Why Focus on Monolingual Solutions to Improve Biliterate Reading?

    Alexandra Guilamo argues that dual language programs need professional learning to implement the science of the bilingual reading brain in their classrooms

    Most dual language programs across the country have felt the increased focus and attention on the teaching of reading. What should the learning environment look like in classrooms that put the science into practice? How should teachers allocate instructional minutes to reflect the science? What instructional resources and practices should be considered if the science is to shape how all students are granted access to reading instruction with evidence of yielding results? The increased focus has been a long-overdue conversation with huge implications and potential for all stakeholders. However, many conversations aimed at answering these questions are still largely dominated by monolingual stakeholders and centered on research on monolingual reading and monolingual readers. This begs another question—if at the core of dual language programming is the need for equity and access to an educational approach that helps students succeed in becoming bilingual, biliterate, and academically successful in two languages, then why are so many schools focusing on monolingual systems and solutions to improve bilingual and biliterate reading results?

    I choose to believe that proponents of the science of the monolingual reading brain have overgeneralized the findings to include dual language and emergent bilingual students out of the best of intentions. After all, we do need a shared definition of effective teaching and learning of reading across classrooms. However, this shared definition must reflect a deep understanding of the science of the bilingual reading brain that matches the distinct student populations, program models, and languages found in our classrooms. Unfortunately, many dual language teachers are asked to work from a monolingual definition as they build a monolingual understanding of research that has been conducted with monolingual readers through district-wide professional learning with the idea that they will simply implement what is learned in two languages. But ensuring dual-language students are successful in becoming biliterate readers, writers, and thinkers is much more complex than teaching reading in the same monolingual way in two languages. What’s more is that teaching reading in the same way in two languages but with the same number of instructional minutes is not even mathematically possible. Dual language and emergent bilingual programs need bilingual and biliterate reading solutions with systems designed to account for the range of factors needed for those solutions to work within these complex spaces.

    Dual language and emergent bilingual teachers and leaders need the opportunity, time, and dedicated attention to develop their own deep understanding of the science of the bilingual reading brain if they are to achieve biliterate reading goals. To build this understanding and capacity, most of the dual language schools with whom we partner provide their stakeholders from the cabinet to the classroom with focused professional learning around the science of the bilingual reading brain. This foundational learning is vital to shifting teacher practice and ensuring that the science of the bilingual reading brain lives in the classroom. However, these “one and done” professional development opportunities rarely create systematic and lasting change or improvement. Instead of relying on just this stand-alone professional learning, many of our dual language partnerships heed the words of Robert Collier, who said that “success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Effectively designed coaching cycles that reflect an understanding of the science of the bilingual reading brain are one way schools are supporting dual language teachers in their day-to-day effort to shift their practice.

    Dual language teachers can deepen their understanding of the “sum of small efforts” using the evidence of biliterate reading results. These efforts center on holistically examining bilingual and biliterate progress by using authentic student work, day in and day out, during team meetings. Although team meetings are often left out of the conversation, these widely used practices hold the key to how schools can account for the range of factors needed for dual language teachers to use curricula, plan instruction, and respond to data within and across languages in ways that reflect the science of the bilingual reading brain.

    For many of our school partners, the protocol “Looking at Dual Language and Emergent Bilingual Student Work” (Guilamo, Dual Language Data Framework®, 2022) is a natural place to begin this day-to-day effort needed to build a deep understanding of the science of the bilingual reading brain. Why? Well, the protocol itself stems from and leads teams to the science of what gives dual language and emergent bilingual students a biliterate reading advantage. It does so by asking teams to regularly examine student work throughout the year using three distinct lenses, or sorts. The first lens is focused on learning. The second shifts teams’ attention to access to and opportunity for that learning. The third empowers teams to engage in a close examination of how students use language as they communicate their learning, and the implication of those language choices on more responsive instructional decisions that teachers must make.

    The first lens focuses on who is learning. When we partner with schools around this holistic examination of student work, we often must take a step back. To examine or know who is learning, teams must first be clear on what it is that students must learn. When teams understand what dual language and emergent bilingual students must learn at different stages of their biliterate reading trajectories, powerful shifts are possible. What we find is that teams begin to understand just how important things like transfer and cross-linguistic connections are through this first lens. At times, this aha moment happens when teams notice that both partner language teachers are supposed to teach the same priority learning standard to mastery, so students are learning it in both languages. These teams inevitably find themselves trying to understand why students would need to learn one-to-one correspondence, how to ask and answer questions, or how to form and make meaning of compound words twice. At other times, the first lens brings teams to their own sense of urgency to find a solution for how to plan for students to transfer their learning when the sequence for learning in each language lives in isolation.

