Biliteracy Seals Offer Hope, Recognition for EL Students

Biliteracy Seals Offer Hope, Recognition for EL Students

Millions of K–12 students in the United States are non-native English speakers or English learners (ELs), a status that has historically been seen as a deficit or problem requiring correction.

Indeed, as teacher and linguist Kristen Lindahl wrote in a post for the TESOL blog, “While the overwhelming majority of teachers have their multilingual students’ best interests at heart, I still notice many instances of deficit discourse—expressions or terms that focus on the resources or skills that ELLs lack, rather than bring.”

According to Lindahl, this viewpoint is problematic because regarding ELs as needing remediation can lead to years of stymied educational opportunities and relegation to segregated settings that often serve to reinforce the “otherness” of those whose first language is not English.

That said, this flawed approach seems to be changing, thanks in part to the growing use of biliteracy seals.

Flipping the deficit narrative

Biliteracy seals placed upon the transcripts or diplomas of graduating high school seniors can be awarded by individual schools, school districts, or state departments of education in an effort to flip the deficit narrative regarding EL students. After years of advocacy by the Californians Together group, California became the first state to offer these seals in 2011.

On its website, Californians Together explained that awarding a biliteracy seal amounts to “a statement by the school system that mastery of two or more languages is important.” Moreover, it “encourages students to pursue biliteracy, honors the skills our students attain, and can be evidence of skills that are attractive to future employers and college admissions offices.”

California's decision to incorporate the seals represented a remarkable turnaround from the 1990s, when the state had an “English-only” law that essentially shut down bilingual education classes in public schools. Since California awarded the first round of biliteracy seals to thousands of graduating seniors in 2012, the move toward honoring and rewarding biliteracy has spread quickly, with 35 additional states and Washington, D.C., adopting similar forms of acknowledgment.

With some 5 million non-native English-speaking students across the nation—a number that is expected to grow rapidly—the rise in biliteracy seal usage is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, there are some finer points worth considering when it comes to optimizing accurate and effective seal distribution.

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Bilingual vs. biliterate

The seals pioneered in California reward students who are biliterate, not just bilingual, and it is important to recognize the difference between the two descriptors. Biliterate students are those who can show proficiency in standard academic English and at least one other language, either on assessments such as AP tests or through other methods, including the Linguafolio approach.

According to a 2018 overview of EL practices by Yesenia Robles, “Many people are bilingual but not biliterate.” Writing for the online education news site Chalkbeat, Robles noted that “biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism”—a point that is especially salient in the context of education and how best to prepare students for future opportunities.

Helping students become biliterate is an emerging focus area among educators, perhaps because the benefits of biliteracy appear to be quite significant. Traditionally, bilingual students whose first language is not English have tended to drop their native language when they attend a school at which instruction is delivered in English. However, there is research to support the idea that teaching literacy skills in both languages helps ELs become both bilingual and biliterate—not to mention better readers overall.


Although obtaining a biliteracy seal requires students to become biliterate in English and another language, not all students—particularly non-native English speakers—have access to academic content in their first (or even second) language. This has sparked concern over whether the biliteracy seal is biased in favor of native English speakers who study a second language at school while also receiving instruction in English.

A 2019 post on the Education Week blog zeroed in on this potential inequity, with reporter Corey Mitchell highlighting a study from Georgetown University that questioned whether marginalized students (such as ELs) have a fair chance to earn biliteracy seals. According to the Georgetown study, “the policy requirements for demonstrating biliteracy advantage students, especially native English‐speaking students, who are studying a foreign or world language as part of their school's curriculum.”

The study went on to argue that the best educational opportunities—including the potential to earn a biliteracy seal—are too often unavailable to students who attend under-resourced schools. Although there are myriad explanations for this, some of the most common include a documented lack of licensed, bilingual teachers along with entrenched marginalization of EL students that tends to keep such learners away from the kind of academic content that is typically needed to become biliterate.

Ultimately, the fact that a growing number of states offer biliteracy seals is an encouraging indication that the tide is turning for EL students with linguistic proficiency in English and another language. Now, lawmakers and educators alike must work to iron out issues of inequity to ensure all qualified students are able to earn the seal upon graduation.


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