5 myths about emergent bilinguals—and how to challenge them

Did you know that the population of US public school students who speak languages other than English is on track to grow to 25% by 2025? The majority of these students are Spanish speakers (approximately 75%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics), followed by speakers of Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese at about 2–3% each. Contrary to popular belief, most of these kids are US-born American citizens.

At present, education policy designates these children English language learners, and this term is widely used across the United States to classify students. I prefer the term “emergent bilinguals,” however, because it more accurately describes what these students are going through: they are slowly—but surely—becoming bilingual (or multilingual), something that is very hard to do. (You can read more about emergent bilingual students and valuing their funds of knowledge through translanguaging in my previous post).

The common assumption that kids learning English are foreign born and even our tendency to use the term “English language learners” are proof that there are many misconceptions about this growing population of students. It can be difficult to effectively reach students we don’t truly understand, though, because it leads us, however unintentionally, to work off conjecture instead of facts.

Do you know how many emergent bilinguals are in your state, school, or classroom? Chances are there are more than a few. To support them in reaching their potential, we’d like to help you understand why some common myths are simply not true. We’ll also share some valuable tips you can work into your practice.

Myth #1: The emergent bilingual students in my classroom must not understand what is going on because they are not talking or participating

If you have ever started learning another language, how did you navigate the new information? Did you actively experiment with new phrases even if you made errors? Or were you quiet and careful, thinking each word or phrase out before uttering it? Did you repeat phrases that you learned in chunks first, or did you create new, original sentences? Did you prefer interacting with someone as you tried speaking, or did you choose to speak phrases in your own mind first until you felt comfortable saying them aloud?

[N]ot all silence in your classroom means lack of participation or understanding. There is most likely active negotiation happening for your emergent bilingual students, just not overtly or orally.

Chances are you erred on the side of caution and quiet, and this notion of a “silent period” in language development is not new in second-language education. It was first described by Stephen Krashen as the period when learners process language input more actively than they produce language, with the expectation that communication will happen naturally. Others see the silent period as a phase of inner speech in which language learners reflect and develop, while the English researchers Caroline Bligh and Rose Drury argue that it is also social in nature, linked to culture, meaning, and silent negotiation.

In practical terms, not all silence in your classroom means lack of participation or understanding. There is most likely active negotiation happening for your emergent bilingual students, just not overtly or orally because they are still gaining competence and confidence in English. This can be uncomfortable to witness; as educators, we’re used to gathering feedback in the moment so that we can be certain our lesson is reaching our students as intended. There are ways to check in on your students during this period, however, that can help you work productively through that discomfort.

How to challenge myth #1

The silent period is a great time for peer and pair work, when teachers can focus on communication strategies, language enrichment, and metacognitive skills development. Through visuals, gestures, cognates, graphic organizers, and structured opportunities to respond, such as sentence starters and sentence frames, you can work on helping students build vocabulary and background knowledge while consuming challenging grade-appropriate content.

There is no one universal scaffolding approach; some students will require more support than others, and grammar will not necessarily be accurate. You might consider allowing your students to use their native language in class, also known as translanguaging. You could provide access to multiple supports or tailor support—both content and linguistic—to the specific purposes of the task by clarifying content, for example, or practicing a particular sentence structure or rhetorical device. All of this will open multiple pathways to meaningful growth in your students’ content knowledge.

Myth #2: Language proficiency prevents emergent bilingual students from accessing grade-level content and academic achievement

There is a common view in education that emergent bilingual students cannot handle challenging grade-level content and that material should be remediated because of their lack of English language proficiency. As a result, rather than recognizing multilingualism as an asset, educators often place students into lower-level content courses and English is established as the norm. Emergent bilingual students, then, are required to participate in a simplified curriculum, regardless of their intellectual capacity, and they miss essential opportunities to develop career and college readiness in the way their monolingual English peers do.

There’s no reason emergent bilingual students can’t be given access to challenging content that will help them develop their skills, knowledge, and language proficiency.

How to challenge myth #2

Margarita Espino Calderón et al. call for a more equitable approach to teaching grade-level content in their book Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners’ Success and their November 2019 webinar presented by Corwin. They argue for collaboration among content and ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) teachers to create opportunities and provide access to challenging grade-appropriate content. They note that even with the best of intentions to simplify a curriculum, educators usually create disparities for emergent bilinguals, such as lower graduation rates and representation in gifted and talented programs, to name a few.

There’s no reason emergent bilingual students can’t be given access to challenging content that will help them develop their skills, knowledge, and language proficiency.

