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The Roads to Biliteracy

Some of us were born to be biliterate. The road was paved for us since birth with some mix of: expectation from our family to maintain/add a language other than English (I’ll call this a LOTE from here on out, because we educators love acronyms), opportunities to travel or interact with speakers of LOTEs, and programs that valued multilingualism and fostered LOTE learning in our schools or communities. Others of us had to bust out a metaphorical machete and hack our own path to bilingualism—see beyond a mainstream jungle of monolingual perspectives, resist a tangle of assimilationist attitudes, and create clearings to study LOTEs when these were not part of the immediate landscape.

Among the stories I hear about the events that led people to become bilingual there are several recurring themes—immigration in pursuit of a dream, emigration to escape violence or hardship, falling in love with another country or culture, falling in love with a person from another country or culture—themes that are for the most part, deeply personal. Even for those who embark on that road with more pragmatic motives (diplomacy, military, international commerce, for example), the drive required to achieve a high level of proficiency in another language demonstrates a strong personal investment toward that end. And I would wager that in the process of becoming bilingual many have developed insights into themselves they didn’t anticipate or would say that it has influenced their identity beyond their initial reason for learning another the language.

So, yeah, how we arrive at bilingualism…It’s usually pretty personal. Because language—our primary means for expressing ourselves—is completely intertwined with our culture, our perspective, our identity. Bilingual, multilingual, or monolingual…all of us have language and all of us have stories to tell about our own sociolinguistic journey. And whether we are monolingual or not, whether we are bilingualism advocates or not, the conclusions we have come to about bilingualism—whether or not it is valuable and if so, the best path to take—are influenced by our own experiences. As educators, as administrators, and/or as parents we need to reflect on our own personal story in order to recognize how it informs our opinions about the roads we want to build for our kids.

My own path started in the womb. About to be the youngest child in a bilingual home, daughter to a pioneering local advocate for bilingual education, gestating at the same moment in time as bilingual education in Chicago…I was hearing Spanish and English and the rationale for why I should speak both before I took my first breath of air. I was one of those “born to be biliterate” people.

Everyone in my house was bilingual. My mother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, learned English at school and kept her Spanish in spite of a society that encouraged her to let go of it and a school that did not value it. My father, an Irish-German boy from Cicero, was inspired to learn Spanish when in college he met the woman who would be my mother and ended up developing a respectable level of fluency and a rather decent accent despite starting his learning as an adult. (Perhaps his musical ear helped him in this. My clearest memories of him speaking Spanish are of him joining in when the guitars came out at a party to bust out the traditional Mexican ballads.) The two of them made sure we all had plenty of opportunities to use both languages. Even my sister, Lucia, who had profound cognitive disabilities and used a modified sign language to communicate—was a receptive bilingual, understanding and responding appropriately whether spoken to in English or Spanish. I also had a caregiver from the Philippines with whom I was very close—she was my ninang (madrina/godmother)—so in interacting with her in my early years I also began to learn Tagalog. (She moved away when I was still young and I’ve lost the language, but somehow whenever I hear it I feel like I almost understand.) So, that was my language landscape when I started out on this path…

As I reflect on where I started and the subsequent route I took to biliteracy, I realize that my experience is something of an anomaly; it would have been pretty normal for my siblings and me, as third generation “half-Latinos” to have lost our Spanish completely. Yet, on the contrary, Spanish has been an integral part of both our daily lives and careers for all of us AND (even more remarkable to many) all of us have raised bilingual children.

Reflecting on my own language learning through the lens of guiding others on a path to bilingualism, first as a teacher and then also as a parent, I also have realized that my route was actually made up of many kinds of roads. Some more engineered and structured, some more organic and integrated into the landscape. I had different guides and traveled with many different companions along the way. My experience was sometimes more of a stroll, sometimes a hike, sometimes a motorcycle ride…you get the idea…there was not one single experience that made it happen.

These reflections tell me a few things. First, the need to reverse the trend of language loss in our LOTE communities is real. Given the tremendous loss this represents to individuals, families, and communities, maintaining the home/heritage LOTE beyond the 2nd generation should be the norm, not the exception. Second, as a society we need to embrace the idea that multilingualism and LOTE learning should be a meaty part of everyone’s education, not just gravy (alternatively, as a main protein, not just garnish—for my vegetarian friends). Third, we need to give some real thought to how we can truly build multiple pathways with multiple access points to bilingualism and make them equitably available for any child to travel. Whether a child starts as monolingual or multilingual, whether they are labeled an English speaker or a speaker of “non-standard English” or an English Learner (EL), there should be a path open to them in any school they attend that can lead them to bilingualism and biliteracy. Biliteracy should not be an exclusive destination accessible only by private chopper. We need to build many roads.

The adoption of the Seal of Biliteracy by many states including my very own Illinois is a significant milestone on our whole country’s road to multilingualism. This award—given to students who have achieved proficiency in two or more languages by the time they graduate high school—recognizes not just the individual accomplishment of particular students but represents an important shift away from a mindset of linguistic homogeneity and cultural assimilation. This makes complete sense given the wealth of research and increasing attention in the media to the value of bilingualism. There seems to be an ever-growing list of positive benefits: academic success, more economic opportunities, greater cognitive flexibility, increased empathy, the ability to stave off dementia for longer, etc. etc. etc. So there seems to be general agreement that the depth of bilingualism that the Seal of Biliteracy represents is a worthy goal. Again, for me, the critical issue becomes: How can school districts to create more opportunities for all kids to become biliterate?

