The Inspiring Journey of Bilingual Students
One of the most rewarding roles for educators is supporting one or more of the 4.9 million English Learners in US schools on their academic journey (Mitchell, 2020). While they speak more than 400 languages collectively, as of 2018, approximately 80% speak the following three: Spanish (75.2%), Arabic (2.7%), and Chinese (2.0%) (OELA, 2019).
First languages of English Learners
When we refer to students as “English Learners,” however, our frame of reference is what a student lacks rather than what the student brings, essentially placing a spotlight on what is considered their deficits rather than their assets. Words matter. For this reason, a new term is beginning to replace “English Learner” and other previously-used terms—Emergent Bilingual. Much more than a simple change in words, the term Emergent Bilinguals reflects not only a shift in perspective but acknowledges that students who come to school with a home language other than English are Emerging Bilinguals.
And just like all students, those who come to school speaking a language or languages other than English bring language, knowledge, skills, culture, and life experience on which to build. Also like all students, supporting Emergent Bilinguals on their journey requires building on their assets and guiding them to the college or career of their dreams. What is well supported by the research is that the most powerful way to guide Emergent Bilinguals to success is through the development of biliteracy.
Building on Emergent Bilingual students’ assets
Because “biliteracy is an achievement that rests primarily on language processing at all levels, from elemental sounds to the most overarching structures of text” (Castles et al., 2018; Seidenberg, 2017), teaching early literacy skills in the language students already know becomes the foundation on which the second language is built. The home language is, in fact, a significant educational resource for Emergent Bilinguals (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018).
According to Sparks et al. (2008), whose study examined the ability of first-language (L1) reading and spelling skills to predict later second-language (L2) reading and spelling skills, the best predictor of second-language decoding skill was a measure of first-language decoding. The best predictors of second-language spelling were first-language spelling and first-language phonological awareness. The best predictor of second-language comprehension was a measure of first-language comprehension.
The findings further suggest that even several years after students learn to read and spell their first language, word decoding, spelling, and reading comprehension skills transfer from the first language to the second language. So, research is clear that first-language reading positively affects second-language achievement in reading and spelling.
As for the relationship between first-language and second-language reading comprehension, the findings by Sparks et al. also show that first-language reading comprehension in elementary school from grades 1–5 was a significant predictor of second-language reading comprehension skill several years later in grade 10. They also point to the fact that as learners of English in the US read more difficult texts in their first language, not only do their decoding skills improve, but they enhance their vocabulary as they are exposed to increasingly difficult texts, leading to higher levels of reading and comprehension.
Focusing on Spanish and English biliteracy
For Emergent Bilinguals whose dominant language is Spanish, there is an additional way in which Spanish first-language reading contributes to second-language English reading. This is due to cognates–words in both languages that mean the same thing and are spelled in a similar manner.
For example, adquirir/demostrar and acquire/demonstrate are Spanish-English cognates. Although these examples meet both criteria, adquirir/demostrar are everyday words in Spanish, while acquire/demonstrate are academic words in English, suggesting that Spanish-speaking students may have a “cognate advantage” in comprehending English academic texts (Lubliner & Hiebert, 2011). According to Butvilofsky et al. (2017), it has been well established that bilingual approaches are the most effective approaches to teaching reading to Spanish/English-speaking children.
The research supporting the important contribution that first-language reading makes to reading English is strong. What is even stronger is the generalizable longitudinal research by Collier & Thomas (2017) conducted in 36 school districts in 16 US states, with over 7.5 million student records analyzed, following English learners (of all language backgrounds) in grades K–12.
In fact, in English achievement, Emergent Bilinguals in two-way immersion programs performed at grade level (50th NCE) by grade 5, while those in one-way immersion programs performed at grade level (50th NCE) by grade 7. Continuing the development of first-language literacy significantly influences their high achievement in English compared to students receiving little or no primary language support, as shown in the graphic below (Collier & Thomas, 2004).
English Learners' achievement by program type
Thomas & Collier, 2001-2009 (https://di.gocabe.org/get-started/research/collier-and-thomas-2/)
The research clearly shows a need to shift the way we think about our Emergent Bilinguals, and the tools and data educators use to serve them. Our mindset should evolve from pointing out gaps in knowledge or skills in English to recognizing and celebrating the knowledge and skills students have in their home language, and the ways these can be used to promote learning.
Strategies to support Emerging Bilingual students
Children come to school with a variety of language backgrounds and experiences. Renaissance recognizes this diversity and designs assessment, practice, and instruction tools to support Emergent Bilinguals at each English Language Proficiency level—whether the instruction is English-only or dual language. The following strategies highlight children with varying levels of language development as examples of students that you may have in your own classrooms. Reflect on what your students know and learn about how Renaissance can help.
We’re continually refining our products to better help teachers move from assessment to targeted instruction in ways that help all children learn best.
Assess students’ current reading level
Jim is a newcomer who attended school in Cuba. He loves learning, is an avid reader in Spanish, and was performing above expectations in school. He recently arrived in the US and just started fifth grade at his new school. He is performing at an ELP (English Language Proficiency) level 1—understanding and recognizing familiar words accompanied by pictures, photos or picture books, using familiar vocabulary. His new school provides English-only instruction, whereas his previous school provided instruction in Spanish. Jim feels more confident speaking in Spanish.
