How can educators ensure that emerging bilingual students are well served in their schools, and how can we as educators foster linguistic diversity as an asset rather than as a problem?
Who Are Emergent Bilinguals?
As of fall 2018, 10.2% of public school students in the US were identified as English language learners (ELLs), double the number recorded in 2003.1 At 75%, the majority of ELLs have Spanish as their home language, followed by Arabic and Chinese, which make up 2.7% and 2% of total ELL students respectively. Other languages commonly spoken by ELLs are Vietnamese, Somali, Russian, Portuguese, Haitian, Haitian Creole, and Hmong (out of the over 400 languages spoken by students in the US). By 2025, 25% of K–12 students are projected to have a first language other than English.
I use the term emergent bilingual to refer to students typically categorized as “ELLs” to acknowledge that they are more than their ability to use English. The term was coined in 2008 by Dr. Ofelia García in an effort to bring focus to the unique linguistic potential of students who are learning English as a second language at school, rather than defining them by something they may lack. Learning and accessing more than one language is a strength, so using this terminology helps me take actions based on this reality.
Emergent bilingual students bring with them the potential to develop high metalinguistic awareness (the ability to consciously think about language) and communication, memory, decision-making, and analytical skills. And these students are bicultural as well as bilingual. They come from a variety of cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities and may be exposed to perspectives and traditions different from the dominant culture. Their cultural experiences are a gift, not just to them but also to those around them.
While English is now established as the dominant language in the US, North America has always been a place of linguistic and cultural diversity. As such, a path toward educational equity must include both effective English instruction and respect for and celebration of the beautifully diverse home languages and cultures represented among our student populations.
Despite North America’s linguistic diversity, the US has a long history of systemic discrimination against speakers of languages other than English, including and especially in the education sphere. This discrimination is fueled by racist and xenophobic ideas and an insistence on emphasizing English for what are presented as pragmatic or patriotic reasons.
Federal, state, and local governments have taken an active role in erasing minority languages in favor of English, beginning with the intentional eradication of many Indigenous languages through coerced English-only boarding schools starting as early as the 17th century. Language policies and norms have been used since then to privilege one group over others and to exert social, intellectual, and economic control. Enslaved Africans were isolated from their native languages; later, non-English European languages faced discrimination until the mid-20th century; meanwhile, Indigenous languages and the languages of the increasing number of immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were considered inferior, and speakers of those languages were (and many still are) pressured to assimilate. Even now, racist and xenophobic ideologies cause people to organize against the use of languages like Spanish in the US and to antagonize people who use their home language.
Clearly, for students to navigate US society, it is important for them to learn English. But it is also important to understand that the disruption of children’s learning and love of their home languages often means weakening their ties to their families, communities, and cultural identities, and that this disruption has been built into our education system deliberately. Forcing linguistic assimilation causes more than a loss of language skills; it shakes the foundations of students’ sense of belonging and self-worth, both crucial to being ready to learn at school. In the case of many Indigenous languages, it is also a matter of the survival of the language and its unique features and ways of thinking.
Instead of forcing assimilation, we should be supporting emergent bilingual students in their learning using research-based, empathetic, and respectful methods that uphold students’ language rights.10 Fortunately, there have been some positive policy developments to this effect, especially following the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The 1968 Bilingual Education Act, which granted federal funding to school districts wanting to establish programs for students with limited English proficiency, was the first instance of the US government officially acknowledging the need for non-English-speaking students to receive specialized support.11 Another example is the San Francisco court case Lau v. Nichols, in which Lau argued that students of Chinese ancestry did not have equal access to the English language instruction required for academic success in an English-language classroom.12 The district federal court ruled that California school districts with federal funding must provide English language instruction to all non-English-speaking students. However, with the rise of English-only movements in the 1990s, efforts to secure bilingual education in the US have not often been successful, and many emergent bilingual students remain reliant on a monolingual model of education.
Benefits of Multicultural Education
Why is it so important for us to be aware of who our emergent bilinguals are and what they bring to the classroom? In order to better prepare our young people for the increasing diversity that they will encounter both inside and outside of their classrooms, it is paramount that we cultivate educational environments within which culturally responsive instruction is incorporated at all levels of learning and a greater sense of multicultural awareness and inclusion is actively being fostered to address the individual, unique needs of every student.
In many ways, the core of a multicultural education is to promote mutual respect among diverse individuals in the classroom. We can do this first by taking time to get to know our students and giving them a safe space to be themselves. This requires clear, consistent communication with students throughout the course of the year with regard to what it means to be culturally sensitive and inclusive of all cultures, beliefs, and languages. We must also take conscious steps to include diversity in classroom lessons. Teaching diversity exposes students to various cultural norms and social groups, preparing them to become better citizens in their communities by increasing their capacity for empathy, understanding of lessons and people, openness to new ideas, feelings of confidence and safety, and ability to flourish in a diverse workplace in the future (Drexel University School of Education, n.d.).
