Tag Archives: dual language learners

Building Connection and Boosting Achievement: The Role of Language Immersion Schools

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Too many Americans are missing out on the benefits of multilingualism. While roughly half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, only 20% of Americans can speak a language other than English fluently. Of that 20%, more than half were born outside of the U.S. American students rarely gain foreign language fluency in public schools, as opposed to Europe, where dual- or multi-language learning is embedded in primary education. Language learning at a young age has been proven to promote language retention into adulthood and provide a host of other social and academic benefits. As part of the 1% of American students who gained fluency in a new language through school, I can directly attest to its lifelong benefits. 

From kindergarten through fifth grade, I attended a French-immersion public magnet school. At language immersion schools, students are expected to speak exclusively in a given language while learning all of the standard subjects that would be taught at a typical American school. I learned science, math, history, and art just like any other student, but in French. We began supplementary English classes in the second grade to learn grammar and spelling, but our main curriculum was rooted in French. Although I had no prior exposure to French before kindergarten, by the time I reached third grade I was fluent. 

Since leaving a French-speaking environment in elementary school, my ability to speak French fluently has diminished slightly, but the experience has continued to benefit me in my academic and professional pursuits. In high school, I took Spanish for my required language classes and found it to be very similar to learning French. Picking up on the similarities between the two languages allowed me to excel at Spanish and speak the language with greater confidence. However, I’ve noticed that even today, my French retention is stronger. I believe this is largely due to learning the language at a younger age. 

Socially, I’ve used French to build relationships with native French speakers that wouldn’t be possible if I only spoke English. I think of my current neighbor, who is originally from Morocco and spent time living in France, who instantly lit up when he found out that I could speak in a language more familiar to him. Or the French-speaking high school exchange student I hosted from Mali, who felt more comfortable learning English with me knowing she could ask for translation support. The level of connection I’ve been privileged to experience with others has helped me learn about different cultures and expand my worldview ​​— an opportunity all Americans should be afforded.

Professionally, I’ve been able to apply my language skills in translation services. I once interned at a crisis center in Charlotte, North Carolina that received clients from all over the county. We had clients who immigrated to the U.S. from French-speaking countries and spoke little English. Out of a staff of more than 30 employees, I was the only one who could translate and communicate with them. In public service, multilingual staff can help connect non-native English speakers to necessary resources. 

As the immigrant population continues to grow in the U.S., more employers are placing greater value on bilingualism as a preferred skill. In fact, workers in the U.S. with fluency in more than one language tend to earn more on average. Learning another language as early as possible sets students on a trajectory for greater earning potential and aligns with workforce needs. 

The popularity of language immersion schools has increased significantly over the last few decades, yet there are not nearly enough schools to meet demand. Many native and non-native English-speaking families are seeking language immersion programs because of their positive effects on student academic performance. Studies have shown that elementary school students in language immersion programs tend to have higher math test scores and demonstrate similar levels of proficiency in English Language Arts as non-immersion students. Language immersion schools have also been effective at closing achievement gaps, with Black and Latino students performing on par with — or often outperforming — their white peers.

Language is a source of connection that far too many Americans take for granted. I was lucky to attend one of more than 337 language immersion elementary schools in the U.S., an opportunity that every family should have. Learning French has opened new worlds and exposed me to a variety of cultures and people. Language immersion schools are a necessary tool to produce more well-rounded global thinkers that can communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds.

Given the academic, social, and professional benefits of being bilingual, language immersion schools should be a priority for K-12 school districts in the U.S.

Saidah Rahman completed an internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on education policy. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Four Latina Education Leaders on Better Serving Dual Language Learners and Families

leana Ortiz, a New Orleans parent advocate with EdNavigator, talks about ensuring that dual language families are recognized and included: When I think about the families I serve in my community, these families have risked everything. They’ve crossed oceans, they’ve been detained, they’ve experienced things that are really tragic and traumatic, and a big reason why is to try and give their families and their kids a shot at a better life. And they believe that comes with education. I get pretty fiery when I feel like I’m not seeing that honored by teachers or by schools. Sometimes when I’m talking to teachers and schools about offering translated materials, it sounds like I’m asking for something extra. But it’s not something extra.

