a bilingual educator, I believe that educators’ cultural intelligence is vital to supporting students’ academic success—a point I’ll explore in this blog.

Building on emergent bilingual students’ assets

When I taught first grade in California, I read aloud to my students daily after lunch. One day, I chose El zapatero y los duendes (The Shoemaker and the Elves). To elicit students’ prior knowledge, I asked, “Where do shoes come from?” Most children called out the names of local stores like Payless or K-Mart, but one student raised his hand and said that when his family lived in Mexico, his papá was a shoemaker. I invited him to come forward and share with us. José told us about the tools, materials, and shoemaking process he was familiar with. Thoroughly fascinated, I asked him how his papá figured out the size of the shoe to make. José took a piece of paper and slipped off his shoe, stood on the paper and traced around it with a pencil. What an incredible asset we had in our midst! And what a valuable lesson I learned that day.

Had José not offered to share what he knew, I would not have thought to ask, and the class would have missed an amazing learning opportunity. In this case, the life-experience asset he brought to the classroom was expertise that exceeded what even I—the teacher—knew.

In some cultures, this might be looked down upon as the student trying to out-shine the adult, and some children may be hesitant to speak up like José did. But we can still elicit these assets in other ways—provided we understand their value to student learning.

I think of assets as the valuables we own, beyond money, property, cars, etc. Learners’ assets include their name, language, family, knowledge, and life experience. An asset in mainstream US culture may not be equally appreciated in other cultures and may even be uncomfortable for some students to adopt. For example, individual accomplishment is highly valued in mainstream US culture, but in other cultures, group achievement is more highly prized. When we understand this, we can incorporate this asset into our teaching by setting up group activities and projects where students work together and contribute to the team’s success. We can also introduce the idea of competition as, for example, the whole class beating the clock rather than individual students competing against each other.

Standards: A goal or a hurdle for emergent bilingual students?

Our content standards set rigorous grade-level expectations for all—in English. If these are challenging for students who are native English speakers, how much more so for children who are acquiring English?

Dr. Jim Cummins (2008) tells us that it takes 5–7 years to learn a new language, and often longer if the learner has had little formal education and begins after their elementary school years. During this time, they are expected to catch up to peers in English, to annually meet a set of rigorous grade-level standards in English, to complete homework in English, and to read on grade level in English. Even when emergent bilingual students arrive in US schools in pre-K or kindergarten, data and teacher observations have shown that large percentages of these students take far longer than 5–7 years to become Fluent English Proficient. Instead, they become Long-Term English Learners (LTEL).

Why does this happen? Some students become “stuck” at intermediate-level English proficiency for several years, have low scores on standardized tests, and receive low grades. Curiously, they may be quite proficient in conversational English, attend school regularly, and even want to go to college, despite having a low GPA. Thankfully, there are steps we can take to prevent students from becoming LTELs.

In gathering data—including interviews and secondary classroom visits—for the 2010 research study “Reparable Harm” led by Dr. Laurie Olsen, we found that many LTEL students were passive in class. They didn’t raise their hands when the teacher asked a question. When working on group activities, they would frequently listen to others in the group without saying anything, or would answer with “That’s what I was going to say…”

Some well-meaning teachers try to engage LTEL students by using “equity sticks,” which are popsicle sticks with students’ names written on them. Rather than having students raise their hands, the teacher asks a question and then randomly draws a stick. Unfortunately, when called upon, LTEL students tend to not respond, or to say they don’t know, or to be afraid that other students will make fun of them. This passive response is then reinforced when the teacher moves on to another student or simply provides the answer, eliminating any motivation to engage.

LTEL students quickly learn in the early grades that passivity works. It’s a learned behavior, not a cultural characteristic. This is why Think/Pair/Share activities, group discussions, and the use of white boards by all students to show their responses are far more productive than calling on students individually. Students learn that they are all going to have to answer, but not necessarily with the spotlight focused on them.

Using emergent bilinguals’ home language

Another great piece of news is that the research is clear and undisputed regarding dual-language instruction (see, for example, Collier & Thomas, 2004; Collier & Thomas, 2017; and Butvilofsky et al., 2017). Students who learn in both their home language and in English, in a planned, designed program such as dual-language immersion, achieve outstanding results in English acquisition and content learning, as well as in their home language. Then why do so many schools in the US employ an English-only approach that forces students to struggle and to fall further behind, and their home language to atrophy?

One of the reasons is that educators are held accountable for their school’s progress based on annual summative tests…in English. The flawed logic follows that if the tests are administered in English, instruction should be English-only. But we know from years of research that what is learned in one language transfers to the new language—what Cummins (2008) calls Common Underlying Proficiency. So, an English-only system is endorsing inefficiency and stressing learners by not utilizing the asset of the language they already understand.

I’m reminded of Albert Einstein’s remark that when he moved to the US, he only had to learn English. He didn’t have to relearn physics—just the English vocabulary for the concepts he already knew.

