Embracing bilingual education

Embracing Bilingual Education

Advocating for English Learners’ Inclusion in Bilingual Programs


My experience of learning English as a second language has profoundly impacted my perspective as an educator. I consider this experience a valuable asset that has greatly influenced my personal life and professional work in education. Today, I am proud to acknowledge that my journey as an English learner has played a pivotal role in shaping my identity and approach as a parent, teacher, and leader of English learners.

As an ESL student, navigating high school presented numerous obstacles and hurdles. In addition to mastering a new language and culture, I faced the daunting task of acclimating to a completely unfamiliar educational system. With little guidance or support, I grappled with the challenge of independently pursuing an education. At home, my parents, who were unfamiliar with the US educational system and spoke no English, could offer little assistance navigating educational opportunities. While they encouraged me to pursue a college education, their lack of familiarity with the system meant they could not provide practical guidance. Despite these challenges, my determination and perseverance drove me to overcome each obstacle along the way. Through sheer grit and determination, I not only completed an associate’s, a bachelor’s, and a Master’s in education but achieved the highest degree attainable in the field of education—a Doctoral degree.

Becoming an Advocate in Education

Following my graduation with an associate’s degree in psychology, I felt a strong desire to contribute to my community by assisting students who faced similar educational hurdles to those I had encountered. This motivation led me to pursue a career in education, where I could serve as a mentor and advocate for English learners and other students needing support. Obtaining a degree in school counseling allowed me to offer personalized scheduling and career guidance to high school students. I found immense fulfillment in providing students with the guidance and support I lacked during my high school years. Unfortunately, I was compelled to leave my role as a school counselor due to teacher seniority issues, a decision that left me profoundly disappointed.

Upon being hired as an ESL teacher and coordinator tasked with overseeing the implementation of Title III programming for K-12 students within a district, I embraced the opportunity to become a dedicated advocate for English learners. With a deep understanding of the challenges these students face, I committed myself to not only teaching English but also providing comprehensive support to ensure their academic success. As an advocate, I actively engaged with stakeholders, including students, parents, educators, and administrators, to promote the importance of language acquisition and cultural inclusivity in education. Through collaborative efforts, I worked tirelessly to develop and implement initiatives that addressed the unique needs of English learners, fostering an environment where they could thrive academically and personally. My role as an ESL teacher and coordinator served as a platform for advocating for equitable access to educational opportunities and empowering English learners to achieve their full potential.

As an educator and leader, I continuously sought professional growth and learning opportunities. By attending numerous professional development sessions and immersing myself in best practices research, I ensured that I was equipped with the latest insights and strategies to maximize the resources available and drive positive change in our programs. I remained committed to staying abreast of emerging trends and innovative approaches in language education, constantly refining district initiatives to better meet the evolving needs of English learners. This dedication to ongoing learning enabled me to maximize available resources and implement new initiatives grounded in evidence-based practices, ultimately enhancing the support we provide to K-12 students in our district.

As an advocate, I delved deeply into the research surrounding bilingual education and its manifold benefits for students, particularly English learners. Through this exploration, I came to understand that bilingual programs provide a unique and enriching environment that not only supports language acquisition but also fosters cognitive flexibility, cultural understanding, and academic achievement. Armed with this knowledge, I became passionately committed to ensuring that English learners, especially those from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, had equitable access to dual language programs within my district.

My efforts to speak up for what I believe in didn’t stop at work. Instead, they carried over into my personal life. Recognizing the transformative power of bilingual education, I intentionally enrolled my own children in a bilingual program offered within our community. This decision was rooted in the belief that bilingualism offers invaluable cognitive and cultural advantages that would enrich their educational experience and prepare them for success in an increasingly interconnected world.

Additionally, I was motivated by the desire to provide my children with the same enriching experience of learning two languages, akin to my own upbringing. Understanding the profound value of bilingualism, I recognized that this would enable them to effectively communicate with my parents and other family members who had limited English proficiency. By embracing bilingual education, I aimed to cultivate a strong connection to our cultural heritage and facilitate meaningful interactions within our extended family network.

