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Emergent bilingual students: Shifting to an asset model of instruction

The idea that students who don’t speak English “come with a deficit” is deeply ingrained in our schools. How to shift that -- and improve outcomes -- with an asset model of instruction.

5 min read


Emergent bilingual students: Shifting to an asset model of instruction

José A. Viana

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

In today’s column, we hear how about the benefits emergent bilingual students bring to the classroom from José A. Viana, former assistant deputy secretary in the office of English Language Acquisition at the US Department of Education, now a senior advisor at Lexia Learning.

Many researchers have determined that labeling immigrant students as English language learners establishes conditions for failure as they experience the inequity of our school system. For years, ELL students have been regarded as students who come with a deficit, or gaps, in their knowledge. The assumption is that these students must be taught English in order to assimilate into our culture and ultimately be successful in school. On the other hand, to regard these students as “emergent bilingual,” suggests that there is value in their native language and cultural background, in addition to other contributions they bring to the classroom.

Currently, there are nearly five million emergent bilingual students in our nation’s public schools, with Spanish as the most prevalent native language. This population of students is growing so rapidly that districts across the country are struggling to determine how to best serve them. The idea that students who don’t speak English “come with a deficit” is deeply ingrained in our schools, and so shifting educators’ thinking to an “asset” model can prove challenging. ELL students are frequently marginalized, and so educators must be intentional as they consider how to unlock the potential of these students. The diversity they bring must be respected and appreciated, as opposed to simply evaluating what these students lack.

This concept is not just about motivating ELL students to succeed academically, but helping everyone in the educational community to recognize and value what bilingual students bring to the classroom. This strategy helps to do away with preconceptions and transition toward achieving educational equity for these students. Inequities have occurred because educators and administrators have not acknowledged the importance of home languages and cultures, and presume that emergent bilingual students have the same needs as students who speak English only.

The Benefits of Bilingualism

There are cognitive and social-emotional learning benefits to becoming both bilingual and biliterate.  Students with the ability to speak more than one language have demonstrated advantages in awareness of language, communication skills, memory, decision-making and analytical skills. Not only are these students bilingual, they are bicultural. They develop empathy through awareness and respect for other cultures and customs. Educators should focus on the positive qualities of emerging bilingual students rather than emphasize exclusively what they’re lacking.

At a certain point, schools actually benefit from the enrollment of emerging bilingual students. This is reflected in testing scores. Research shows that emergent bilingual students outperform English-only students. Being proficient in two or more languages is a great benefit to our local communities and of growing significance in our global economy, our national security and defense, and our country’s leadership on the world stage.

Our nation needs professionals with cultural knowledge and skills in multiple languages. Bilingual adults are extremely valuable in business and the workforce. Bilingual students who go on to study international business, public policy, or political science have bright economic futures. Many companies now have either a global presence or a global supply chain, and recognize the significant economic advantage to have employees that are either bilingual or multilingual. Most western countries, with the exception of the US, are bilingual in practice. Students study their native language and also English, which is the international language of business and politics. A shift in perspective would help us value the contribution of emergent bilinguals to our country’s prosperity.

Making the Shift

Mastery of English is critical for the success of emerging bilingual students. The primary instructional approach in the past has been either full immersion into regular classes conducted in English or weekly pull-out ELL group work. Research has conclusively shown however, that some instruction in a student’s native language is beneficial to emerging bilingual students and yet there has been little application of that in our public schools. Often, lack of time, knowledge and resources have kept teachers from personalizing the instruction that emergent bilingual students need to thrive.

Providing professional development and support for teachers of emerging bilingual students may well encourage them to respect languages and cultural experiences that are different than their own. Personalized, academic support from teachers will in turn help emerging bilinguals focus on their speaking and listening skills development. This instructional approach accelerates language acquisition and improves academic outcomes.

The following recommendations will assist teachers and administrators in supporting their new perspective on emerging bilingual students:

  • Use educational technology to support a personalized adaptive blended learning model.

  • Use media that positively depicts a range of cultures so that students can process content more effectively.

  • Allow students to direct their own learning in ways that are both culturally and socially relevant.

  • Find different ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge.

  • Engage parents as partners in the education process. It is important for them to speak their native language with their children and to take pride in their heritage. 

José A. Viana is the former assistant deputy secretary in the office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education. He is now a senior advisor, education partnerships for Lexia Learning, a Rosetta Stone company. ______________________________________________________________________________________

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