Welcome back to school! That’s a phrase I look forward to saying every fall, and especially so this year.
As I talk with colleagues, I hear excitement that last year’s digital learning experiment is behind us while others are worried that in-person plans feel fragile. No matter the situation, I hear the same urgency and concern for the academic and social well-being of our collective student body. I especially feel that for our English learners, or, as my colleague Teresa Krastel and I prefer to say, emergent bilinguals.
Remote learning and other COVID-19 related impacts revealed long-standing inequities in education ranging from access to materials, technology, and the internet to even school itself. New research is just beginning to uncover the impact the pandemic has had on student learning so far; of particular note are the disproportionate drops in achievement among historically disadvantaged students. The exact impact on the emergent bilingual population is unknown, but it stands to reason it will be similar, if not even more pronounced.
Our education system had been failing our emergent bilingual students since long before 2020.
My goal with this post is not to focus on the challenges we faced last year, but to set the stage for teaching practices that optimize learning, engagement, and a positive classroom culture moving forward. Our education system had been failing our emergent bilingual students since long before 2020. Consider, for example, research from the US Department of Education that found that only 67% of emergent bilinguals graduated from high school on time in 2016, compared to 85% of their native English speaking peers. A return to that dismal “normal”—fully knowing that countless students are more vulnerable than ever—is unconscionable.
Recognizing the assets emergent bilingual students bring with them is an essential first step in addressing this issue in your classroom. These kids come to you with rich linguistic and cultural funds of knowledge that can be leveraged to support their learning (and the learning of everyone in the room, frankly), and strategies like translanguaging can support them both academically and emotionally. Here are two more specific things you can do. They may feel like little more than a drop in the ocean sometimes, but rest assured: every step in the direction of increased equity matters.
1. Knock the rust off: Help everyone get back into the groove of academic language
Just as you are likely out of practice with in-person instruction, so are your students. They’re no longer used to bell schedules, needing permission to go to the restroom, or standing in line for lunch. For emergent bilingual students, being back in school also means getting reaccustomed to more frequent use of academic English.
The way students have to think about content in school is different from everyday conversations. As educator Brooke Khan explains in “Tiered vocabulary: What is it, and why does it matter?”, there are three tiers of words in English: basic and commonly used words, like “happy” and “baby”; academic words, like “analyze” and “foundation”; and infrequently used words, like “legislature” and “tundra.” In the classroom, we use words in those second and third tiers a lot—probably more than we realize. We might ask students to “investigate” or “explore” a topic. We might ask them to “note,” “notice,” or “observe” something. These are all tier 2 words, particularly for grades K–1, and they’re likely to be much less familiar to emergent bilingual students.
Let’s consider a practical example of how we might need some vocabulary practice ourselves sometimes. I’m pretty rusty reading Shakespeare. I know that if I want to sit down and read a play, it’ll take some time for me to remember common Elizabethan English vocabulary, like “hath” and “forthwith,” and even Shakespeare’s affinity for long sentences. So if I sit down to read Hamlet tonight, it might take a couple scenes of fairly slow reading before I can pick up speed and work through the rest of the play more efficiently. That’s exactly what students will be going through at the start of the year. They’ll need time to get back into the habit of using vocabulary they just don’t use at home, vocabulary they need to develop their language proficiency and content learning. Here’s how to do that for them.
To make this language transition easier for your emergent bilingual students, I encourage you to do as much translating of tier 2 words as you can early in the year. When you ask students to “investigate,” for example, pause. Use tier 1 words and phrases to define “investigate”: “When we investigate something, we want to know more about it. We ask lots of questions so we can understand what it is or how it works.” Then have a quick comprehension check: “What’s something you want to know more about?” (Hopefully you’ll get some cute and enthusiastic responses, like “Ladybugs!” or “My baby sister!”)
