A BU professor of early childhood education shares research backed ways to support bilingual children in the classroom as well as at home — and why the English only approach hinders their educational growth.
By Thalia Plata
According to data from the 2021 American Community Survey, the percentage of people in the United States who speak more than one language at home has nearly doubled from 11% in 1980 to 21.6% today — which roughly translates into 1 out of every 5 adults. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 33% of all U.S. children under the age of 9 speak more than one language. In Massachusetts, the number is 39%.
While language education may not seem like a traditional topic for primary or secondary school education, researchers largely agree that language education should be implemented.
To learn more about the educational experiences of bilingual children and how teachers can better support them, we turned to Dr. Dina Castro, director of the BU Institute for Early Childhood Well-Being and a professor of early childhood education at BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Her research focuses on equity and quality in the early care and education of bilingual children. Her education work centers around the intersectionality of language, culture, race, ethnicity, immigration status, and disability.
What challenges do bilingual students commonly face?
One challenge is the limited availability of bilingual education, especially for the youngest bilinguals in early childhood programs. Adding to the scarcity of schools offering bilingual education, the limited preparation of teachers, from early childhood to secondary education, to provide high quality education to bilingual learners is another big challenge.
Additionally, the focus on English learning does not recognize the bilingual nature of these children’s brain development and learning processing. There are also negative consequences for students’ socio-emotional development and mental health associated with bilingual students’ losing their first language due to being educated in an English only environment. These aspects are generally not taken into consideration when language policies in education are determined.
Another challenge is assessment bias which can occur when bilingual students are assessed only in English with questions or prompts that are constructed with only white monolingual English speakers in mind. When creating assessment tests in a language other than English, it is important to make sure that the instruments used are culturally informed and not a direct translation of the English tests.
Assessment bias has implications for students’ future schooling, as they can be mistakenly identified as having a delay or disability and then, referred to special education services, or they could not be identified when they need such services. The over and under-representation of bilingual children in special education has been extensively studied and documented.
What are some of the strengths bilingual students have?
Bilingualism itself is a strength. Decades of research support the advantages of bilingualism across developmental domains, especially on children’s cognitive and social skills. However, English-only policies and educational approaches continue to be prevalent in early childhood programs and schools serving bilingual students.
There is an urgent need to change the view that a student’s bilingualism is a “barrier” or a “problem” that needs to be fixed. It is important to point out, however, that this view applies to bilingual students from racial, ethnic, and cultural minoritized populations and not to White monolingual English speakers interested in learning a second language.
In recent years, there has been an increased awareness about the benefits of bilingualism among affluent white-monolingual English-speaking families that has influenced the expansion of dual language education nationally. This is expected to benefit bilingual students from racial and ethnic minoritized communities, and there is research supporting those positive results. However, what can be an opportunity to address inequities could also have the opposite effect. There is emerging research about inequities in the implementation of dual language education, for example, when these programs increase in higher income communities or become selective schools for academically gifted students.
What educational approaches should be used to support bilingual students, both inside and outside of the classroom?
A key issue in the education of bilingual children is the lack of use of their first language in instruction. Using bilingual children’s home language in instruction will offer them opportunities to have rich language interactions and close relationships with their teachers and peers, and to demonstrate all they learn inside and outside the school. Opportunities for diverse and frequent linguistic interactions in students’ two languages increase the likelihood that they will become bilingual, while limited learning opportunities to use a language can hinder development in that language.
For bilingual children from marginalized racial, ethnic, and cultural communities the lack of support for developing their home language not only impacts their language development, but can also have implications for their development including their self-esteem, identity, and feeling of belonging. In addition, assessment bias and a curriculum that does not include them and their cultural experiences are manifestations of how students’ language is used as a tool for racism and discrimination. To address inequities, the best educational approach for bilingual children from minoritized communities is bilingual education with an anti-racist, culturally affirming curriculum.
How can parents who are English learners support their bilingual student(s)? How can teachers include these parents in their children’s education?
There is no reason to believe that children growing up with two languages will fall behind in school or have language delays. Parents may have that concern, and teachers can help by providing information about current research and reassuring parents that their children will benefit both academically and psychologically by maintaining and developing their first or home language.
With these ideas in mind, parents who are English learners are the most important resource for their children’s home language development. For example, teachers can include them in bilingual book reading and storytelling in the classroom and provide books in children’s home languages for parents to read at home. For young children, using picture books with no text is a great strategy to promote literacy in children’s home language.
Bilingual children need adequate and consistent support to take advantage of the opportunity to truly become bilingual. Speaking to their children in the home language is not enough for them to become competent bilinguals. They need to listen but also to speak their home language and eventually read and write in both their home language and English.
Bilingualism and biliteracy will increase students’ chances to perform well in school and get better job opportunities in the global market while keeping them connected to their family and rooted in their culture.