S5-E2: Biliteracy and assessment with Dr. Lillian Durán
Susan Lambert: Lillian Durán joins us on today's episode to talk about biliteracy, including the importance of valuing the home language of all of our students. Dr. Durán is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Oregon and her research is focused on the improvement of instructional and assessment practices with dual language learners. It was such a pleasure to talk with Lillian about what biliteracy means, how we can use assessment practices to help inform instructional needs and how language learning impacts literacy development. Well hello, Lillian. Thank you so much for joining us on today's episode.
Lillian Durán: I'm really glad I could be here and it's really great to have this opportunity to speak to your audience.
Susan Lambert: Well, our audience always loves it when our guests introduce themselves and share a little bit about your journey. In this context, we're going to be talking a little bit about biliteracy, so we would love for you to share that journey.
Lillian Durán: All right. Well, I began career as an early childhood special education teacher and I was doing lots of assessments for eligibility and I moved from Washington DC to rural Minnesota and I thought, who in rural Minnesota is going to care that I speak Spanish? And lo and behold, these tiny towns in Minnesota, Sleepy Eye, Madelia, Arlington, any viewers out there from Minnesota will know these tiny little towns, 30 to 40% Latino populations. And so a lot of people cared that I spoke Spanish and it was really valuable and important that I was able to conduct assessments in Spanish and be able to communicate with families in Spanish, discuss a special education process. And that really spurred my interest in better understanding how we support the language development of bilingual or multilingual children. First it started within the context of special education but then went way beyond that, thinking about early educational opportunities, trajectories in our school system and then looking at academic outcomes. And that's what spurred me back for my PhD and to really focus on this area of research. Additionally, I'm first generation born in the US. My mom is from Germany, foreign language and my dad is from Mexico foreign language, so I grew up in a trilingual household and people are like," Oh, that's so cool. You learned three languages." And I'm like," It's not really about learning three languages, it's about knowing three languages from birth." And this is the gift that these children have. And so I really work in my career to support that gift that their family, their heritage, their culture, their lineage, gave them.
Susan Lambert: Wow. That's an amazing story. And triliteracy, I guess I didn't realize that you were triliterate. That's really exciting. We'll talk a little bit more about this whole issue.
Lillian Durán: Yeah. I just want to clarify I'm trilingual.
Susan Lambert: Go ahead.
Lillian Durán: And I think that's an important distinction to make. I don't read in all three languages. Certainly my German reading skills are next to nil, particularly if you know anything about German and how long the words are now. Anyway, it's a shallow orthography but I'm certainly not literate. I'm trilingual. You can speak a language without being literate in that language. Literacy has to do with reading, language has to do with speaking and understanding.
Susan Lambert: That's a really, really, really good clarification that I didn't even realize till right now that I was using these terms interchangeably. Let's have you talk a little bit then about biliteracy as opposed to being bilingual. Define it for our listeners and then talk a little bit about why you think it's really a critical topic.
Lillian Durán: Yeah, I'd be happy to. When you think li being literate in general, it takes some instruction. No one becomes literate without someone sitting them down and teaching them the alphabet, the characters, the system of literacy in that particular language. And so in order to be biliterate or multiliterate, you need to have some instruction in those languages to be able to decode the code of that language, the written code of that language. And so to be bilingual or multilingual, you can be exposed to the language by heritage, by being in a family, growing up speaking that language, by taking classes, by ending up in a country where you are speaking only that language. But even though you speak and understand the language doesn't mean you're able to read in that language. And then full literacy really means being able to read well and acquire new knowledge in that language through reading. And even that, there's a spectrum of being able to basically decode in the language, to where you're really able to comprehend what you're reading in that language.
Susan Lambert: And it's becoming more and more a topic here in the United States. Why is it that we're hearing more, talking more about biliteracy?
Lillian Durán: Well, we're talking more about it because we understand the value of having a population that is biliterate or multiliterate. It's one thing to be able to have conversations with someone in another language, it's a whole other thing to be able to access information in a language other than English or in addition to English. Additionally, some states have the seal of biliteracy now where they are supporting students on their transcript when they graduate from high school to have the seal of being biliterate. That gives you a leg up in the marketplace in terms of acquiring future employment, in terms of your opportunities. And again, it becomes this discussion about children who grow up in homes that speak languages other than English and within the context of the US, 70% or more of those children speak Spanish at home. Spanish is the primary other language spoken in the United States. Of course, there are many other languages and we don't want to discount the value of those languages as well but Spanish is the primary other language that children become literate in through instruction in schools, whether they're public or charter or other schools, that we've increased our awareness of and our ability to support biliteracy in English and in Spanish.
