Fluency in multiple languages can increase opportunities and lead to remarkable achievements. As US education secretary Dr. Miguel Cardona shared, “My bilingualism and biculturalism would someday be my superpower.” Recent data from California demonstrates that K–12 students who are fluent in English and another language outperform their monolingual counterparts across all grades and content areas.1
There is a chasm, however, between what we know and what we have incorporated into classroom practices, education policies, and popular opinion about children who are multilingual. Persistent myths, misconceptions, and overt bigotry underlie many of the significant instructional obstacles faced by multilingual learners. One of the most enduring misconceptions is that multilingual students are at a higher risk of low achievement simply because they speak a language other than English. As noted by the National Committee for Effective Literacy for Emergent Bilingual Students (NCEL), students who speak languages other than English at home navigate a school life that perceives their bilingualism as a deficit, framing these students as “limited English proficient” rather than as “emergent bilinguals.” Dominant social messages often do not value the linguistic and cultural resources these children bring to society and rather emphasize the challenges of providing effective instruction in and rapid transition to English. The assumption that monolingualism is the norm is so deeply ingrained that children who function in more than one language are often discussed and treated based on what they lack, rather than on the benefit that they speak another language.
Consistent research demonstrates the cognitive, social, and academic advantages of bilingualism. Bilingual students often showcase enhanced problem-solving skills, greater metalinguistic awareness, and increased cultural competence when compared to monolingual students. Moreover, it is crucial to recognize that bilingualism is not merely the presence of two languages but rather the interaction of two or more languages. Some children learn two or more languages including English simultaneously. Others may primarily speak a language other than English at home and are formally exposed to English-only instruction once they enter school. In this scenario, while the child is learning English, their literacy development is built upon the foundation of the first language. This is a distinct process from monolingual literacy acquisition in that there will be differences based on the child’s first language and cross-linguistic influences.
A child’s phonology will be grounded in their primary language, and their vocabulary will be more developed in their primary language as well. There are also opportunities for the cross-linguistic transfer of skills, especially between English and Spanish, and there is significant evidence that phonological awareness skills and alphabet knowledge are correlated between English and Spanish.
There are also a significant number of cognates that can be leveraged to increase English vocabulary acquisition.
Despite the wealth of research and knowledge available, multilingual learners still encounter opportunity achievement gaps and inequitable unfavorable outcomes in many educational settings. Moreover, these challenges, which have persisted for decades, were further exacerbated by the pandemic. Unfortunately, much of our literacy instruction is focused only on English, and there is generally a lack of awareness about how to incorporate a child’s home language into pedagogical approaches to teaching and assessing reading. Monolingualism is treated as the standard, according to Dr. Lydia Kokkola, linguistics professor and researcher, resulting in emergent bilingual students being considered deficient even before they begin an assessment.2
When the primary assumptions and understandings of how children learn to read and write are based in English, the skills children may bring from another language go unconsidered. This fundamental omission may lead to the negative framing of the skills of bilingual children and to children being misclassified as “at risk.” Teachers may see these students as in need of intervention simply because they are not able to fully demonstrate their language and literacy skills in English, because they are in the process of acquiring English.
As language expert Alexandra Guilamo asserts, while it is essential that we establish a shared definition of effective literacy teaching and learning, it must be informed by a profound understanding of the science behind bilingual development.3 By embracing bilingual assessment practices, we not only acknowledge and celebrate these inherent strengths but also provide opportunities for multilingual learners to excel in their educational journeys, preparing them to become global citizens capable of navigating an interconnected world.
While it is crucial to undertake the necessary work to shift the narrative toward one grounded in factual information and an asset-based perspective, it is equally important to make progress and improvements in providing solutions that can accurately assess bilingual children. High-quality assessments grounded in an understanding of cross-language transfer have the potential to pave the way for a much-needed shift in our nation’s obsolete mindset concerning multilingual learners and the acquisition of literacy in English.
Assessments: A Problem but Also a Solution
Bilingual assessment transcends a mere evaluation of language and literacy proficiency; it encompasses a broader recognition of and appreciation for the rich linguistic resources our students possess. By acknowledging the unique advantages of bilingualism, we can cultivate an educational environment that is more inclusive and equitable, allowing all learners access to high academic outcomes.
First and foremost, bilingual assessment acknowledges the intricate and dynamic nature of language development. It recognizes that language is not a static entity but a living and evolving system influenced by cultural and social factors. Assessing students’ abilities in their home languages, as well as in the language of instruction, offers a more comprehensive understanding of their true capabilities. It enables us to identify areas of strength and areas that require further support, ensuring a more accurate assessment of their overall language and literacy abilities.
