10 tips for supporting student literacy in a dual immersion program - SmartBrief

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10 tips for supporting student literacy in a dual immersion program

A school principal offers best practices and practical advice for supporting literacy growth in any language.

7 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

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Dual-language immersion programs may have their own unique challenges, but literacy development isn’t one of them. In fact, although a bit more patience is often required to see success, students in dual immersion programs may actually have an advantage when it comes to learning to read: The more proficient students are in their primary language, the faster they transfer those skills to a new language.

Georgia Brown Elementary School, the dual immersion school in California where I have the privilege of serving as principal, has more than 620 students who work with 23 teachers and eight intervention teachers. We have a waiting list and use a lottery to determine who gets in. At the end of the 2022-23 school year, we had 95% of kindergarten, 72% of first-grade and 68% of second-grade students reading at or above grade level. We’ve also seen excellent progress among our English learners, according to the California School Dashboard.

Here’s how we did it.

1. Begin with a bilingual vision

Our school’s mission statement reads, in part, “All students will achieve bilingualism, biliteracy and sociocultural competency. Georgia Brown provides rigorous standards-based instruction in Spanish and English while engaging in positive cross-cultural experiences.” The statement goes on to declare that all “students will develop high biliteracy skills in Spanish and English by the end of fifth grade.”

2. Bring in teachers who share your vision

Approximately 80% of our staff are native Spanish speakers. They are from all over Latin America, which is great for helping us fulfill the sociocultural competency required by our mission.

3. Find students eager to join your program

We conduct outreach to educate local parents about the benefits of a dual immersion program for their students. They believe that their children need English to be successful and tend to see less value in becoming proficient in Spanish. We never have too many open spots, though; because we are a magnet school, we are able to pull students from across our district and even beyond.

4. Don’t expect instant results

Like other dual immersion schools, we are sometimes criticized because our students do not always score as high as students in English-only programs in early grades. We teach kindergarten in Spanish 90% of the day and introduce more English each year. Students transition to reading and writing in English in grade 3. They are on a different track than students at English-only schools, so we can’t really compare them to other students in the first few years. But they tend to perform better in English later on.

5. Set goals based on data

Georgia Brown is a data-driven school and that begins with our teachers’ professional growth goals. They look at their data and create SMART goals based on it. Throughout the year, after each summative assessment, they dig into the data again to see what progress they’ve made toward their professional growth goals and to consider changes in their classroom. I encourage them to see it as a living document and even to keep it on their wall so they keep their goals in mind and adjust them as necessary.

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6. Align professional learning communities to your vision

Ninety percent of our faculty is trained on how to create and maintain effective PLCs. During that training, we revisit our school vision. A couple years ago, if I asked my teachers about the school vision, they wouldn’t have been able to tell me much. Now they can immediately answer that all students will achieve bilingualism, biliteracy and sociocultural competency. It’s posted in every classroom, and every lesson they teach is related to that vision.

Our PLCs have also helped to ensure that our teachers are working closely together yet still have personal freedom. They often plan lessons together in PLC meetings, and, whether they are planning together or individually, they begin with the assessment and plan backward from that. They always have four questions to answer: 

  • What are students going to learn? 
  • How will students learn it? 
  • Did they learn it? 
  • What will I do with the highest and lowest performers?

7. Provide ongoing teacher support related to data

Teachers also participate in three data retreats each year. At the first one, they spend an entire day looking at the data and planning the first trimester. They break the trimester down by week so they have a map showing exactly when each standard will be addressed. They integrate different subject areas, such as social studies and science and create a common assessment for the end of the first week so they have the full week to teach it.

8. Follow up to celebrate success or determine additional steps

During weekly PLCs after formative assessments have been completed, teachers come together for an inquiry cycle process. They look at the data and see who was successful, who needs additional support and who needs to be retaught by the teacher or an intervention specialist. Teachers get creative with their schedules to provide a 10- to 15-minute lesson to reteach a concept. This continues week by week, so teachers are constantly looking at the data and adjusting, rather than waiting until the end of the trimester to see where students are at.

9. Provide bilingual, curriculum-aligned reading materials

To ensure students are receiving appropriate reading practice, we go through our multitiered systems of support process and identify the different tiers. Students then find reading material at their Lexile level. Additionally, PebbleGo, an online research hub of articles, and Capstone print and digital books have provided our students and teachers with curriculum-aligned resources in English and Spanish for use in grades K-2.

PebbleGo has also been helpful in integrating subjects such as social studies and science into our nearly two-hour literacy block. It’s divided into five areas — animals, biography, health, science and social studies — so it’s easy for students to find the resources to complement what they are learning in, say, a science lesson.

10. Offer scaffolding to bridge the language gap

As a school, we’ve been focusing on culturally responsive practices for some time. One example from our past approach was to send projects home. The parents would end up doing a lot of the work, while some students received no support at all — an inequity many schools likely have experienced. 

However, our online research hub allows our students to conduct their own research and find their own articles and videos that interest them. If students are struggling, the program will read to them so they don’t get stuck. 

As a result, students have been reading more articles, almost doubling from 15,722 articles in the 2021-22 school year to 29,366 last year. Plus, they have already exceeded the number of Capstone digital books they read during the entire 2022-23 school year. Last year they read 1,436 e-books, and by October 2023 they had already read 1,571 books to kick off this school year.

From the outside, literacy education may look like a difficult job for dual immersion educators. But by providing teachers the tools to meet students where they are and celebrating their primary language and culture as strengths they bring to the classroom, teachers can help students develop a lifelong love of learning regardless of their English skills when they walk into the classroom.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 

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