Susan Lambert: Now I have a question for you about the language that students are speaking at home versus the language that they're learning in school. There is some benefit for students to be speaking their home language at home, coming to school and being able to sort of take that idea of language and put it in the context of English. There's some benefits to being biliterate or bilingual, is that right?
Lillian Durán: Oh yeah. There's definitely benefits to being bilingual. Think about the world that's open to you when you speak more than one language. There's also been some documented cognitive benefits in terms of executive functioning with bilingual individuals. And then there's also this idea that what children learn at home and all of their concept development that happens in their home language, they're able to have this foundational knowledge that transfers, it provides a support or a foundation for their acquisition of English. In terms of literacy, there's also linguistic transfers that happen when those meta linguistic skills like phonological awareness or alphabet knowledge. Thinking about phonological awareness skills like alliteration, what words start with the first sounds or allision taking away sounds from words. Being able to auditorily manipulate sounds, understanding sound patterns, those skills are those precursors to reading and no matter what language you start to learn some of those skills in, there's a transfer and understanding of how to listen to sounds, how to put sounds together and that eventually those sounds form words and that there's meaning in those sounds and those sounds combinations. And so all of that early language and early literacy development provides a foundation in whatever home language that child is acquiring those skills in, to then map onto English. It becomes very important that we continue to encourage families to use their home language with their child, teach them basic early literacy skills if they can in their home language and that will support English language and literacy acquisition.
Susan Lambert: That makes a lot of sense. And here on this podcast, we talk a lot about the simple view of reading and the importance of both word recognition, language comprehension, for both reading and writing proficiency in English. How does that actually relate? How does that framework relate to Spanish?
Lillian Durán: Yeah. And so that's a great question and really it's the same process. There is no mystery here. Children need to learn how to decode. They need those specific reading skills but then they also need to have the background knowledge and the foundational knowledge to make sense of what they're reading. And so what we know from data with English learners is that we do a very good job of teaching them how to decode words, the basic fundamentals of reading, but then when they get into comprehension, our school programs haven't done enough to build deep vocabulary knowledge in English. And those children come into English only settings early on in their development, say kindergarten or preschool and the most likely scenario is they start to lose those skills in their home language or they plateau in their home language. And so they begin to lose access to the rich conceptual development that might be happening in their home environment because maybe they're understanding less or they're using less of their home language at home with their family and community. They come into school, their English is just coming online, they're given the impossible task of learning English, being in the process of learning English, while they are required to learn in English. And so they miss years of instruction because they're just trying to understand the language of instruction. And so you get to about the third grade and you have a child who may be able to decode really well, put those sounds together but then when it comes to really understanding the text, that's where things start to fall apart for them. And so going back to the simple view of reading, it becomes really critical, the language portion of that simple view of reading for our English learners. That in all of our early interaction with them educationally in our planning, we need to have a systematic focus on their language development, both maintaining their home language development and really doing a good job of teaching English so that they will master that deep knowledge of vocabulary and be prepared to be good comprehenders in English.
Susan Lambert: That's really an important topic. I'd sort of like to put an exclamation point on is that the development of language in their home language or in their Spanish language, we're talking about Spanish here, is critical to keep going as they're also learning English so we don't sort of get to a standstill then.
Lillian Durán: Exactly, exactly. And too often, what happens is families get these erroneous, misinformed advice from a range of people, from teachers, to special education specialists even, pediatricians that they need to discontinue using Spanish at home in favor of supporting English language development but nothing could be further from the truth. What we know from research is that children who have strong home language skills, strong skills in Spanish, will then be able to use that and leverage that knowledge to then acquire English. And it won't interrupt their concept development in their home environments and the rich conversations that they can be having again, within their home and community.
Susan Lambert: I recently attended the CDL Plain Talk Conference in New Orleans and our team asked attendees to share their science of reading stories. Take a listen and we'll be right back.