Moreover, bilingual assessment promotes the preservation of cultural identity and nurtures a sense of belonging among multilingual learners because it places value on what children know and can do in their home languages. Language is deeply intertwined with culture, and by honoring and valuing students’ native languages, we validate their heritages and foster an environment that celebrates diversity and recognizes their strengths. This, in turn, enhances students’ self-esteem, motivation, and engagement, which all support improved academic outcomes.
Another crucial aspect of bilingual assessment is its potential to bridge language barriers and facilitate meaningful communication between educators, students, and families. When assessments are conducted solely in a language that students are still acquiring, it places them at a disadvantage and restricts their ability to fully demonstrate their knowledge and skills. By employing bilingual assessment strategies, we ensure that students’ voices are heard and their achievements are accurately measured, promoting a more accurate representation of their academic abilities.
Assessments should serve the purpose of informing effective instruction and tracking student progress. However, distinguishing between second-language acquisition and language-based learning challenges continues to be an obstacle. A widespread belief equates lack of native English with lower ability generally, and this belief permeates instructional and assessment practices. Despite federal law requiring valid and reliable tools, many students are assessed using tests that are “normed for English speakers” (NCEL) without considering how the lack of English proficiency is a barrier to performing on these tests.
Multilingual learners do not possess two separate vocabulary systems; rather, they process information through a shared conceptual model. Thus, knowledge of concepts, rather than specific words, becomes a better indicator of overall vocabulary knowledge.4 For example, things that might be perceived as errors during an assessment may be elements or functions from the students’ native languages and can instead be used as approximations for English acquisition.
While it is unreasonable to expect a student to read words in a language that they have not been taught (e.g., formal Spanish for a student who speaks Spanish but is instructed in English), it is also problematic to disregard their oral proficiency in their native language. Assessments should not be administered exclusively in English (despite the majority of students being instructed in a single language), nor only in the native language. Students should be allowed to utilize their full vocabulary and skill set in all languages they know. If that is not feasible, teachers should exercise caution and refrain from flagging students as “at risk” when the issue may stem from assessment availability rather than the students’ abilities.
Assessments should evaluate not only oral language but also literacy development. The assessment of literacy should take a nuanced approach that recognizes the relationship between the language of instruction and the student’s ability in that language.
For example, if Spanish-speaking students are only instructed to read in English, they cannot be expected to know how to decode in Spanish if they do not already have that skill prior to entering English instruction. Baseline skills in Spanish can be assessed, but without access to Spanish reading instruction, students may not make progress.
However, skills such as phonological awareness are metalinguistic and are known to transfer across languages. Phonological awareness has been found to be correlated between Spanish and English, and therefore there is utility in measuring a Spanish-dominant student’s phonological awareness skills in Spanish to better predict their reading ability in English, even if they are receiving English-only instruction. Ultimately, there needs to be a systematic decision-making process in place that considers the student’s language proficiency and how this will interact with the language of their reading instruction.
The inadequacy of appropriate resources, rather than students’ abilities, has long compromised the assessment of multilingual learners and resulted in misdiagnosed learning needs. Not only are students inaccurately categorized as requiring more intensive interventions but they also miss out on enrichment and extension opportunities. Researchers who completed a recent study by NWEA that included data from the 2017–2018 Civil Rights Data Collection and Stanford Education Data Archive found that emergent bilingual students are significantly underrepresented in gifted and talented education, at rates ranging from one-eighth to one-sixth of their representation in the overall student population.5
An effective multitiered system of supports (MTSS) should be implemented by trained and knowledgeable professionals who collect data from multiple sources to identify strengths and learning needs across various contexts, including home and school. Assessment instruments must be reliable and have robust evidence of validity to support the uses and interpretations of the assessment.6 Assessments should also have evidence that they do not discriminate based on race, culture, or language. Importantly, they should be conducted in the student’s native language(s) or any mode of communication that yields the most accurate information about the child’s knowledge and abilities.
The role of assessments within MTSS is to determine the additional instructional support students require and to monitor their progress over time while receiving those supports. Educators who possess an understanding of first- and second-language acquisition and reading development are better equipped to distinguish emergent bilingual students who need additional and more targeted reading instruction versus English language learning support, or both.
