Linda Egnatz is impassioned by the expanding reach and motivating power of the Seal of Biliteracy
When someone in the language learning field asks, “What is the Seal of Biliteracy?” I might honestly respond, “It’s the ANSWER to your problem.” The simple act of providing a credential for language skills verified through outside testing can meet the following language program needs and so much more:
- Provide educators with positive reasons to retool with proficiency-based instructional strategies
- Heighten the intrinsic motivation of language learners
- Grow a motivated learner’s language proficiency at a measurably faster rate
- Increase upper level retention
- Create opportunities for learners to set their own goals and to create department benchmarks
- Help employers quickly recognize a job candidate’s added value
- Provide administration with reasons to fund testing to measure benchmarks and outcomes
- Create the data needed to evaluate and redesign curriculum, assessments
- Garner parent and community support for language programs when learners are celebrated
- Inform placement counselors and administrators about language acquisition
- Use press coverage to promote the benefits of language study
- Win further favor when recipients receive scholarships and advance college credit
Created in California by Californians Together1 under the leadership of Shelly Spiegel-Coleman to serve as a retention tool for Hispanic students, the Seal of Biliteracy (https://sealofbiliteracy.org) was next adopted in New York by gubernatorial Executive Order in 2012 to recognize students graduating from high school with a high level of proficiency in English and another language. For me, a high school Spanish teacher, it was the motivation tool I needed for students to grow their own language skills. In my role as the Vice-President of the Illinois Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ICTFL), I testified on its behalf, and in 2013 the Illinois legislature unanimously passed a State Seal of Biliteracy. With the support of Velázquez Press2, 33 states and the District of Colombia now have a state seal, commendation, or endorsement to recognize those graduating from public schools with language skills in two or more languages. Advocates in other states have begun legislative efforts or are working with a state Department of Education to provide students with a similar award. While the requirements vary from state to state, the opportunity to maximize the power of the seal is universal.
Establishing a Seal of Biliteracy program truly has a profound effect on a language program. It holds the power to create life-changing opportunities for so many learners. Unfortunately, Seal programs are not mandated and it is up to language advocates to promote its adoption in their local districts. Additionally, state Seal programs are generally only available to public schools, which leaves many language learners without equal access to the recognition. For that reason, Avant Assessment chose to launch the Global Seal of Biliteracy program to include those in private, charter, independent, parochial, international, home-school, or community college programs, as well as those already in the workforce. An independent Board of Advisors (https://www.globalsealofbiliteracy.net/our-story/) made up of experts in the language learning and assessment field was created to identify the list of tests that will be used to meet the standards for earning the award. The Global Seal meets or exceeds the language proficiency criteria of the states and offers two levels of certification to recognize a broad range of speakers at Intermediate-Mid and Advanced-Low. Uniquely, it also serves individuals who want to certify their language skills to expand employment options as well as employers who want to credential language skills for hiring or pay differential purposes.
The goal of language study is to communicate with someone with whom you might otherwise not interact. The outcome should be a level of language fluency that is useful to the language speaker. A primary goal of the Global Seal is to connect the world of the workplace with people who have acquired skills to do various types of work in another language or languages. “Fluency” is used to describe the language of the workplace. Based on research, a user needs to have at least “functional fluency” at the Intermediate-Mid level to begin to use language in the workplace. This is one reason that the ACTFL/NABE/NCSSFL/TESOL Committee (of which I was a member) recommended in its Guidelines for Implementing the Seal of Biliteracy that, “the minimum target level should be Intermediate Mid.” The Seal of Biliteracy becomes a positive incentive for individuals to increase their proficiency level to achieve personal outcome GOALS. A language program supporting those goals will design a pathway to reach the Seal with benchmarks at each year or level.
A “learner-focused” pathway can be a language program’s most powerful retention tool. For most recipients, a Seal of Biliteracy or the language level it represents will earn advanced placement, college credit or scholarships; potentially saving them thousands of tuition dollars and class time. It can also be the pathway to a job where the Seal recipient’s language skills will provide additional income. (See research on the value of a second language at https://www.globalsealofbiliteracy.net/biligualism-research.) Advanced placement allows awardees to add a language minor or study abroad opportunity to other coursework. This information is popular with parents, administration and, if you have an AP program, counselors.
When stakeholders are informed early on about the pathway, they will plan for four years of language study instead of two. In my district, AP enrollment doubled, and third year enrollment increased 30% across all languages. Learners are motivated to extend language study in order to receive the award, but intrinsic motivation for language acquisition grows as success is realized and potential Seal candidates become #2bilit2quit.
The Seal of Biliteracy is also a powerful coaching tool. Educators can connect even the simplest lesson to it. A teacher might say, “Today we are describing _. You will likely have a similar task when you test for the Seal of Biliteracy.” Think of the game metaphor, the Seal is the Super Bowl or the championship. It is hard work, but if students know the game plan (the pathway), watch game footage (reflect on past assessments) and make adjustments in practice (formative feedback) they will make progress. Learners, and their parents, look for ways to set themselves apart as they complete college, scholarship or job applications, and certified bilingual skills make a distinguishing credential.
I live by the motto, “Celebrate what you want to Duplicate.” Seal of Biliteracy award ceremonies raise awareness about language learning but are also very emotional. There are jaw-dropping moments for monolingual parents when they hear their students speaking the languages they study with ease and confidence on stage. Tears stream down the proud faces of ELL parents when they hear heritage languages recognized and see the challenges they have overcome in learning English honored. Share these moments.
Add photos, personal anecdotes, total dollar value of scholarships received and invite the local news media. The value of language learning will grow in esteem in both the community and the school district when real faces realize real rewards.
There is now truly a Seal of Biliteracy for all. Whichever Seal you choose, create an intentional plan to maximize its power to transform, not just your language program, but the lives of its future recipients.
Linda Egnatz is executive director of the Global Seal of Biliteracy.
1/ Californians Together is a statewide coalition of parents, teachers, education advocates and civil rights groups committed to improving policy and practice for educating English learners. It is a non-profit organization that mobilizes communities to protect and promote the rights of 1.3 million English learners (25% of California students K-12). Californians Together has served for 13 years as a statewide voice on behalf of language minority students in California public schools. For five years, Californians Together has been working with school districts statewide to develop and implement the Seal of Biliteracy. www.californianstogether.org
2/ Velázquez Press sponsors schools and districts by providing seals and award medals for Seal of Biliteracy graduates. Many bilingual students drop out of school because they don’t see the tangible benefits of academic achievement. The goal is to help students recognize that being biliterate is an asset and to provide motivation for them to succeed in school.
Another important objective is to connect bilingual students with potential employers. Being biliterate can often translate into tangible employment benefits. Many employers take language abilities into consideration when hiring and may offer a stipend or “differential pay” for employees who speak more than one language. After receiving the Seal of Biliteracy, recipients are invited to register through our site so that their award can be verified with potential employers.
Linda Egnatz, executive director of the Global Seal of Biliteracy, is a Nationally Board Certified Spanish teacher at Lincoln-Way West High School in Frankfort, IL. She is a Past President of the Illinois Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ICTFL). Egnatz is a 2013 Golden Apple Teacher Fellow and was the 2014 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year.