Speaker 3: When I think about brought me to the science of reading, I have to be honest, it was because I was hired as a literacy coach for my district and right away, we began looking for ways to reach every single student in our parish and how to bridge our current reading gaps, which were pretty significant. And we wanted to make every student a successful and avid reader.
Susan Lambert: I want to give our listeners just a little bit of insight into what happens during pre- call sometimes. When we had our pre- call and we were sort of talking about this, I shared with you that my granddaughter, who's in seventh grade now, has been involved in a Spanish immersion school and she started instruction in Spanish only in pre- K. And now she is biliterate. She is fully fluent in English and in Spanish, is a reader and writer and speaker in both languages. And do you remember how you responded to that when I shared that with you?
Lillian Durán: Yes, I do. And I think this is a really critical point now in the United States regarding our questions and our interest and our motivation to promote equity in our nation. And when you think about it, think about the conversations you've had with folks. Children who come from English speaking backgrounds and their family goes," Oh, I have them in Spanish immersion," just like you said, or I have them in French immersion or Chinese immersion. And we celebrate those children and we celebrate their bilingualism and rightfully so, bilingualism is a gift, no matter how you acquire it. But then think about conversations around those children who come into school speaking a language other than English. And the conversation starts to go down this direction of," Well, they need to learn English. They need to give up their home language. They need to give up their home culture." Why do we have this dichotomous view of bilingualism where it's celebrated in one population and discouraged and even interfered with in another population? And really when you start to come down to the nuts and bolts of these decisions, it has to do with class. It has to do with class replication and who gets to be privileged by bilingualism. And by and large, when you think about our dual language learners in the United States, there are higher incidences of poverty in that population, they're living in neighborhoods with less access to high quality education, they're marginalized in terms of employment. And these are all social structures around these families. This has nothing to do with their capability or their willingness to work or their ability to work or their intelligence or their motivation. These are hard working, capable people. And yet in the United States, there are so many challenges and barriers for them because of discrimination and discrimination based on speaking a language other than English versus the child or the family who has all these opportunities, is an English speaking family and is able to have the opportunity and the privilege of sending their child to a school where they're able to acquire bilingualism and biliteracy. And so we really need to flip these conversations on their head in the United States and understand our approaches to these populations and really create an equitable system where there's bilingualism and biliteracy for all and all children can access that. Particularly those children who come from homes where Spanish is the primary language spoken. That is their birthright and we should be supporting their ability to maintain their bilingual development and their biliteracy development.
Susan Lambert: Such a great point that really hit hard when you said that to me because I consider myself somebody that wants equity and access for all and I had never considered that point of view. Thank you very much for sharing that with our listeners. And it actually sort of helps us transition then to the in school environment where even for school populations that celebrate all students and their biliteracy development, they don't often have the right kind of tools that they need to have to ensure that their students are developing as proficient readers. And one of those elements we talk a lot about on this podcast too, is assessment. Universal assessment, so important to understanding the needs of all students. But it's a real issue when we're talking about Spanish speaking children. Can talk a little bit about that?
Lillian Durán: Oh yeah. I'm an assessment expert. I'm someone who for over the last 12 years of my life have dedicated my career to designing preschool early language and literacy universal screening instruments in both English and Spanish. I have received funding through the US Department of Education. And I listeners to know that the US Department of Ed, through the Institute of Education Sciences supports this work, which I really appreciate the investment. And so the way I got into assessment is that number one, as I explained to the listeners, my background is in special education. I spent 10 years as a special educator, conducting assessments, evaluating children and making high stakes decisions about where they will be, what education they'll receive, their levels of development. And these are critical decisions that really set children on these various trajectories within our school system. Universal screening is a really important part of multi- tiered systems of support and we want it to be preventative. The whole reason MTSS started was for us to be able to identify early on those kids that would benefit from additional instruction but we need to be accurate in identification. And so having assessments in the home languages of the children that we need to serve and in this case, we're talking about Spanish speakers, helps us understand what do they know in Spanish? Before we assess them in a language that maybe they're just in the process of acquiring, we really need to understand what are those foundational skills that they're bringing to the table as they enter schools so that we can build on them. Too often, we underestimate their ability when we assess only in English because they're not able to tell us, they're not able to demonstrate what they know yet in English. Again, because simply because they're in the process of acquiring that language.
