A Promising Future for Emergent Bilinguals
The science of reading, a wide body of research that explains how people learn to read, provides important insight into how best to teach literacy in schools. The most effective literacy programs are informed by the science of reading, which is why there has been in recent years a push for schools to abandon other instructional methods and replace them with methods rooted in this gold-standard research.
Recently, though, we’ve come to recognize that most of the studies that comprise the science of reading have left out one key demographic: Emergent Bilinguals, or students who are learning to speak English and read English simultaneously. We know the bilingual brain is absolutely capable of these two tasks. The solution is to bring bilingual student research into the science of reading fold. In addition, while much of the information from the current science of reading research applies to Emergent Bilinguals, there are some important nuances when teaching emerging bilingual students.
First, let's remind ourselves of some of the research about bilingual brains: Studies show that bilinguals have an enhanced ability to concentrate and improved cognitive function, so it stands to reason Emergent Bilinguals are well equipped for reading instruction. What else does the research tell us about Emergent Bilinguals and literacy? Let’s dive in.
Adopting an Asset-Based Approach to Literacy
Students whose first language isn’t English do double duty in school: They are simultaneously learning a language and content. They are well equipped to do so, but they still need and deserve to be met with the understanding and appreciation it takes to do this extra work. By honoring this hard work and dedication, we can encourage positive identity formation, rather than stigmatizing these students by labeling them an “intervention group.”
To focus on the assets students bring to the table, Lexia® uses the term Emergent Bilingual, which recognizes the cognitive ability a bilingual student naturally has, instead of using the deficit-oriented label of “English Language Learner,” which emphasizes what the student doesn’t know. This is important because students learn best in environments that are supportive and caring, not overly critical; and emphasizing what Emergent Bilinguals don’t know can take a toll on their self-esteem and impact their ability to learn.
Beyond using an asset-based approach, there is a large corpus of sociocultural research about how Emergent Bilinguals’ learning environments i mpact their ability to learn English and succeed in school. This research also details how to optimize those environments to meet the unique needs of Emergent Bilinguals. But even with an asset-based and culturally responsive pedagogy in place, to master English literacy, Emergent Bilingual students need speaking practice in English.
Incorporating Speaking Practice
Because Emergent Bilinguals are learning to read and speak English simultaneously, they need explicit, evidence-based instructional methods.
The science of reading tells us which teaching methods work best for teaching literacy to students who already speak English. But monolinguals have an advantage over their Emergent Bilingual peers: They already know 95% to 98% of the words the teacher is saying, while Emergent Bilinguals do not. This means that even if an Emergent Bilingual can decode a particular text, they might not have the language comprehension required for strong reading comprehension.
Interestingly, both science of reading and applied linguistics research tell us which instructional methods work best to teach Emergent Bilinguals to read and speak English at the same time; that is, extra speaking practice coupled with Structured Literacy.
Many people believe simply exposing Emergent Bilinguals to English words through immersion—for example, by placing Emergent Bilingual students in an English-speaking classroom—constitutes sufficient English language instruction. When a person who is becoming bilingual is surrounded by the language they’re learning, it certainly helps expose them to it and increase their vocabulary; but there is a proper scope and sequence to second-language acquisition, and one important step in this sequence is speaking practice. Emergent Bilinguals need frequent opportunities to practice speaking English to gain mastery in the language.
Canadian applied linguist Dr. Merrill Swain determined that output, or producing one’s second language, is an integral “part of the process of second language learning” ( Swain, 2005). She proposed the Output Hypothesis, which states:
- Students begin the language comprehension process by speaking.
- To speak the second language, students must have something they want to say and construct a sentence in their mind in the second language
- They must speak this sentence to another person
- Once they speak, the noticing function in their brain is activated, meaning they notice how the other person responds to their sentence
- This triggers the metalinguistic function, during which the student notices if the utterance was in fact understood, in which case the sentence can be incorporated and used again. If it's not understood, the student must determine how to change the sentence in order to be better understood next time
- The process repeats.
The Output Hypothesis tells us that simply exposing a student to English every day is not sufficient English language instruction. Interestingly, the science of reading has a parallel pedagogy, where oral language practice is the foundation of later reading comprehension. Thus, providing opportunities for Emergent Bilingual students to produce the language every day is essential.
When this dedicated speaking practice is combined with Structured Literacy, a systematic and explicit approach to teaching reading that is based in the science of reading, Emergent Bilingual students will simultaneously improve their English language and literacy acquisition.
What’s Next for Emergent Bilingual Education?
Reading is essential. Literacy lays the foundation for future academic and professional success, and all students deserve equal, equitable access to effective literacy instruction.
Research that tells us linguistic knowledge in any language is transferable. Emergent Bilinguals have knowledge in their heritage languages that can be leveraged in their English language instruction—but only if they receive explicit, intentional English lessons to help transfer this knowledge. With this intentional focus, teachers can help Emergent Bilinguals harness their background knowledge and apply it to English, setting them up to not just successful English speakers, but readers as well.
Want to learn more about how schools can transition to an asset-based approach to learning and ensure equitable literacy access for all students? Read the education insight, “ Ensuring Literacy Instruction Meets the Needs of All Learners.”
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