LISTENING TO OUR STUDENTS: PRO-BILINGUAL EDUCATION

While LEP (limited English proficiency) students who lack bilingual programs struggle, native English speakers also miss out. Our students can help repackage and win this decades-long debate, putting the pro-monolingual attitude behind us. 

Katherine O’Keeffe-Swank, Spanish Teacher, Wickliffe High School with Emily Krizner, AP Spanish student

There is no better time than now to promote the undeniable benefits of increasing Bilingual Education programs in public schools: it’s the fifth anniversary of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and the U.S. Department of Education is holding its ongoing Equity Summit Series. 

Not to mention…the pandemic has accentuated the need.

Yes, we’re preaching to a choir of World Language teachers who passionately and tirelessly convince their students and communities of the benefits of multilingualism, every single day. But are we perhaps going about it the wrong way? How could our own students help us deliver our pro-multilingualism message more effectively? 

It became crystal clear during the pandemic that historically underserved students experienced a greater disparity in educational opportunities and achievement. “As we recover from this pandemic, it’s on all of us to ensure we don’t return to the same broken systems of the past, but build better than before,” said Dr. Jill Biden in June, referring to the inequity in schools specifically for ELL students and other minorities.

My student Emily Krizner couldn’t agree more. Emily surprised me last year by mentioning her research paper for an English CCP class, titled “Bilingual Education.” She shared a copy, and I had no idea she felt so strongly about bilingual education. I naturally wondered how many of our students and their parents in the district might agree with her. Emily, a senior at Wickliffe High School (Northeastern Ohio), who is also an AP-Spanish student this year, strongly believes the spotlight on educational reform should be placed on funding more Bilingual Education programs throughout the United States. When we used her CCP paper for a small translation project for Spanish-IV, it became clear to me that we need to listen to our native English-speaking students on this important issue to tap into this important resource.

Emily touts the benefits of bilingual education for all students by simply making schools more equitable for LEP and ELL students. From a native English speaker’s perspective, Emily wishes those benefits could have also been afforded to her and her classmates at a much earlier age. As a senior, though, she is hopeful this will be an opportunity given to future generations in her city and throughout Ohio. This is why we’re sharing her stance with the superintendent and board of education while our school district is in the process of reimagining our entire curriculum and switching over to a one-building campus. We’re also sharing it here, to inspire others to include their students’ perspectives when considering bilingual education.

Emily’s voice is surely one of many that are not being heard. Are we, as second-language teachers, inadvertently underestimating the power of our students’ voices? How can they help us to more aggressively and effectively argue for bilingual education programs becoming the norm in our state and in the country? 

I argue that it needs to be done through the voices of those like Emily. She knows that to be competitive in the current and future job market, U.S. students will need to know multiple languages. Period. Let’s help them make those changes by repackaging and reselling the decades-long argument of world language teachers—starting with Ohio. The students want to learn more and sooner.

Below are excerpts from Emily’s research paper: Bilingual Education.

Entering a new school, a new grade level, or even a new class can be daunting for students. Imagine entering a new school, grade level or class and not being able to speak fluently or understand the language. Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students face that challenge in monolingual schools across the country. Bilingual education is a solution to that problem. It can make the transition into a new language, and for some students, a new country, easier. 

Bilingual education programs have several benefits for LEP students. LEP students who enter predominantly and totally English speaking schools can experience confidence issues about whether or not they will do well academically. In the 1990s, the average Hispanic dropout rate was three times the national average. The National Association of Social Workers says that there are five major issues that can inhibit positive performance in schools. These issues are: family problems, low confidence, high rates of absenteeism, bad behavior/acting out in school and low performance. Successful bilingual education programs have proven to reduce dropout rates and boost self esteem among LEP students. 

Many LEP students in the United States do not speak English at home, which could pose a challenge when their academic instruction is given completely in English. Students of all grade levels face various challenges and fears, from difficult content to fitting in with their peers. That fear is amplified in students who are experiencing those same difficulties that English-speaking students experience, but while simultaneously learning a new language. Bilingual education programs have proven to be an asset for LEP students by helping them succeed in aspects of their life other than academics. 

Native English speakers can benefit from bilingual education programs as well. The majority of people around the world speak two or more languages. Bilingualism and multilingualism have proven to have many cognitive benefits including better information processing skills, better attention span and better vocabulary skills. There has also been research that shows bilingualism could help or even prevent decreasing cognitive function related to aging—some studies showing that being bilingual can reduce the risk of age-related Alzeimer’s disease. A study done in Oregon that measured students’ reading skills, comparing students in bilingual classrooms to those in monolingual classrooms, showed that the students in bilingual classrooms had reading levels one year ahead of the students in monolingual classrooms. 

People who are able to speak more than one language as opposed to people who are monolingual also have an advantage in their professional lives. A study done in California in the early 2010s showed that employers prefer employees who are bilingual or multilingual. 

One of the best ways to understand and be able to speak a language more fluently is through constant exposure to it. Through bilingual education programs in schools, students in grades K-12 would hear another language and eventually begin to learn it themselves. Research has even shown that students who are taught in two languages have seen improved literacy abilities in their first language, as well as in a second language. As a person gets older, it becomes increasingly more difficult for them to learn a new language. Bilingual education could introduce English-speaking students to a second language at an earlier age, making it easier for them to learn and understand another language, while also being extremely beneficial for LEP students. 

Bilingual education can also provide students with many societal benefits by embracing different cultures. This can benefit LEP/language minority students, as well as English-speaking students. LEP/language minority students often come from many different cultural backgrounds. Bilingual education embraces and includes students’ cultural backgrounds in their education, which has shown to have academic benefits. Feeling safe and appreciated in schools is very important for students, which is why embracing other cultures in school is important for creating a positive learning environment for LEP students. All students benefit from learning about and experiencing other cultures. Incorporating more than one culture and language through bilingual education allows students to be more knowledgeable and broad-minded about the world. 

One of the biggest factors that goes into successful bilingual programs in schools is the readiness of teachers, and school staff and administrators to implement it. Educators must have a strong understanding of the student’s native language, as well as their culture, in order for these programs to work effectively. One of the significant challenges that LEP students face in school is not understanding the instructions that their teacher gives. They may understand the material, but not the instructions that are given as to what to do with that material. In order for teachers and students to overcome barriers like these, teachers must be trained and knowledgeable enough of the students’ native language to teach them in a way that the student can easily understand. Principals and school administrators must be encouraging of their teachers and the bilingual education program, while also making sure that students are getting a good education. Faculty and staff in school districts that implement bilingual education programs must all be on the same page in order to provide all students with a high quality education. 

Key sources for further reading: 

“The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual”
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583091/

“Benefits of Bilingual Education” 
https://online.tamiu.edu/articles/education/benefits-bilingual-education.aspx

“The Benefits of Bilingual Education and Its Impact on Student Learning and Growth”
https://soeonline.american.edu/blog/benefits-of-bilingual-education

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