How Do Emergent Bilinguals Learn to Read?: 4 Things We Learned From Meeting With the Experts
When Lexia’s Senior Education Advisor José Viana tweeted a question about how to make the science of reading work for Emergent Bilinguals, he didn’t expect to spark a national conversation about literacy equity with hundreds of experts chiming in. But that’s exactly what happened, and after an engaging and informative online discussion, we wanted to bring people together to propel the conversation forward.
On May 14, 2022, we hosted a roundtable symposium, “Unifying Language Acquisition with Literacy Instruction for Language Minority Students.” The goal of the event was to engage with and discuss the question of how to best assist Emergent Bilingual students as they learn to read and speak English, and to continue exploring solutions that work best for this diverse group. The event brought together literacy and language acquisition experts from around the world and offered a unique opportunity to sit down and explore a fundamental question: How do Emergent Bilinguals learn to read?
The experts discussed a variety of solutions that will benefit all students. The biggest takeaway from the event was that these conversations must remain ongoing as we continue to make strides in the science of reading for Emergent Bilingual students. Let’s dive into what we learned at the symposium and how Lexia® has been incorporating this growing body of research into the development of our edtech solutions.
1. Labels Matter
The labels used to describe people matter. Often unintentionally, we apply a deficit label to a group of people, which can deeply affect their sense of identity.
Led by the many bilingual and multilingual participants, there was an in-depth discussion about the preferred term for students learning English. Despite the ubiquity of the term English Language Learner in the American education system, the symposium participants unanimously agreed that this term is wanting because it suggests that students learning English will always be at a deficit. If a student is learning to speak English, it’s because they already speak another language, so they are becoming bilingual.
Bilingualism is an advantage and something to be proud of, so the term used to describe them should reflect this. Participants agreed Emergent Bilingual was an acceptable, asset-based term. The term Multilingual Learner was also accepted across the board as a term that embodies the asset model, while the phrase Long-term English Learner was called out as an example of a label that suggests someone will be at a deficit forever. To fully embody the asset model in our schools and classrooms, the unique strengths and experiences of these students should be honored by the words we use to discuss them.
2. Flip the Script
Too often, conversations around literacy for Emergent Bilinguals take place through a monolingual lens and start with the question, How can we make the science of reading work for Emergent Bilinguals? At the symposium, there was a lively and lengthy conversation about how to flip that question around and place the diverse and unique needs, experiences, and strengths of Emergent Bilingual students at the center of the dialogue. Ultimately, we agreed that a better question for researchers to ask is, How do Emergent Bilingual students learn to read?
By reframing the issue with person-first, asset-based language, we make it clear that Emergent Bilinguals are not a monolith. They speak hundreds of different languages with different syntax, grammar, and vocabulary, and this diversity means they each have unique needs when it comes to literacy. Some may read fluently in their native language, while others may have no literacy in their mother tongue. They enter a classroom with a wide range of profiles, and the literacy solutions they’re presented must take their uniqueness into consideration and meet them where they are instead of expecting them to learn to read exactly the way a native English speaker does.
One of the most uplifting and thought-provoking conversations at the symposium centered around the word sawubona. A Zulu greeting, we learned it means more than hello. Sawubona carried the importance of recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and it says I see the whole of you—your strength and weaknesses, your passions and pain, your experiences and future. You are valuable to me.
The symposium participants vociferously agreed that literacy edtech needs to embody the concept of sawubona for all students, but particularly for Emergent Bilinguals. It needs to communicate that their teachers and school systems value them not just as an individual, but honor them as Emergent Bilinguals and recognize the unique challenges and victories associated with this.
One district leader at the symposium shared an anecdote about his school’s large population of Emergent Bilinguals from Afghanistan. They speak Urdu, and they bring to the classroom their unique experiences as immigrant students. Sometimes called “newcomers,” immigrant and refugee students' experiences are unique compared to Emergent Bilinguals born in the U.S. Whether they’re born here or abroad, Emergent Bilinguals are a diverse group. They speak a variety of languages, will have different lived experiences, and have various levels of exposure to English. The key takeaway here is to honor their firsthand knowledge about the world. We must see them, and teach them, as individuals, and it is important that the literacy solutions they’re provided recognize the whole of these experiences and honor the hard work they’re doing to learn a second language.
4. We Have Lots of Good Ideas—So What Do We Do with Them?
After an engaging theoretical discussion about the needs of Emergent Bilingual students, we transitioned to a conversation about how to put these ideas into action and provide concrete literacy solutions for Emergent Bilingual students. One of the most pressing issues discussed was the lack of training for teachers of Emergent Bilinguals. There is already a teacher shortage, and there’s an even greater shortage of teachers who are fully equipped to meet the needs of Emergent Bilingual students balancing language acquisition and developing literacy skills. We recognized there is a need to support teachers and provide professional development that would elevate both the standards of and the respect for educators of Emergent Bilinguals. Teachers need leadership and stability, and we need to provide them with the necessary resources to support their students effectively.
In the meantime, there are literacy and language solutions available now that embody the asset model and respect the unique experiences of every student. Lexia® English Language Development™ is one such program; it is culturally responsive and provides personalized academic English speaking practice for Emergent Bilinguals. It can be used concurrently with a literacy program like Lexia® Core5® Reading, which offers native language support in eight different languages. Lexia’s programs use an engaging model giving students ownership over their learning while keeping teachers updated about student progress in real time.
As educators, district leaders, and edtech developers explore solutions that will uplift and empower both teachers and Emergent Bilingual students, Lexia will continue to be at the forefront of the research. Our flagship English language development program, Lexia English, was founded by bilinguals, and given our commitment to evidence-based literacy instruction, we will continue to ask the big questions about how Emergent Bilingual students learn to read and how our schools and technology can benefit them. For Lexia, these questions aren’t theoretical; we’re bringing them into practice and seeking concrete solutions. We truly are all for literacy, and as the body of research grows about Emergent Bilingual students’ unique needs, Lexia will continue to lead the way.
Want to learn more about creating inclusive classrooms for Emergent Bilingual students? Check out our white paper, Standard English is a Myth: Bringing an Asset-Based Approach to Accents!
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