Today, as I reflect on the journey that led me to advocate for bilingual education, I am profoundly grateful for its positive impact on my children. Witnessing their fluency in multiple languages, their appreciation for diverse cultures, and their academic prowess fills me with immense pride. It reaffirms my unwavering commitment to championing bilingualism as an essential component of educational excellence. Through my advocacy efforts, both professionally and personally, I remain steadfast in my dedication to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to thrive in bilingual learning environments.

What is Bilingual Education?

Dual language education, also known as dual language immersion or bilingual education, is an instructional approach that provides academic content and language instruction in two languages. In dual language immersion programming, students typically receive instruction in both languages (often English) and another language (such as Spanish, Mandarin, or French). A dual language program incorporates cultural components that teach students to appreciate the diverse backgrounds of each language.

Bilingual or dual language programs aim to produce biliterate, bilingual, and bicultural individuals. A well-implemented program teaches language development and academic content in both languages. Dual language programs utilize various instructional models to produce proficient individuals who can understand, speak, write, and read in two languages. Dual language education offers unparalleled benefits for English learners, fostering academic success and cultural proficiency.

Bilingual education is a research area that has shown substantial benefits to students lucky to be part of bilingual programming. Plenty of researchers and investigations confirm the benefits of bilingualism, and one of the earliest research studies was conducted by Dr. Kenneth Lambert in the 1960s. Lambert’s study, known as the “Lambert Report,” focused on the effectiveness of bilingual education programs in Canada. Specifically, Lambert examined and found the positive impact of bilingual education on French-speaking students in Quebec. Other well-known researchers like James Cummins and Stephen Krashen investigated and contributed to the field of education, confirming the positive benefits of bilingualism.  

Yet, it’s puzzling that despite extensive research highlighting the immense advantages of bilingualism, some continue to grapple with comprehending its significance. Furthermore, it’s concerning that dual language programs in schools are rarely available, given the wealth of evidence supporting their effectiveness. Unfortunately, even in 2024, some schools struggle to sustain dual language programs and, at times, choose to discontinue existing programs due to insufficient resources or a lack of understanding.

Bilingual education researchers have shown the enormous benefits that dual language programs offer all students, specifically English learners. Bilingual education programming allows English learners to learn content in their native language as they acquire the English language. For this reason, bilingual education is considered the ideal setting for English learners.

Who Can Participate in Bilingual Programs?

A diverse range of kids can participate in dual-language programming. Students from non-English language backgrounds and English speakers can learn two languages and succeed in bilingual programs. Some programs start as early as preschool, allowing kids to participate as early as 12 months.

Bilingual children who may already speak two languages can benefit from participating in bilingual education programs. For instance, in some elementary schools, I have seen Bengali and Arabic families opt to have their children participate in Spanish and English dual-language programs. Enrollment is open to any family willing to engage in cultural diversity and language development.

Challenges English Learners Face

English learners and their families often encounter numerous challenges when navigating the complexities of the US school system and understanding the available educational programming. For many newcomers, the language barrier poses a significant hurdle, making it difficult to communicate with school staff, understand academic materials, and advocate for their educational needs. Additionally, cultural differences and unfamiliarity with the US education system can exacerbate these challenges, leaving English learner families overwhelmed and isolated. Without adequate support and guidance, navigating the array of educational programs designed to meet the needs of English learners can be daunting. As a result, many families may struggle to access essential resources and services crucial for their children’s academic success and integration into the school community. Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach prioritizing language support, cultural responsiveness, and equitable educational opportunities for English learners and their families.

Furthermore, English learners and their families may face additional barriers due to a lack of knowledge about their rights and a limited understanding of how to advocate for themselves within the educational system. In some cases, this results in schools failing to adhere to laws and policies designed to protect the rights of English learners. This too often leads families to miss opportunities to access bilingual programming and other essential resources. Without proper guidance and support, English learner families may feel powerless to address these disparities, perpetuating a cycle of inequality within the education system.

It is imperative that schools and communities work collaboratively to ensure that English learners and their families are equipped with the information, resources, and support they need to navigate the educational landscape effectively and advocate for their rights. By fostering a culture of inclusivity and empowerment, we can strive towards equity and excellence for all students, regardless of linguistic or cultural background.