There are almost 60 million Latinos in the U.S., and Latino children make up almost a quarter of the children in our country — and our schools. Still, “media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns.”

Hispanic Heritage Month, ending today, is an opportunity to elevate stories of resilience and identify opportunities to positively engage Latino communities. Bellwether is taking a look at language access and the ways our schools either engage or fail to engage bilingual families. Dual language learners (DLLs), children under the age of 8 who have at least one parent who speaks a language other than English, represent a fast-growing group of students in the United States, and the most prevalent language spoken by this group is Spanish. 

But our education system is failing these children in both our approach and attitude. Many of our education policies are oriented toward remedying “deficits” in English, instead of embracing  bilingualism as an asset that leads towards multicultural perspectives, advanced learning, and national enrichment. This deficit-based approach contributes to academic disparities between DLLs and monolingual students that are evident as early as kindergarten. When educational settings devalue DLLs’ strengths, families of dual language learners can feel unwelcome.   

In the course of researching our new report, Language Counts: Supporting Early Math Development for Dual Language Learners, we spoke to parents and advocates to understand why it’s important to shift from a deficit- to an asset-based model of engagement with dual language learners. 

These conversations elevate the voices of those who are too often an afterthought when creating education policy and serve as a reminder that every child and every parent, regardless of their English proficiency, deserves equal access to the support they need to succeed.  Continue reading

How ESSA Title III Could Encourage Improvements for Dual Language Learners

English learners from ages 0-8, also called dual language learners (DLLs), are a growing population of students who face daunting achievement and graduation gaps. New guidance out recently from the Department of Education highlights some opportunities for pre-k through third grade system improvements for DLLs under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), specifically around how school districts may spend their funds for Title III. Title III provides approximately $760 million to states to improve instruction for English learners and immigrant students. These funds could be used to create better systems for DLLs if school districts partner with early childhood education (ECE) providers to take up some of the options in the new law and run with them.

  • Include pre-k teachers in professional development: First, ESSA specifically encourages states and districts to include preschool teachers in professional development on improving teaching skills for DLLs. This includes school-based ECE teachers, as well as Head Start teachers and community-based providers. Simply getting elementary school teachers and community-based ECE teachers in the same room is unusual, doing so while addressing the diverse needs of DLL students could be could be a big step forward.
  • Support effective language instruction across ECE: The guidance encourages school districts to make preschool language instruction part of their overall language instruction strategy, and this doesn’t only apply to on-site classrooms: school districts may sub-grant some of their Title III funds to support DLL instruction in ECE settings. While schools are rarely thrilled to give away funds, early action to support DLLs will yield dividends once those students transition into elementary schools.
  • Engage families early: ESSA adds a new Title III spending requirement: parent and family engagement. Families are young children’s most important resource for language learning and healthy development, as was reaffirmed in a joint policy statement on DLL family engagement earlier this year. Under ESSA, Title III family engagement is not limited to K-12 schools; school districts can use Title III funds to support DLL family engagement in ECE settings, and the guidance gives examples of how Title III can be used to support broader family engagement efforts.  
  • Share data effectively with ECE providers to inform improvement: School districts are required to share data and coordinate activities on DLL instruction with local Head Start agencies and other ECE providers, on topics such as standards, curricula, instruction, and assessments. The requirements on what data to share and what activities to coordinate aren’t very specific, but the aim is to create “a feedback loop that informs the improvement of programs and supports,” for DLLs. If this is done well, ECE providers could see how their DLL students are doing in elementary school, and open lines of communication could help schools and ECE providers both improve.

This is all a lot to accomplish with a limited pool of Title III funds — 71% of Title III school districts found funding for DLLs to be a moderate or major challenge according to a national evaluation published in 2012. But, with smart coordination, combining funding from other grant programs and funding streams, and improved relationships between schools and ECE providers, ESSA Title III requirements could be the nudge some school systems need to take action towards building better pre-k through third grade systems for DLLs and all young students.