Words matter. Bilingualism and multilingualism are superpowers. But the US education system has not always had that view. Traditionally, not speaking English has been seen as a deficit, and accented English has been considered imperfect English. This approach has made emergent bilinguals and multilingual students less confident and has reinforced stereotypes that lead to inequality. There is a rich cultural background to every student’s heritage, including the languages they speak. We must elevate and honor these students because they hold the superpower of bilingualism.
Today, most state policies refer to students with a first language other than English as English learners or English language learners, while ten, including Texas, use some form of limited English proficient students (LEP). At first glance, these labels may seem neutral and plainly descriptive; however, a closer inspection reveals that these terms are deficit-based—that is, they define students by the knowledge they lack rather than the strengths and abilities they bring into the classroom.
Such terms can affect how we understand students and their potential. They can cause us to give English more legitimacy and power than a student’s first language. Additionally, because of the language used to define students, many may see them as a needy, expensive-to-educate, monolithic group rather than as diverse students who bring enriching resources and assets to the classroom. We can shift our view and the words we use because words matter. These students are working toward something to be celebrated—becoming bilingual.
How do we foster bilinguals or multilinguals in the US education system? We first honor their cultures, heritage languages, and all the rich life experiences they bring. Then, we get them talking. The only way to learn a language is to speak it, but in our classrooms, teachers are speaking the majority of the day. We must give our emergent bilingual students more opportunities to speak academic English— perhaps an online program that allows them to converse in English with characters that look and sound just like them.
When non-English speakers can engage with characters and voices that look and sound like them, it becomes a meaningful learning experience. And when we use relevant pedagogy, we can advocate for teaching that not only reflects but sustains their culture. Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) wrote about the materials students read as mirrors and windows— learning from the lives of other people and their experiences.1 All students deserve to develop language proficiency as readers and writers so they can encounter stories that represent them and share their own stories.
How Representation Changes the Learning Process
Lexia English was developed to encourage students to learn English by developing characters as peers, like friends they want to get to know and interact with. The authenticity of accents and experiences was a deliberate choice—all of the characters in the program are emergent bilinguals. The program’s content writers were emergent bilinguals and rarely saw characters who looked and sounded like them in books, TV shows, or movies as they grew up, and the program represents all they wish they’d had when growing up in the US education system.
Each character in the program has a biography that tells where the character comes from, where they live now, their home language, and who their parents and siblings are. As the students move through the program, these facts about each character are uncovered. For example, Sarika’s family is from India, where they speak Punjabi. Sarika was born in India and now lives in Smethwick, England. Rami’s family is from Lebanon and speaks Arabic at home. Rami was born in the US and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Juan’s family is from Mexico, and although he was born in the US, his family speaks Spanish at home.
Being authentic is essential when representing our students’ cultures and languages. All of the voice actors who voiced the characters speak the first language of each character, so accents reflect how students speak. Bringing to life characters from the same country with the same language and the same accent is so relatable to students that it increases engagement. We wanted to ensure that students saw themselves and heard themselves as they developed academic oral language. A peer speaking English with their accent provides comfort to students, and the message is, no matter how you speak English, your English is perfect, exactly how it is today.
Expanding Support for New English Speakers
As the number of emergent bilingual students continues to increase nationwide, educators and district administrators need smarter ways to ensure better academic outcomes for every learner. This means providing teachers, emergent bilinguals, and multilingual learners with the tools they need for success. Our program incorporates culturally responsive pedagogies that support individualized learning paths for each learner and creates an environment that includes and values all students, because words matter.
1. Bishop, R. S. (1990). “Windows and Mirrors: Children’s books and parallel cultures.” California State University Reading Conference, 14th Annual Conference Proceedings (pp. 3–12).
Kristie Shelley, MEd, is the senior director of emergent bilingual curriculum at Lexia and co-creator of Lexia English, a program that honors its emergent bilinguals by creating a welcoming and diverse experience to practice academic English.
Dr. José A. Viana is a former assistant deputy secretary in the Office of English Language Acquisition at the Department of Education and is a senior advisor at Lexia.