Susan Lambert: That makes a lot of sense. And what do you see with, so let's say that I'm a school or a district that doesn't have access to an assessment specifically in early literacy for Spanish. What would you think that I would notice about the Spanish speaking students as it relates to their performance on an assessment in English?
Lillian Durán: Well, I could talk to you about my IGD research, the individual growth and development indicators is the Spanish language, early language and literacy screener that I've developed and along with the team at University of Minnesota. And what we find in our research, we assess the kids in our studies, both in English and Spanish, and what happens and these are the same populations of children, is that we way over identify needs for tier two and tier three supports and those are higher level supports for those listeners that aren't familiar with MTSS, when we assess in English only, than when we look at their Spanish skills. It's differences like, so our Spanish dominant populations say on their oral language vocabulary measure, about 90% of them if we measured them only in English, looked like they needed tier two or tier three support. But that same population of kids, when we measured them in Spanish, it was only about 30% and more in line with what you would expect in a population that looked like they needed tier two or tier three support in terms of their performance on the evaluation. We see in our research and these are population sample sizes of 400 students. This isn't a small sample size and we're really able to see these patterns based on children's home language dominance and their performance on English. It makes common sense. If they're stronger in Spanish, they're going to do better on a Spanish language assessment. If they're just emerging in English, then their English assessment isn't going to be a valid indicator of their ability level and also not a valid predictor of their potential longterm reading performance. Spanish will be a much better predictor early on as they're in the process of acquiring English.
Susan Lambert: And when we translate then that assessment data into information that actually helps the instructional process, how is it that we then sort of balance that idea? Let's say I do have a Spanish assessment that I'm delivering to these students but I also want to help them grow in English. What does that mean for their core instruction time or their intervention time? How do we bring these things together in terms of instruction?
Lillian Durán: Yeah, these are great questions and they're nuanced is what I will say about this. I will do my best to address all of the nuances involved in what you just asked. I advocate for always assessing these children in English and Spanish because number one, most schools are instructing in English and you need to know where you're beginning in English but you also want to know what they know in Spanish. The nuance in this discussion is about whether you're in a bilingual program or an English only program and what approaches you can actually take. What resources are at your disposal? The best case scenario is that you measure the child in English and Spanish, you figure out what their levels are in each language and then you're able to target instruction at their levels in each language. What happens too often, even in bilingual programs is unfortunately the Spanish language instruction is geared more toward the child who is learning English as a second language, so those monolingual English speakers that get into these immersion programs versus really enhancing the knowledge, vocabulary development, the literacy development of those kids who already have really strong Spanish skills and they're ready for a higher level instruction, more novel vocabulary, maybe moving up through harder texts more rapidly than those kids who are just learning Spanish as a second language. Those of you out there in bilingual programs, I really invite you to really think about how you're gearing your instruction toward the native Spanish speakers in your programs and making sure it's challenging enough and that you have high enough expectations for those students to really get them geared up and ready for postsecondary education. That's one piece of the puzzle. The other piece is if you're in an English only program, you want to have a systematic way if you're assessing in both English and Spanish, that you account for this child's skills in Spanish. How do you systematically facilitate cross linguistic transfer of both those early literacy skills and language? For instance cognates, building on direct cognate. Cognates are words that sound the same in both languages and have the same meaning for instance, elephant and elephante. And so you want to build instruction that might build on cognate instruction, that would help facilitate those connections between English and Spanish and not think that those connections are just going to happen by osmosis but that you're really intentional. And then finding a really strong curriculum in both languages, which they're available out there in the market, to be able then to do a really solid job of teaching in both literacy in both English and in Spanish.
Susan Lambert: For those folks, you mentioned MTSS. For those folks that are in schools that are using the MTSS process, and maybe in a biliteracy context, this adds a bit of layer of complexity then to the development of language, if we're assessing and looking at both English and Spanish and then trying to respond through our core instruction or interventions. There's a little complexity here, right?