The idea here is to be present for our students in such a way that they can learn to be present not only for themselves but also for one another.
Supporting Emergent Bilingual Literacy
Reading is the foundation for all future learning—the ability to read transforms lives and empowers children and communities to reach their full potential. Research shows that students who read at grade level by fourth grade have a greater opportunity to succeed in school and beyond. This is particularly true for emergent bilingual students, who, as a group, statistically appear to be trailing behind non-emergent-bilingual students. This gap has much larger implications when taking into consideration how those without high school diplomas will, on average, experience both lower wages and higher unemployment rates than those with diplomas. These gaps have lasting impacts on minority and immigrant-background communities, from reduced family earnings to poorer health and increased incarceration rates (Sugarman, 2019). An analysis done by the Education Week Research Center found that emergent bilinguals are largely underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, despite some studies suggesting that children who grow up bilingual have greater cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills than monolingual children (Sparks and Harwin, 2017).
What, then, are some ways in which we can better support the early literacy skills of our emergent bilingual students in the classroom, while also taking into consideration the assets that they already have?
First, as educators and leaders in education, we can reflect upon the ways in which linguistic discrimination may show up for students. We can’t start a journey of transformation without acknowledging where we currently stand. Second, we can acknowledge that we may not be able to transform overnight. We must have grace with ourselves and others and make a consistent effort to apply more inclusive practices for the benefit of all our students, and particularly our emerging bilinguals.
Now, more tangibly, instruction of foundational literacy skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) should be adapted to better suit the needs of our emergent bilingual learners. For example, when supporting students with building up their early phonological awareness skills in English, we can make modifications to our approach by allowing time for more practice with sounds that could potentially cause some confusion due to their nonexistence in or perceived similarity to another sound in their native languages.
Phonics instruction itself should also always be explicit and systematic and should provide the student with exposure to appealing reading materials in varied genres—including texts in which the student can identify with and relate to the characters and narratives (Irujo, 2016). At Reading Partners, we have made it a priority to ensure that the books in our curriculum and the books we send home with our students reflect and celebrate diversity and empower students who see themselves represented in the books they read.
Moving on into reading fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and comprehension (which is the ultimate goal of literacy instruction), we should be prepared to think about how all these elements come together to support one another and focus on practices that may need modification to better fit the needs of our emergent bilingual readers.
One such practice would be asking students to read aloud to increase their reading fluency. Since emergent bilinguals may be self-conscious about their oratory language, it is a good idea to instead replace repeated readings (in which a student reads the same passage aloud multiple times) with a choral reading (where the student reads aloud together with the teacher or another student) or an echo read (when the student reads the same passage aloud after the teacher or another student reads it) to increase their confidence and not discourage the student from trying.
Keep in mind that reading speed, accuracy, and expression will reflect the reader’s speaking fluency in the target language. In addition, we should be cognizant that vocabulary can be particularly difficult for emergent bilinguals, even for quite proficient learners, and can affect both their reading fluency and their comprehension of a text. Emergent bilinguals need more vocabulary instruction, different vocabulary teaching techniques for instruction, and different vocabulary words than their native-speaking peers (Irujo, 2016).
For a country with a checkered history of language suppression and English assimilation, it’s high time we recognize emergent bilingualism for what it truly is—a superpower, if only we as a society are willing to value and cultivate it.
Drexel University School of Education. (n.d.). “The Importance of Diversity and Cultural Awareness in the Classroom.” https://drexel.edu/soe/resources/student-teaching/advice/importance-of-cultural-diversity-in-classroom
Irujo, S. (2016). “What Does Research Tell Us about Teaching Reading to ELLs?” Reading Rockets. www.readingrockets.org/article/what-does-research-tell-us-about-teaching-reading-english-language-learners
Rosetta Stone Education. (2020). “Emergent Bilinguals Are the Future.” www.lexialearning.com/sites/default/files/RSE_Migration_Assets/emergent-bilingual-white-paper-final.pdf
Sparks, S. D., and Harwin, A. (2017). “Too Few ELL Students Land in Gifted Classes.” Education Week.
Sugarman, J. (2019). “The Unintended Consequences for English Learners of Using the Four-Year Graduation Rate for School Accountability.” Migration Policy Institute.
Adeola Whitney is CEO of national early literacy nonprofit Reading Partners.