Why biliteracy programs are needed more than ever

Bilingual programs have been shown to be effective in a number of ways, not just for learning English but in areas from cross-cultural competency to cognitive flexibility.
By: and | February 17, 2021
Sarah Webb (left) is the Senior Curriculum Designer for Multilingual Learners in Humanities at Great Minds. Sarah Tilton is a bilingual reading intervention teacher in Denver Public Schools.

Sarah Webb (left) is the Senior Curriculum Designer for Multilingual Learners in Humanities at Great Minds. Sarah Tilton is a bilingual reading intervention teacher in Denver Public Schools.

When schools closed last spring, educators and policymakers worried about what this would mean for multilingual learners, and their concerns are still very real. English learners make up 10 percent of the national student population, with many more students being fully bilingual, meaning they’re proficient in English and another language. In addition to a lack of equitable resources, such as digital tools, multilingual families often face a language barrier that exacerbates every challenge inherent to remote learning.

Now more than ever, it’s time to embrace the plurality of languages in US schools, and how they affect our students and their families. The concept of biliteracy means that students develop language and literacy skills in two languages, usually English and the home language. For 75 percent of English learners in the United States, that home language is Spanish. English-only programs have been proven ineffective while bilingual programs have helped language learners outpace their monolingual peers.

Fortunately, 38 states and the District of Columbia have adopted Seal of Biliteracy initiatives that recognize students who graduate with literacy in two languages. However, the number of programs providing students a workable pathway toward getting to this goal is still far too small. And in a 2016-17 survey, the most recent available, 15 fifteen states reported their schools had no dual-language programs. Instead, as the “English learner” label suggests, the current focus generally remains on helping these students learn English, often to the detriment of the home language and their overall educational opportunities. The graduation rate among English learners is 67 percent, well below the 85 percent rate for non-ELs.

Bilingual programs have been shown to be effective in a number of ways, not just for learning English but in areas from cross-cultural competency to cognitive flexibility. Students in bilingual programs consistently outpace other students in reading achievement in both languages. Longitudinal data also show that Black students, historically underserved by U.S. schools, perform at higher levels when participating in dual-language programs. This same study shows that dual-language students have higher better attendance rates, lower discipline referrals, and higher graduation rates.

Multilingual learners also have unique social-emotional needs. Pandemic closures in schools and communities have left people feeling isolated. Many multilingual students already experience this feeling in schools where their home languages are not valued. Language is intrinsically tied to culture and identity, and this loss of language leads to an internal conflict for students, a lack of engagement in school, and a barrier to communication with one’s own family. Promoting English as the “correct” or “academic” language reinforces racist ideas. A focus on biliteracy would help raise students’ self-esteem and a sense of belonging in a country that is wrestling with issues of race, identity, and longstanding injustices.

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The pandemic has turned a spotlight on the importance of family involvement in education. With so many adults now at home during the day and more involved in their children’s learning than ever, the pandemic offers an opportunity to embrace multilingualism in the classroom and at home. For example, educators can help families by:

  • Using digital resources to provide materials in different languages so that students can build knowledge in home language(s), which will support all their future learning.
  • Making communications with families a priority so parents and guardians know what topics children are learning and what questions or activities they can do at home to help with this development. For example, a summary of main ideas from a science unit along with discussion questions translated into the home language would be a tech-free way to promote language- and knowledge-building at home.
  • For younger students, providing information to families about how to develop foundational literacy skills in their native language.

While schools should prioritize giving multilingual students targeted in-person or small group instruction, they also should provide students with clear guidance on how to use the wealth of resources they have at home. This is a turning point for our country. Embracing biliteracy improves opportunities for all students, especially our multilingual students who are in danger of falling farther behind their monolingual peers.

Sarah Tilton is a bilingual reading intervention teacher in Denver Public Schools.

Sarah Webb is the Senior Curriculum Designer for Multilingual Learners in Humanities at Great Minds, the developer of the Wit & Wisdom English language arts curriculum, Eureka Math, and PhD Science. Before joining Great Minds, she was an English learner teacher and instructional coach in Dayton, Ohio.