    Using the same student work, teams then shift their attention to the second lens—the lens of access and opportunity. Through this second sort teams examine how the approach or strategies selected to teach the priority learning reflect the evidence of what is needed to provide dual language and emergent bilingual students with every advantage and opportunity to learn it. This is where the science of the bilingual reading brain truly comes to life. Fundamentally, teams must look at the patterns of learning from sort one to determine the extent to which the instructional approach or strategy helped all students be successful in that learning. For many of the teams we coach, it is through the second sort that they begin to understand exactly whom the science of the monolingual reading brain is serving. Often, this realization happens when teams repeatedly see that emergent bilingual and dual language student work is being identified as “not learning yet.” Even teams that begin by responding to this pattern with monolingual approaches and strategies eventually start to explore other methods and evidence of what will work to change that pattern. But they only get there when student work is regularly examined throughout the year as an essential part of the team structure itself. When this happens, this second lens urges and “appeal[s] to… [team members’] sense of how to think about these things within the context of what you do” (García, p. 4) in dual language and emergent bilingual spaces. It is the lens that opens the door to the systematic integration and planning of practices that support the oracy, transfer, and metalinguistic awareness needed for dual language students to truly become biliterate readers, writers, and thinkers.

    While the second lens ensures that the science of the bilingual reading brain is used to shape evidence-based practices and approaches, it is the third lens that creates a true biliterate reading advantage for each dual language and emergent bilingual student. The third lens empowers teacher teams to take a closer look at student work for the sole purpose of learning from students’ language choices about how to best respond to them. For me, it is the lens of examining still at work that I find to be magical. I say this because it is through the third lens that teams of teachers begin to see the undeniable truth of what the science has been trying to tell us. Becoming bilingual and biliterate “is a lot more complex than just two languages… [and the] language practices, in which all bilinguals are engaged, are completely interconnected” (García, p. 4). It is during this stage of examining student work that teachers put their asset-based lenses to the test. When I work with schools, we must often have frank conversations about what we have typically labeled as errors. These so-called errors are identified during the third sort to understand them better. In doing so, what most teams find is that what we typically call errors are not errors at all. Rather, they are approximations of spelling patterns, word choices, grammatical rules, and discourse features that can be explained by how each of these things works in the partner language. It is fascinating to watch the collaboration between partner language teachers and English dual language or monolingual teachers as they work together to identify and understand the spelling or grammar approximations found in student work that can be explained by how English (as an orthographic, morphologic, or language system) works.

    And it is equally captivating to observe the curiosity and awe of monolingual teachers as they work alongside dual language teachers to identify and understand the spelling or grammar approximations found in student work that can be explained by how Spanish, Arabic, Haitian-Creole, and so on operate as well. It is through this third lens of examining student work that teams begin to internalize that the vast majority of what we call errors in decoding and encoding are simply the inconvenient ways that our language system is always whispering to our reading mind.

    Teams are empowered by developing this deeper understanding of how the language choices students make not only reflect their language development but also offer insight into the reading skills that have been solidified. This depth of understanding provides teams with more accurate and specific details of the precise instructional path that is needed in the moment. It is the kind of responsiveness to learning partnered with systematic biliterate reading instruction that our dual language and emergent bilingual students need us to provide.
    The science of monolingual reading and dual language programs share an important goal of working to create greater equity for students who have not been allowed access to evidence-based instruction. Yet using a one-size-fits-all solution for what that will look like in the classroom was never intended. In fact, and quite ironically, for many dual language programs, this monolingual-fits-all solution and approach is producing greater inequities. But this does not need to be the reality. This reality is already shifting for those program providers willing to listen to all the science needed to give students a bilingual and biliterate reading advantage and to adapt the systems designed to ensure that advantage is realized.

    Alexandra Guilamo is a dual language expert, author, keynote speaker, and chief equity and achievement officer at TaJu Educational Solutions (a company dedicated to professional development, coaching, and technical support for DL and bilingual programs). Visit www.tajulearning.com or follow Alexandra @TajuLearning on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.