Supporting the native language of English language learners
In recent months, a number of states have enacted changes in policy to bolster their support for the native languages of English language learners in their schools. These states are embracing the benefits of additive bilingualism. In its most robust form, additive bilingualism refers to an active policy of a school to provide core curricular instruction in the student’s native language, as well as teaching the student English. In the end, English and the native language receive some balanced level of use in core curricular instruction. To be clear, the efforts of these states do not reach that far into additive bilingualism. Instead, a weaker, yet important, form of additive bilingualism permeates these policy shifts in New York, California, and Minnesota. Let me explain.
In New York, the State Education Department recently released its Blueprint for English Language Learners Success. The blueprint’s main purpose lies in documenting how the state plans to include the needs of English language learners in its implementation of the Common Core. As the document reports, the state requires that “every teacher be prepared to teach academic language and challenging content to all students, including ELLs.” The principles laid out account for this goal across many dimensions, including support for the languages and cultures of all students. One of the eight primary principles directly takes on additive bilingualism: “Districts and schools recognize that bilingualism and biliteracy are assets, and provide opportunities for all students to earn a Seal of Biliteracy upon obtaining a high school diploma.” The New York plan involves an emphasis on providing bilingual programs in schools, leaning toward that more robust concept of additive bilingualism. The Seal of Biliteracy embodies this commitment, as it allows students from any native language background to document their proficiency in two (or more!) languages at high school graduation; students graduate with that bilingual ability recognized and endorsed directly on their diploma.
Since fall 2013, the California Department of Education has produced and delivered its implementation plan for the California English Language Development (ELD) Standards. While the standards have been on the books since 2012, this implementation plan moves the state forward formally in its adherence to the standards. As part of the implementation plan, the Department of Education produced online training materials to instruct teachers in California about the ELD standards. California maintains bilingual and dual-immersion programs in various districts as an option for some learners to maintain and strengthen the native language resources they bring to school. One of the key findings which informed the development of the standards stated that effective instructional practices “value and build on home language and culture and other forms of prior knowledge.” While not calling out additive bilingualism as prominently as New York does in its new blueprint, the theoretical framework of the California ELD Standards does importantly note that “research evidence indicates that EL [English learner] students in programs where biliteracy is the goal and where bilingual instruction is sustained demonstrate stronger literacy performance in English, with the added metalinguistic and metacognitive benefits of bilingualism.” The new implementation plan aims to take these findings and help teachers across the state apply them in a range of classroom environments.
Finally, a recent overhaul of the approach to English language learner instruction in Minnesota strongly emphasizes additive bilingualism. During its 2014 legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature enacted the Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success Act (LEAPS Act). The LEAPS Act provides a comprehensive set of changes to existing statutes, elevating consideration of the needs of English language learners in the everyday planning and working of school districts in the state. One provision establishes bilingual and multilingual seals to recognize language proficiency on state diplomas, similar to the system in place in New York. Where literacy goals are tracked for students, the bill would add native language literacy alongside English literacy and would encourage districts to use reading strategies which build native language literacy in conjunction with English literacy. The law emphasizes the benefits of leveraging students’ cultural connections in enacting intervention strategies for individual learners. This law also comprehensively adjusts dozens of other provisions of Minnesota law to simultaneously strengthen programs for English language learners and strengthen support for the native language resources of these emerging bilingual citizens of the state.
While not unique across the country, the policies in these states step up to honor the native languages and cultures of English language learners to varying degrees. These policies recognize the multiple, powerful benefits of bilingualism for English language learners in terms of culture, self-identity, and economic advantage. They acknowledge that, while not every school may have the resources or curricular space to actively develop the home languages of their English language learners, an important initial step rests in encouraging, honoring, and supporting the efforts of students, parents, and communities to build on the language resources these children bring to school each day.
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