Recognizing the importance of Bilingual Education for English Learners

My journey as an English learner, a parent, and an educator fuels my passion for bilingual education. As a student, I remember how helpful it was to learn social studies and science content in my native language. I also remember how frustrating it was to sit in an English class I could not understand. To duplicate my positive experience as a learner, I provided my students with translated text and support as much as possible. Although I could not implement a bilingual program in my district alone, I tried to ensure my students were given translated texts.

Early on, I recognized the importance of bilingual education when I saw how using my native language supported me as a student. I took classes and read research that emphasized the importance of bilingualism. The benefits seem endless, and the more I read about bilingualism, the more I understood its benefits. These benefits fueled my passion to become an advocate. I was eagerly excited when I heard that my school district was implementing dual-language programming.

From there on, I worked closely with administrators and teachers advocating to ensure that English learners were part of the dual language programs. This was not a simple journey because not everyone knew how beneficial bilingual programs were, specifically to English learners. Some parents chose to sign up their kids for the program, but others refused enrollment. Some parents expressed concern or commented, “I don’t want my child to have an accent,” or even said, “I prefer my child to learn English only.” These comments were concerning and prompted me to learn how to combat these misconceptions head-on.

Benefits of Bilingual Programs for Native Spanish speakers

Bilingual programs offer many benefits to Spanish-speaking English learners, providing them with a supportive and inclusive learning environment where they can thrive academically and linguistically. Cummings (1979) noted early in his research that bilingual programs offer a unique advantage by allowing students to see their success reflected in their native language, rather than feeling like they are constantly struggling in an English-only environment. This recognition of success is crucial for students’ self-esteem and motivation, because it reinforces their sense of identity and competence.

When Spanish-speaking newcomers join a dual language program, where instruction is provided in both their native language and English, they are able to continue engaging with academic content while simultaneously learning the language. This approach ensures that students do not fall behind in their academic progress while they develop English proficiency, enabling them to maintain a strong foundation in core subject areas. Moreover, by receiving instruction in their native language, students can fully comprehend complex concepts and ideas, leading to a deeper understanding and mastery of academic content.

Feeling successful as they tackle new concepts and subjects in their own language fosters a sense of confidence and achievement that propels their overall academic growth. Additionally, bilingual programs promote cross-cultural understanding and appreciation, as students learn to value and respect diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. By embracing bilingualism as a pathway to academic success, dual language programs empower Spanish-speaking English learners to excel academically while preserving and celebrating their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Motivations for Advocacy

My motivation for advocacy stems from realizing and understanding the profound benefits that bilingual programming can offer students, particularly in cognitive development and cultural diversity. Witnessing the lack of understanding among parents regarding the advantages their children could gain from bilingual education ignites my passion for advocacy. Reading research studies highlighting the cognitive benefits of bilingualism reinforces my belief in the value of such programs. Moreover, the opportunity for my children to communicate with non-English-speaking family members underscored the practical advantages of bilingualism, further driving my commitment to promoting and supporting bilingual education initiatives within my community.

My firsthand experience working closely with families, witnessing their struggles to navigate the intricacies of the US school system, and understanding their rights influenced me to take action. Recognizing the critical need for accessible resources to empower and educate families in US education, I embarked on a mission to create an online platform called raisinglanguagelearners.com. This platform serves as a comprehensive resource hub, offering guidance, support, and advocacy tools to empower families in navigating the complexities of the education system. By providing valuable insights, practical tips, and relevant information, raisinglanguagelearners.com aims to bridge the gap between families and schools, ensuring every child receives the support and resources they need to thrive academically and linguistically. Through this initiative, I am committed to fostering greater awareness, empowerment, and advocacy within the diverse community of language learners and their families across the United States.

