Are Your Programs Aligned With Your Beliefs About Bilingualism?


December 17, 2014


Welcome to the Oregon Leadership Network's monthly blog series. Topics relate to building the capacity of education leaders to sustain research-based equitable practices across Oregon’s P-20 education system. Learn more about the Oregon Leadership Network.

While some people still view speaking a language other than English as a deficit or something to be overcome, more and more Americans view bilingualism as a strength to be admired and sought. This shift is reflected in the increasing number of parents seeking dual-language programs for their children and in the growing number of states awarding a State Seal of Biliteracy that recognizes students who are proficient in both English and their native language. In Oregon, the state is currently piloting the State Seal of Biliteracy and plans to have statewide implementation in the 2015–16 school year.

By pursuing a State Seal of Biliteracy, Oregon is sending the message that bilingualism is to be honored and formally recognized. Education leaders across the state echoed this belief at the 2014 Oregon Leadership Network Fall Leadership Institute held in Portland on December 10. We value bilingualism.

When views about language shift, it can take time for school programs and practices to catch up. Sometimes, contradictions are not immediately evident because we are so accustomed to the way we have always done things. Consequently it’s important for educators to stop and ask questions such as: What do our programs for English learners say about our views of bilingualism? Do programs in my district or school reflect the value of bilingualism? While many districts have programs designed to help English learners, they send the wrong message about the value of being proficient in both English and a second language.

Dual-language programs communicate that bilingualism is valued.
The goal of dual-language programs is to help students develop proficiency in English and the target language while acquiring grade-level content. Academic content is taught in English and in the target language and there is an explicit focus on developing biliteracy. Students’ academic and language development is measured in two languages, homework is in two languages, and school events are bilingual. By offering dual-language programs, the message is loud and clear: Bilingualism is an asset.

In contrast, English-immersion programs and transitional bilingual programs communicate that English is the language to be valued.
The goal of English-immersion programs is to develop proficiency in English and provide access to academic content. Transitional bilingual programs use the home language to help students acquire English and academic content. There is no focus on maintaining or developing the primary language in English-immersion or transitional bilingual programs. English-immersion programs and transitional bilingual programs communicate that English is the language to be valued.

Why is it important to know what our programs say about our beliefs? Actions speak louder than words. We can say we value bilingualism, but in the end, what we do is more important.

Establishing and growing dual-language programs is not easy work. You will likely be challenged and face numerous hurdles. Working for equity is not easy, either. But, we do it because it is important and we believe in it.

The good news is that we can learn from others engaged in this work. Numerous districts in Oregon have established dual-language programs, and some are members of the Oregon Leadership Network. Let us know if you are interested in establishing your own program and we will help connect you with other programs and provide support.

If you already offer dual-language programs in your district and are looking for resources for classroom instruction, take a look at Karen Beeman and Cheryl Urow’s book Teaching for Biliteracy. The authors highlight useful strategies, tools, and resources for teachers in dual-language programs.

Looking for more insights on the benefits of bilingual education? Check out Theresa Deussen's post on the Northwest Matters blog.