How Renaissance can help:
- Star Reading in Spanish provides educators with powerful data to identify what students know in their dominant language, and provides next steps to develop new skills.
- Intuitive Star Reading Spanish Instructional Planning reports identify the skills students are ready to work on, highlighting transferable skills.
- Build student reading knowledge and confidence with myON digital books in English and Spanish. Robust scaffolds help students build reading and writing skills, while customizable assignments and reports help teachers nurture and monitor student progress.
Take advantage of transferable skills
Nico is currently in sixth grade and is performing at ELP level 2. He’s attended four different school districts in four states. Although he receives ESL support and migrant education, his schooling has been inconsistent. He understands and reads very short, simple texts in English with concepts, words, and basic phrases, with re-reading as required. Nico is classified as a long-term English learner. His goal is to become an astronaut like his hero, Dr. José Hernández.
How Renaissance can help:
- Star Reading in English and Spanish provides the powerful data and insights that educators need to help determine what students like Nico know in both languages.
- Intuitive Star Instructional Planning Reports identify the skills students are ready to work on, highlighting transferable skills and Focus Skills.
- Strengthen students’ reading skills with myON books in English and Spanish and get actionable data to inform and support classroom instruction with intuitive myON reports.
Support early literacy in two languages
Ella was born in the US and currently is in kindergarten. She is growing up bilingual (English and Spanish) and is fully bilingual in both languages. At ELP level 3, Ella can understand and read short texts containing the highest frequency vocabulary, covering familiar topics, concepts, and content areas. Ella receives English-only instruction. Her teachers indicate that Ella would benefit from instruction specific to phonemic awareness in English.
How Renaissance can help:
- Get powerful insights into students’ early literacy skills with Star Early Literacy computer-adaptive assessments, available in English and Spanish, and Star CBM Reading.
- Star adaptive and Star CBM together (PDF) provide two valuable perspectives for a more holistic view of student performance.
- Use Lalilo to give K–2 students personalized practice with adaptive exercises in phonics, word recognition, and comprehension.
- Connect school and home with myON. Families can read to or read with their child with books in English and Spanish and support their development in both languages.
Promote growth in math/matemáticas
Martina is from a multilingual home. She attends a dual-language program and is currently in the third grade. She’s at ELP level 4 and can understand and read straightforward factual texts on subjects related to topics of interest, including content areas. Martina feels more confident speaking English, but states that she struggles in math and is not confident about her math skills.
How Renaissance can help:
- Inspire greater math growth for every learner with Star Math Assessments and Freckle.
- When used together, Star Math, available in English and Spanish, and Freckle maximize student growth and achievement, equipping educators with the data they need to monitor students’ math skill development.
- Star Math identifies the skills students are ready to learn and provides actionable next steps. Freckle is the perfect companion to Star Math in Spanish, providing a personalized, easy-to-use, and fun way to practice math skills with Spanish support. Interactive features and instant feedback ensure practice is challenging and rewarding.
Provide reading practice for your biliterate student
Sasha has been a student in the US for 3.5 years. Her dominant language is Spanish. At ELP level 5, she can understand and read approaching comparability of native English-proficient peers across topics, including grade-level content areas. Sasha is currently in the eighth grade and has been identified as gifted and talented—scoring at/above the 95th percentile on an accepted grade-level national standardized assessment or abilities test.
Sasha’s teachers encourage and guide reading practice to support her writing skills.
How Renaissance can help:
- Monitor, motivate, and manage students’ independent reading practice and watch as they become lifelong readers and learners with Accelerated Reader, which supports books in English and Spanish.
- Encourage students to read with books that are right for them—books that are appropriate based on their reading level as well as their interest level and language (English and Spanish). Use www.arbookfind.com, an interactive tool to help find the right books for every student.
- Students can also easily search for the books (English and Spanish) they want to read and take an Accelerated Reader quiz all in one place. Students will get immediate feedback and the opportunity to view their progress towards their goals.
- Use Freckle for ELA to provide students with differentiated reading and ELA skills practice. With student- and class-level insights, teachers can celebrate growth and know exactly what students are ready to learn next.
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. https://doi.org/10.1080/15348431.2016.1205987
Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19:1, 5–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100618772271
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. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0267190517000034
Garcia, O., & Kleifgen, J. (2018). Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, programs and practices for English Learners. (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Lubliner, S., & Hiebert, E.H. (2011). An analysis of English–Spanish cognates as a source of general academic language. Bilingual Research Journal, 34:1, 76–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/15235882.2011.568589
Mitchell, C. (2020, February 18). The nation's English Learner population has surged: 3 things to know. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/the-nations-english-learner-population-has-surged-3-things-to-know/2020/02
Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can't, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.
Sparks, R.L., Patton, J., Ganschow, L., Humbach, N., & Javorsky, J. (2008). Early first-language reading and spelling skills predict later second-language reading and spelling skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100:1, 162–174. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06220.127.116.11
U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Learner Acquisition. (2019). English Learners: Top Languages Spoken by English Learners (ELs) in the United States.