What is an emergent bilingual?
Emergent bilinguals, who are often referred to as English Language Learners (ELLs) or English Learners (ELs), are students who are continuing to develop their home language while also learning an additional language. The term “emergent bilingual” is intended as a positive description of these students, in that it emphasizes that they’re learning in two languages, and that both the home language and new language are of value.
Why this change in terminology?
In the US, we’ve traditionally looked at emergent bilinguals through the lens of deficits, focusing on what they don’t know, what they can’t understand, etc. This is reinforced by terms like “English Language Learner” or—worse—“Limited English Proficiency” (LEP), which is an overly negative way to describe these students.
Rather than placing the emphasis on gaps and deficits, it’s more productive to take an asset-based approach that focuses on what these students know and can do in both languages—and how we can then build on this. The term “emergent bilingual” signifies this important change in perspective.
Is this approach supported by research?
Taking an asset-based approach to language teaching is not a new idea. For example, Fred Genesee (2017) has pointed out that the home language is the most valuable resource that emergent bilinguals bring to the classroom. Similarly, García, Kleifgen, and Falchi (2008) have argued that ignoring emergent bilinguals’ home language perpetuates inequalities in education, discounts their cultural knowledge and understanding, and incorrectly assumes that they have the same needs as monolingual learners.
In 2017, a longitudinal study by Thomas and Collier—which reviewed 32 years of student performance data—further validated these findings. Students in bilingual and dual-language programs had the strongest reading skills in English, while students in English-only programs had significantly lower performance. This shows that strong second-language literacy is dependent upon strong first-language literacy.
To sum up: In order to achieve equity in education, emergent bilinguals must have the opportunity to show what they know and are ready to learn in the context of literacy acquisition in their home language and in English.
How does Renaissance support emergent bilinguals?
Our Star Assessments are available in English and Spanish to support assessment and instruction in both languages.
The English-language versions of Star are built on detailed learning progressions for reading and math, which list the skills across grades K–12 that students must master for college and career readiness. Our progressions are available for all fifty states plus Washington DC, to ensure the progression of skills matches the sequence and organization of each state’s learning standards.
In August 2020, we became the first K–12 assessment company to release an authentic learning progression for Spanish. La progresión de la lectura de Renaissance shows you how reading develops in Spanish across grade levels and domains. When you assess emergent bilinguals in both Spanish and English with Star, you receive detailed instructional planning information in each language—so you can see the next best steps to move learning forward for every student.