Teachers don’t need to be able to speak every student’s language, but the more they can learn about the language and how it both differs from and is similar to English, the more they can help students make important connections. Providing resources in the student’s home language for them to read and listen to in order to reinforce their understanding of content—and having parents or older children regularly read aloud to them—are an incredible use of the assets they bring and actually bolsters their English reading comprehension.

Doing the math—and promoting educational equity

One of the questions I hear most often is, “Why does it take so long for these students to learn English?” Remember, emergent bilinguals’ focus is two-fold: learning English and also learning new content. In my projection below, I compare the amount of English input between emergent bilinguals and native English speakers as a strong rationale for using dual languages in education:

In the first five years of life, children average about 12 waking hours per day where they are potentially receiving home language input. I multiplied this by 365 days per year. At 5 years old, children enter kindergarten with over 20,000 hours of language foundation.

  • If the home language is English, that’s over 20,000 hours of English exposure when entering kindergarten.
  • If the home language is not English, that’s potentially very few hours of English exposure before entering kindergarten, but a large amount of rich home language input. For schools to simply set aside this 20,000-hour family language investment makes no sense. By ignoring this asset, a huge language disparity gap is created.

As shown in the chart, this gap continues to widen. Each school year, native English speakers receive up to 14 waking hours of exposure to English each day, between school, home, sports, clubs, and time spent online.

Emergent bilinguals, who now attend school 180 days per year, receive about 6 hours per day of English input. Some students may also get exposure to English at home and in other venues, but the school hours are assured. This results in the following comparison:

  • 6 hours per day x 180 school days per year = 1,080 hours of English annually for emergent bilinguals
  • 14 hours per day x 365 days per year = 5,110 hours of English annually for native speakers

The disparity grows annually. Some observers might suggest that emergent bilinguals and their families need to immediately switch to English-only at home. This is culturally offensive and deeply damaging, for the reasons I’ve noted. Instead, schools should work to better address these students’ needs by:

  • Offering L1 instruction, resources, and supports
  • Uncovering and utilizing students’ cultural assets
  • Replacing learned passivity with interactivity— empowering all students to be confident, self-directed learners

Resources to support emergent bilingual learners

Following is a list of free resources that I regularly recommend to educators:

Colorín Colorado is a well-known bilingual website offering resources to both educators and families. This includes an overview of bilingual and dual-language education, tips for creating a welcoming classroom, family outreach strategies, and more.

The Steinhardt Center at New York University provides bilingual glossaries in more than 25 languages. Unite for Literacy offers online access to nonfiction books written in English, with read-aloud provided in English, Spanish, and other languages. Story Online features videos of well-known actors reading children’s books in English. Each video includes an accompanying teacher’s guide with discussion questions and suggested classroom activities.

The Internet TESL Journal hosts a wide variety of quizzes, activities, and puzzles for emergent bilingual students of all levels. Learn American English Online and the British Council’s LearnEnglish Teens provide helpful activities, videos, and lessons aimed at middle and high school students.

Finally, Californians Together hosts a variety of helpful publications, including the “Reparable Harm” research study I mentioned earlier.

Discover how Star Assessments, myON, Accelerated Reader, and other Renaissance solutions will help you to better understand and build on your emergent bilingual students’ assets this school year.

References

Butvilofsky, S., Hopewell, S., Escamilla, K., & Sparrow, W. (2017). Shifting deficit paradigms of Latino emerging bilingual students’ literacy achievement: Documenting biliterate trajectories. Journal of Latinos and Education, 16:2, 85–97.
Collier, V.P., & Thomas, W.P. (2004). The astounding effectiveness of dual language education for all. NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 2:1, 1–20.
Collier, V.P., & Thomas, W.P. (2017). Validating the power of bilingual schooling: Thirty-two years of large-scale, longitudinal research. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 37, 203–217.
Cummins, J. (2008). Teaching for transfer: Challenging the two solitudes assumption in bilingual education. In: Cummins, J., and Hornberger, N., eds. Encyclopedia of language and education: Vol. 5. Bilingual education. New York: Springer, 65–75.
Olsen, L. (2010). Reparable harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for California’s long term English Learners. Retrieved from: https://californianstogether.org/publications-2/#LTEL

About the author

Elizabeth Jiménez Salinas is a pioneer in bilingual education and a tireless advocate for emergent bilingual students, with projects such as launching the Seal of Biliteracy in California and Hawaii. She has authored several Spanish-language children’s books, as well as handbooks for teachers and English Learner support materials for more than 25 K–12 textbooks. In addition to her experience as a bilingual educator, she served as Legislative Aide to California Assembly Member Peter Chacón, working on ground-breaking legislation for emergent bilinguals. She holds a master’s degree from Claremont Graduate University and currently works in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii. She started her own consulting firm, GEMAS, in 2000. The word GEMAS means “gems” in Spanish and is made up of the initials of her five children.

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