Connect the dots
I also encourage you to draw connections between English and a student’s native language whenever possible. Pointing out the similarities improves students’ metacognitive processes. Letter-sound systems in Spanish and English are similar, for example, and showing them that overlap while explicitly naming the differences can help the learning process. Identifying cognates is another valuable resource, especially for Latin-based languages. That example of defining “investigate” I just mentioned? Turns out “investigate” is “investigar” in Spanish. It will likely help your Spanish-speaking students a lot to know that.
2. Make room for language and communication
What does it mean to actively engage students in language? Although home language may lack tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, it is authentic. It is rich with discourse and the expectation of two-way conversations. When siblings argue over what TV show to watch, for example, there’s some kind of a back and forth and, if you’re the adult in the room and are having an extra streak of luck that day, you’ll hear some well-articulated opinions: “You picked yesterday!” or “That show is too scary.”
Teachers, especially in early learning, do not often replicate the same language richness kids experience at home, like back-and-forth conversation, clarifying questions, and descriptive anecdotes. We tend to use display questions, simple yes/no questions, or repetitive language. Research tells us that authentic use of language like this needs to be intentionally embedded in the classroom. Here are a few ways to go about this.
Have students read, write, speak, and listen
A way to build this authentic language use into your daily instruction is to focus on all four modes of language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Look for opportunities to specifically include each mode in your lesson planning and provide meaningful interactions where language usage is authentic. Ask open-ended follow-up questions that encourage elaboration and description to strengthen students’ growing language competence, and encourage students to ask clarifying questions to train them on the language used for inquiry and curiosity.
Using the formative assessment strategies Turn-and-Talk and Think-Pair-Share with proficient English speakers also allows emergent bilingual students to hear model responses and gain confidence as they practice their own, all while helping you gain insight into students’ understanding. In the same way that shared speaking opportunities model speaking and listening, shared writing tasks support reading and writing. These formative strategies in particular ensure emergent bilingual students have access to models of proficient English, not just from their teacher, but also from their peers.
Set communication goals
When you’re working toward academic/content goals, be sure to also establish—and share—communication goals. Sure, by the end of the day, you may want students to be able to compare fractions with like denominators. But you should also want them to be able to communicate their understanding. For emergent bilingual students this needs to be extra intentional.
Research suggests that emergent bilingual students have lower rates of utterances or opportunities to practice language in the classroom. Without these opportunities, there is little chance to solidify content understanding. Typically, teachers think about what kinds of language skills are needed to participate in the lesson. I’d challenge you to flip the script and think about how you can use the content to foster meaningful conversations. Think about shifting your perspective from “language of math or science” to “language for math or science.” When we start with a “language of” perspective, we might unintentionally limit students’ access to the content if we feel they do not yet have that language; we might not realize we’re telling ourselves that these students must have proficiency in English before they can do math, for example, which couldn’t be further from the truth (Einstein was never fluent in English and did pretty okay with math).
For explicit guidance on providing language supports in the math classroom, be sure to read my colleague Tammy Baumann’s blog post “How to engage the emergent bilingual students in your math classroom.” In all content areas, identify the kinds of responses—both spoken and written—that would suggest your emergent bilingual student is understanding the lesson, and then provide opportunities to demonstrate it. Collaborate with colleagues throughout your school to ensure these language opportunities extend into PE, art, music, science, and recess, too.
It’s worth it
The emergent bilingual student adds immeasurable richness to a classroom. When they are valued for what they bring to the conversation and their prior language experiences are leveraged, these students are able to bring themselves—their whole selves—to class. And isn’t this why we were all drawn to education in the first place?
Yes, it takes thoughtful consideration in lesson planning to provide opportunities for reading, writing, speaking, and listening throughout the day. Yes, content needs to be reexamined so it can be taught through a language lens. Yes, emergent bilingual students need modeling and support from you and their peers to use English in both authentic and academic ways. And is this all challenging and time consuming? Of course. But it’s our only option. We must not go back to normal.