Recent Advocacy Experience

Driven by my unwavering motivation for Education, I recently found myself deeply involved in a local debate regarding the potential closure of a dual immersion program at one of our community schools. Recognizing the critical importance of bilingualism in supporting English language learners, I engaged in discussions with affected families to underscore the value of preserving such programs. In a pivotal moment of support, I attended a school board meeting to share a three-minute public comment advocating for the continuation of the dual language immersion program. In my statement, I emphasized the transformative impact of bilingual education. I highlighted the dual immersion program as the ideal instructional setting for English language learners to thrive academically and linguistically. My impassioned plea urged the board to prioritize preserving this invaluable program, ensuring equitable access to bilingual education for all students in the district.

Here is an excerpt from my public comment:

“I am Dr. Sugely Solano, an English language learner, a multilingual learner teacher and leader, a multilingual education advocate, and a mother of two bilingual kids.  My experience as a language learner, an educator, and a parent has given me the opportunity to embrace and understand the importance of bilingualism. I am here to briefly remind everyone of the various benefits that bilingualism offers: Improved cognitive functions, Higher communication skills, Cultural appreciation, Career opportunities, Delayed cognitive decline , and many more benefits.

For native Spanish speakers, bilingualism is an essential part of our culture and identify. Decades of research have demonstrated that Dual language programming is the ideal instructional setting that allows native Spanish speakers to reach their full academic potential. It gives students the opportunity to learn the language they use with their family (who sometimes may not speak English) and the language they need to learn and communicate in their community. Dual language programming is the most effective instructional setting when parents, educators, and administrators embrace the importance of language development for all students. These results are attained when we fully commit by providing the necessary existing resources. The Department of Education offers professional learning opportunities that school districts should attend and take advantage of to effectively maintain dual language immersion programs. Celebrate and embrace long-term investment that contributes to capable bilingual individuals who can become bilingual educators.”

The enthusiastic pleas of concerned community members echoed throughout the board meeting that night, as public comments in support of preserving the dual language program poured in for over 1.5 hours. It was a testament to the strength and unity of our community, as voices came together to advocate for the rights of English language learners and the preservation of bilingual education. Seeing that our collective efforts did not go unheard of was a relief, as the board ultimately chose to rethink their decision. In a promising turn of events, the school district decided to establish a parent and district committee dedicated to maintaining the dual language program at the school. This outcome serves as a powerful reminder of the impact that advocacy and community engagement can have in shaping educational policies and ensuring equitable access to quality education for all students.

Lessons Learned as an Advocate

In my advocacy efforts, I have learned that staying positive and optimistic can take us much further than being pessimistic. As a result of my dedication to promoting the benefits of bilingualism and supporting English language learners, I have been honored with invitations to contribute to significant initiatives at both the district and state levels. I was invited to lend my expertise to the district committee tasked with revitalizing the bilingual program, where I actively participate in discussions and planning efforts to ensure the program’s success.

Additionally, I was recently extended the opportunity to join the inaugural Multilingual Learner Showcasing Committee in Delaware. As a member of this committee, I play a vital role in organizing a groundbreaking showcasing event to celebrate and highlight the rich diversity of multilingualism across the state. Through these invaluable opportunities, I remain committed to advocating equitable access to bilingual education and championing our communities’ linguistic and cultural diversity.

I am deeply grateful for the volunteering opportunities that have come my way, presenting avenues to further enhance the educational experiences of language learners. As I embark on this journey, my commitment to advocacy only grows stronger, fueled by the passion to ensure equitable opportunities for all language learners. I am enthusiastic about collaborating with like-minded individuals and organizations, united in our mission to champion the rights and needs of language learners in our communities. Together, we can make a meaningful impact and create a more inclusive and supportive educational landscape for all.

Takeaways


I encourage others to join me in becoming advocates for English learners, as our collective efforts can create a profound impact on their educational journey. By actively engaging in community initiatives or organizations that support bilingual education, we can amplify our voices and effect positive change within our educational systems. Together, we can foster an inclusive and supportive environment where English learners can thrive academically, linguistically, and culturally. My commitment to ongoing advocacy efforts remains steadfast, and I am dedicated to providing unwavering support for English learners’ success. Let us unite in our shared mission to empower and uplift language learners, ensuring that every student has the opportunity to reach their full potential.

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