Schools Need to Improve Student Outcomes, Bilingual Programs Can Help

Every teacher lives for that moment when they see a student or former student succeed. They get to know they played a small role in that smile, pride, and accomplishment. What horrifies us is seeing evidence we’re making a difference in a negative way. It happens. And when it does, we need to take stock of why and how to address the problem.

Take Fredy for instance. He was in Sarah Tilton’s third grade class. A bright eight-year-old, Fredy was a bilingual, biliterate third-grader who could hold perfect conversations in English and Spanish. He was also a proficient reader and writer. But when they spoke about five years after he left Sarah’s classroom, Fredy struggled to—or was less willing to—engage in Spanish. He shared that he hadn’t read a Spanish book in years, much less done any writing for school or otherwise. Fredy came through the doors of his neighborhood public school bilingual and grew to be biliterate. But on the current trajectory, by his senior year of high school, he will likely leave our school system monolingual. What a loss.

And consider Ariana’s story. Ariana was an English learner whom Sarah Webb worked with for four years. She was quiet in class but had great insights if you could draw them out. Ariana spoke Spanish at home and had been in English-only schools since kindergarten. Her English was still not considered “proficient” by state testing standards, although she also wasn’t developing any academic Spanish skills or Spanish words for the content she was learning in school. By middle school Ariana was having trouble communicating with her mother, who spoke almost exclusively Spanish. This created an obstacle for getting help with homework and having the many conversations teens need to have with parents.

This disturbing phenomenon we witnessed in Fredy and Ariana is called subtractive bilingualism, in which learning a new language comes at the expense of a home language. Subtractive bilingualism is alive in our school systems, and it has only been exacerbated by the pressure placed on educators due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Now more than ever, we need to support and celebrate students’ home languages as a strategy for supporting multilingual learners.

A key solution lies in bilingual, or dual-language, programs, which have been shown to be effective for learning English and in areas from cross-cultural competency to cognitive flexibility. Students in bilingual programs consistently outpace other students in reading achievement in both languages, according to an important study. The researchers also found that dual-language students have better attendance rates, lower discipline referrals, and higher graduation rates. Fortunately, 38 states, including Colorado, 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. Denver Public Schools is doing more than most. The district leads the way with initiatives to foster native language instruction for Spanish-speaking students all the way through high school. Denver also has systems to support a successful pathway to the Seal of Biliteracy. Still, while Denver provides language materials for certain classrooms, the quality of available resources in Spanish is far less than what is available in English. The need for Spanish/English bilingual resources is going to continue growing as more dual language schools are being created across the city. Trying to retrofit curriculum from an old model is not going to work.

Multilingual classrooms also require new approaches to family involvement. Schools can respect multilingual families by providing guidance about how to develop foundational literacy skills and other knowledge in the home language. This greatly supports future learning in English as well.

All of our students deserve an education that helps them grow, but not at the expense of what they already know and can do. Bilingual learning is an approach everyone should get behind. It will require investments in teaching and learning and a shift in mindsets. But by embracing the rich cultural and linguistic backgrounds children bring with them when they enter school, rather than asking them to leave it at the door, we will be better preparing them for success in school and beyond.

Sarah Tilton is a bilingual reading intervention teacher at Trevista at Horace Mann 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.

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