In short, making curriculum content easier is not helping, and language proficiency is not the biggest barrier to content learning. Instead, adopt an approach that scaffolds everyday instruction and provides structured opportunities for reading and written and oral expression, while teaching academic vocabulary to help build students’ background knowledge without waiting for them to reach a certain level of English proficiency.

Myth #3: Getting or giving language support is cheating and unfair

Think about the way you engage with language tasks in your daily work and about the resources you use. When you do not know a word, you probably look it up or ask someone to define it. When writing an email or report, you are likely able to check your spelling. I know that if I were not permitted to use a thesaurus to find a better word for this very blog post, or if I were not permitted to edit and rephrase, the outcome of my work would be very different indeed. For all of us, language supports make a difference.

Allowing children to access their full repertoire of strategies and resources is not cheating; it is simply allowing the use of tools that will set them up for success. Learning English should be positioned as an added opportunity for them, not the dominant, correct, and only opportunity.

How to challenge myth #3

Children’s funds of knowledge are an asset to your classroom, and elevating them is a valuable way to provide language support to your emergent bilingual students while also giving your native English speakers invaluable exposure to other cultures, customs, and languages. They create a language rich-environment in which negotiation of meaning is not just limited to English-only norms. Language becomes a two-way exchange (however messy!) toward mutual understanding and communication rather than strict adherence to the boundaries of any one language.

Seek to engage students in content, even in their home languages. For example, if you are reading a text that uses a lot of figurative language, ask for (or search for) examples from the languages represented in your classroom. The concept of figurative language exists across languages and cultures, and bringing in examples from other languages still teaches the concept while also drawing attention to how we can have similar communication methods in different languages.

It is okay if you do not speak all the languages in your classroom. Take the opportunity to be a facilitator rather than an arbiter, especially when communicating correctly is not the goal of an exercise.

Myth #4: Blanket accommodations are the most helpful

The emergent bilingual population is very diverse. There is a tendency to lump students together in one classification when, in fact, there are various subgroups: newcomers, lifelong English learners, students who are reclassified, students who are never classified. Add to that the reality that students have diverse linguistic and cultural origins. They may not all speak Spanish, for example, or if they do, they are almost certainly not all from the same town in Mexico.

Testing in English […] can result in an inaccurate (and unfair) portrait of those who speak a different home language.

A one-size-fits-all approach to accommodations simply won’t do and, as Andrea Honigsfeld of Molloy College in New York explains, it may create more barriers than it removes.

How to challenge myth #4

My colleague Angela Johnson, whose work highlights the diversity of emergent bilingual students, observes that because the backgrounds of these students are so diverse, programming options and accommodations should reflect that diversity. Care should also be exercised in assigning universal interventions for native English speakers and emergent bilingual students; their needs may not necessarily be the same, and the type of program may not actually be supporting the emergent bilingual learner in the most apt or targeted ways. Types of programs, instructors, methods, and outcomes must all be considered, as well as teacher training and curriculum.

Myth #5: Students need to be tested in English because that is the main language they will navigate

Students show academic achievement regardless of the language they speak, and English may not be the main language they navigate outside of the school setting. There is a long research history that supports the notion that learning a second language correlates to higher achievement. In one early study, researchers found that grammatical accuracy does not play as large a role as vocabulary development does in the development of content knowledge. Additionally, students who were given opportunities to discuss content concepts in their native language fared better on content-focused tests in English.

How to challenge myth #5

Because language plays a role in testing, it is important to understand what students know independent of their proficiency in the language of the test. Testing in English serves native English speakers well, but it can result in an inaccurate (and unfair) portrait of those who speak a different home language. Testing in a child’s home language, then, provides equitable opportunities for them to show what they know and are ready to learn. This, in turn, provides a more accurate view of their content knowledge while removing the language proficiency variable and valuing the child’s funds of knowledge.

There is also a place for knowing what a student can do in English; that is the primary purpose of an English proficiency test. However, if the goal of assessment is to know a student’s academic understanding, testing them in their native tongue provides a clearer picture of where they are academically. If you use MAP® Growth™ or MAP® Reading Fluency™ assessments in your school, you can test Spanish-speaking students with MAP in Spanish.

Moving toward equity

Supporting emergent bilingual students in our schools is both urgent and critical. To do so involves understanding their diverse backgrounds and elevating the funds of knowledge they bring with them to instructional settings. It also requires us to understand students to the best of our ability, rather than relying on myths or even generalizations to guide us in our work.

Through collaborative, scaffolded, and structured teaching across content areas and language programs, we can remove barriers, increase opportunities for students to show what they know, and help open the pathway to their academic success.

Adam Withycombe, manager of content design and development at NWEA, co-authored this post.

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