Learning a second language is not in and of itself a learning delay. It is simply a piece of information about a student. Assessment results must be interpreted with acknowledgement of the role of proficiency in both languages and how this will influence performance on the assessment. The language of instruction should also be considered and will also influence performance. Therefore, multilingual learners would typically benefit from being assessed in their native language and in English, but the types of assessments and the language of assessment may vary based on individual profiles and experiences.
Native-language acquisition provides a template for language learning, aiding in the identification of phonemes, words, inflections, and grammatical structures, even if the structures differ between languages Learning more than one language does not hinder reading in the second language; rather, it promotes reading proficiency. Furthermore, difficulties in oral language development are predictive of reading difficulties. There is clear evidence of cross-language prediction from oral language skills to both passage comprehension and word reading efficiency when considering oral language in the child’s native language and reading in their second language.
Thus, children’s oral language development should be measured, but unfortunately most assessment suites do not include ways to measure oral language, let alone in multiple languages. It is critically important that bilingual students be given credit for all they know and can do, regardless of the language in which they demonstrate that knowledge. When evaluating the academic and language skills of children growing up bilingually, it is best to examine their performance in both languages to obtain a comprehensive view of their strengths and weaknesses and the full linguistic resources they can draw upon to engage in academic work. Failure to do so looks at the student in fractions, treating bilingual students as two monolingual individuals rather than one whole, multilingual person.7
Measures of oral language, including vocabulary and syntax, have been found to independently predict reading achievement. The impact of oral language skills on reading achievement has been well documented: children with stronger oral language skills make faster progress in acquiring literacy skills throughout their elementary school years. The ability to produce oral language in a communicative context should be considered the gold standard for assessing language knowledge, allowing for the evaluation of multiple levels of language use and facilitating comparisons of words, sentences, and narrative structure within and across languages.
To adequately meet the needs of our multilingual learners, we must recognize the importance of bilingual assessment as a powerful tool for unlocking their true potential.
Implementing bilingual assessment practices requires a commitment of additional resources, training, and collaborative efforts among educators, administrators, and policymakers. By investing in bilingual assessment, we are investing in the future of our students, equipping them with the necessary tools to thrive in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.
To fully embrace the power of bilingual assessment, we must challenge the prevailing belief that monolingualism is the standard and that proficiency in a single language is the sole determinant of academic success. Instead, we must acknowledge and celebrate the diverse linguistic talents and abilities of our students, utilizing their bilingualism as a catalyst for fostering inclusive, equitable, and enriching educational experiences.
Let us embark on this transformative journey in which bilingual assessment becomes an integral component of our educational practices.
In doing so, we affirm our unwavering commitment to honoring the languages, cultures, and untapped potential of all our students. Together, we can forge an educational system that celebrates diversity, promotes equity and justice, and unlocks the unlimited potential of multilingual learners.
• NWEA, a not-for-profit research and educational services organization serving K–12 students, released a new study focusing on the identification of gifted and talented (GT) students who are English learners (ELs) and/or students with disabilities (SWD).
• Education First, in partnership with the LA County Office of Education and the Greater LA Education Foundation, explored research, systems, and practices for approaches to supporting SEL for multilingual students.
• Mancilla-Martinez, J., Hwanh, J. K., and Oh, M. H. (2021). “Assessment Selection for Multilingual Learners’ Reading Development.” The Reading Teacher, 75 (3), 351–362.
• Linan-Thompson, S., Ortiz, A., and Carvazos, L. (2022). “An Examination of MTSS Assessment and Decision-Making Practices for English Learners.” School Psychology Review, 51 (1), 1–14.
• Miller, J. F., Heilmann, J., Nockerts, A., Iglesias, A., Fabiano, L., and Francis, D. J. (2006). “Oral Language and Reading in Bilingual Children.” Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 2 (1), 30–43.
• Guilamo, A. (2023). “Why Focus on Monolingual Solutions to Improve Biliterate Reading?” Language Magazine.
• Kokkola, L. (2013). “Reading Multilingual Literature: The bilingual brain and literacy education.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children s Literature, 51 (3), 22–35.
• National Committee for Effective Literacy for Emergent Bilingual Students (NCEL)
Dr. Lillian Duran (ldu[email protected]) is associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices for dual language learners.
Kajal Patel Below ([email protected]) is vice president of biliteracy at Amplify. In her role, she collaborates and leads initiatives across Amplify’s Spanish offerings, works with national experts in the field, and maintains a pulse on what schools and districts need to serve emergent bilinguals in Spanish.