Advocating for Bilingual Education: Meeting the Needs of ELL Students and Foreign Language Learners
Derek Braun, TESOL/OFLA Liaison
Columbus City Schools, ELL Science Teacher
“I was born here, pero soy de México.” This was the statement made by a student introducing herself to the class on the first day of school. The setting is a high school biology classroom in a diverse urban school district in Columbus, Ohio; however, this is not a traditional classroom. This class is made up of part English Language Learners (ELL), whose home language is Spanish, and part English dominant heritage Spanish bilinguals. The class is taught by a bilingual teacher and a bilingual instructional assistant. This particular student was born in Columbus, Ohio but later moved to México where she spent much of her childhood until later returning to the United States. This is just one example of the diverse linguistic backgrounds in which many students in urban districts now grow up. Students often live and interact in very linguistically diverse settings and have complex language practices as they move in and out of their various communities throughout the day.
Within recent years, Ohio has seen a dramatic increase in the enrollment of ELLs. According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Refugee Services Office, 13,802 new refugees arrived and resettled in Ohio in between 2003-2011. Columbus City Schools currently serves students that speak a total of 110 different languages and dialects. It is necessary for educators to begin to rethink traditional instructional strategies and adapt to meet the needs of this diverse group of learners. The current ELL model and the traditional approach for educating newcomer ELLs has generally been assimilationist in perspective and provides little if any opportunities for students to develop first language literacy skills. ELLs often arrive with a vast amount of previous knowledge and experiences that often remains unrecognized or utilized in the classroom.
“Every Ohio student will be proficient in a second language, which is essential to a world-class education” (OFLA mission statement). Many schools and districts across Ohio are beginning to recognize the importance of students developing bilingual and multilingual skills to achieve “success as a citizen in a global community” as stated by Columbus City Schools. Ohio is now one of 26 other states that upon graduation students can earn a Seal of Biliteracy that will be offered for the first time to the graduating class of 2018. The Seal of Biliteracy is an award given by a school, district or state to recognize students who can demonstrate high levels of proficiency in English and at least one other language by high school graduation. This not only encourages and recognizes the second language proficiency of a foreign language learner it can also inspire many ELL students to demonstrate proficiency in their home or heritage language. Only until recently have some districts begun offering services and support for students’ heritage languages. Both Southwestern City Schools and Columbus City Schools now offer heritage language Spanish at several buildings across the district. For students to be prepared for success as global citizens educational programs must shift from an assimilationist perspective and begin viewing ELL students not as English deficient students but as emergent bilinguals that should be offered support and services for developing their linguistic repertoires. Dr. Mileidis Gort formerly from The Ohio State University states that “A different approach to the education of emergent bilinguals is becoming a more prevalent need in all types of schools across the country. This is the reality school districts now face.”
“Bilingual education is the only way to educate children in the twenty-first century” (García 2009a, p. 5). As educational programs begin to recognize the value ELL students’ linguistic repertoires and provide the educational support through heritage language classes, more opportunities arise for bilingual education and more specifically Two-Way Immersion. Also referred to as Dual Immersion, Two-Way Immersion is an educational strategy that integrates language minority students with language majority students for instruction in two languages. The most common is a classroom comprised of half ELL Spanish L1 students and half Spanish learners that are native English-speaking students. Moreover, Nepali and Somali language are among the top most common home languages among Ohio’s ELL students yet many of these students remain illiterate in their first languages and courses are not offered to teach students literacy skills. The cognitive and academic benefits of bilingualism have been demonstrated countless times. Bilinguals outperform their monolingual peers in the areas of vocabulary, problem solving, mental flexibility, attention control, and the ability to task switch on the fly. Educators must take the lead in advocating for students that they be provided more opportunities for heritage language classes and bilingual programs and classes.
How can I advocate for bilingualism and linguistic diversity?
– Educate and inform teachers, administrators, and parents about the upcoming Ohio Seal of Biliteracy (http://sealofbiliteracy.org/ohio)
– Inform parents of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism
– Encourage linguistic diversity in your classroom
o Bilingual word wall, encourage home language content writing/discussions, provide bilingual dictionaries, model diverse language use in the classroom
– Promote cultural awareness in your classroom
o Allow students to share and be the experts on their cultures
García, O. (2009a). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA: Wiley/Blackwell.