A strong dual language program is one of the best ways to ensure that kids [both English Learners (EL) and non-EL] develop robust literacy skills in two languages; the goal of biliteracy is definitional to the design of the program, which embeds two-language learning intentionally into students’ entire academic experience over many years. A good dual language program is like a smooth paved highway, engineered specifically to get students to that destination. But it is not the only way.

When schools cannot provide a dual language program or if the dual language program can only be a “strand” within the school, it doesn’t mean they need to give up on offering all students a road to biliteracy. When schools collaborate—within and across districts, with families, with communities and partner organizations—and adopt creative structures and practices to support development of LOTEs, a variety of pathways to this worthy goal become visible.

If we think of the different components a school might integrate to promote multilingualism as “cobblestones” of various sizes, shapes, and colors, we start to see how we can put them together in different combinations to create a variety of avenues toward biliteracy. Especially when educators, administrators, community organizations, and parents work together, they can cobble together various roads to deeper bilingualism and biliteracy. Even if schools only put one or two of these in place, these can be the stepping stones to building a wider, smoother road in the future.

Here are some “Cobblestones” with examples of what they might look like:

Multilingualism-Friendly Environment

  • Text environment in all the common spaces includes multiple languages

  • Events that feature one or more LOTEs e.g. Family Multi-Literacy Night, Community Read Alouds, Multilingual Poetry/Story Slams

  • Communications that represent all LOTEs of the community

  • Bilingual teachers modeling and discussing continued development and growth as bilinguals

  • Monolingual teachers modeling appreciation, learning, and use of LOTEs (e.g. Monolingual librarian does read alouds with code-switching books)

  • Professional development for all staff to develop multilingual/multicultural lenses on their practice

  • Policies that at least do not contradict and hopefully promote multilingualism

  • Encouraging student performance in LOTEs (e.g. Talent Show)

  • Multi-age “literacy buddies” of the same language background

  • Groupings/times that allow for student discussion in LOTEs

  • Encouraging practice of 1st drafts of student writing in LOTE

  • Having kids maintain a classroom multilingual cognate wall

  • Bilingual project options

  • Teacher collaboration across bilingual/general education programs on unique multilingual units or activities

Teaching Intentionally Through a Multilingual Lens

  • Knowing (and leveraging as resources) the home/heritage LOTEs of all students – not just of ELs

  • Inviting students into metalinguistic, metacultural, and sociolinguistic discussions

  • Getting to know the relationship between English and a LOTE especially when interpreting student language use and assessing student work

  • Using multiple literacies approach, e.g. arts integration, that validates many forms of expression

  • Grounding curriculum in multiple perspectives – creating fertile ground for appreciation of linguistic as well as other kinds of diversity

Partnerships with Multilingual Parents and Families

  • Guidance and encouragement on promoting LOTE use in family

  • Access to lending library/digital texts in LOTEs or bilingual titles

  • Family homework assignments that engage students in LOTE use with parents, grandparents, older siblings

  • Opportunities for parents to reflect on language and bring LOTEs into the school: bilingual parent writing workshops, storytelling events, school newspaper articles, read-alouds, etc.

  • Inviting families to identify and share their linguistic and cultural resources

Partnership with Organizations in the Multilingual Community

  • Working with public libraries, local bookstores, etc. to boost their multilingual offerings (texts and events)

  • Finding synergies/aligning efforts with bilingual/LOTE instruction done in “Saturday Schools”

  • Working with local universities to encourage multilingual students to volunteer, do observation hours, student teach

  • Creating a pipeline of multilingual guest speakers, tutors, mentors

Multilingual Extracurricular Options

  • Communicate demand for vendors to incorporate multilingual options

  • Create programs internally e.g. Multilingual Club, Bilingual Book-Making, etc.

  • Opportunities for travel e.g. scholarships/sponsorship for immersion camps, travel abroad, etc.

Use of Technology to Facilitate LOTE Use

  • Making software for LOTE learning available to students and teachers

  • Access to digital texts in LOTEs

  • Facilitating virtual pen pal exchanges with speakers of LOTEs

Partnership with Existing Language Programs Within or Across Districts

  • Alliances formed to align PR and advocacy efforts around multilingualism

  • Identifying and collaborating where possible in professional learning, networking, and events

  • Offer 2nd (or 3rd!) language opportunities in the form of world language elective for middle and high schools

  • Creative cross-linguistic activities e.g. virtual multilingual book club (kids read same title in different languages and discuss online through art, multiple languages, or in English)

  • Independent study options for high school ELs who speak” low incidence” languages to earn credit for pursuing further literacy in their home/heritage LOTE

  • Multilingual focus in district strategic planning e.g. expansion of World Language to more schools, more grades or in more languages; design for coherence from K-12 of World Language and Heritage Language programs, long-term vision to develop Dual Language options, etc.


Take a peek at some of the road pics and see if any of the images resonate for you as you reflect:

  • What was your sociolinguistic journey like and how has this shaped you as an educator/parent/community member?

  • What roads to biliteracy are available in your school community? For which students?

  • What roads to biliteracy would you like to see open for your students?

  • What role can you play in building these roads?

Post your own “road” pics! Share your thoughts! @Paridad_us #roadstobiliteracy

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