Lillian Durán: Exactly. And we don't want to oversimplify these issues because there's another piece of the puzzle that I haven't quite brought up yet and that's home language environments. We know that kids who speak Spanish at home, there's a lot of heterogeneity in how much English and Spanish they're exposed to at home. It's not as if that every child who speaks Spanish at home only speaks Spanish at home. There's lots of bilingual households where kids are exposed to both languages. And so it's important when kids, particularly in kindergarten when they enter school, to do some sort of home language survey that really systematically looks at how much English, how much Spanish is spoken in the home, so that you can start to classify those kids as either simultaneous or sequential bilinguals. Your simultaneous bilinguals will have skills in English. They've been speaking English since birth, along with Spanish at home. And your sequential bilinguals are those kids who are primarily speaking Spanish at home and are learning English formally when they're entering preschool or kindergarten. Those groups of kids will perform differently on assessments in both English and Spanish, just based on their exposure. This is just common sense. And therefore also instruction may be different because they're starting in different places, in both languages, given again, their early exposure to both languages.
Susan Lambert: That makes good sense. That may makes good sense. What other topics do you think are really important and really critical for our listeners to know when it comes to biliteracy?
Lillian Durán: I think I really want your listeners to understand that even if they're an English only instructional environments, there are ways that you can promote Spanish language and literacy development within your schools. And even supplemental interventions 20 minutes a day of instruction in Spanish, finding volunteers, hiring professionals who speak Spanish, even paraprofessionals who speak Spanish if you have a high level curriculum and training, you can at least offer some support from home language maintenance, home language development and early literacy development in Spanish. And a little will go a long way. A little is better than nothing. In thinking about the nuance, I also don't want listeners to get overwhelmed at the task but really ask themselves, what could I do within my context to support the language and literacy development of the students I'm serving? Additionally, language is inextricably linked to culture and we want to make sure these families and children feel valued and honored within our schools by having Spanish language print around the school, by having strong, culturally responsive practices that understand the values and the practices of Spanish speaking families in the United States, which are a varied population as well. They represent different cultures, different backgrounds. Again, it's not as though they're one homogenous population. There's lots of differences between say a family that's from El Salvador versus a family that's from Puerto Rico. It's important for us also to recognize the rich cultural traditions of the various Spanish speakers that will find themselves in our public school, that are in our public school systems. I really invite our listeners to do the best they can to think about these messages and think about those next steps, no matter how small they may seem, they're important next steps to take.
Susan Lambert: That's really good and it makes me think about the importance of supporting the families in the in environment. We talk about that anyway. We talk about the importance of inviting families in, helping them to understand the goals and the purposes of what their children are doing in the classroom, but even more so with the population of Spanish speaking students, to ensure that we have good communication and that families know how they can support their student or their child at home.
Lillian Durán: Exactly. And too often, going back act what I was saying earlier, families are getting the message that they shouldn't be speaking Spanish at home with their child, that they should switch to English and that they should have shame about their language and culture when it's just the opposite. The pride in their language and culture, the transfer of that to their child, they're supporting their identity, supporting their identity in terms of their cultural background, their nationality, their language background, all promotes a strong foundation for children to be successful in school and to ultimately improve their life outcomes. Families need to hear that message, what a rich gift they're giving their child by maintaining their home language development and really communicating all of those cultural values and cultural knowledge and funds of knowledge that these families have to share with their children.
Susan Lambert: Powerful words. As we sort of wrap up here, what final thoughts or advice do you have for our listeners outside of all that great wisdom you've already shared?
Lillian Durán: I really, I just want, our listeners out there, I'm sure are working with Spanish speakers right now. It's a large growing segment of the population. Anyone who knows history and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, knows that large swaths of the US were Mexico. And so it's no surprise the United States, guess what? We have Spanish speakers who've been here for generations. We're not just talking about immigrant populations. We're talking about people that this is their land too. If you are in California, New Mexico, all those states, Arizona, these families have been here just as much as, well then we'll go all the way back to Native Americans and all that but, there's a long controversial, difficult history there. But my main message here is that this is not a subpopulation. This is part of all children in the United States and I really have this message for everyone to really stop thinking about this as a side issue or those children who are English learners but really thinking about the learning needs of all of the children in the setting and these basic practices, going back to the scientific study of reading and thinking about the simple view of reading. These basic instructional practices this is apply across all children. You just have to think about the nuance with this population and really thinking about the core of that nuance being language development and supporting both their home language and English, no matter what that home language is. And once you see that as your core mission and value, you can start to problem solve in your context, how do we get there? And so I'm hoping our listeners walk away today with some motivation to ask themselves, how do we get there and take those next steps as I discussed earlier.
Susan Lambert: Well Lillian, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for sharing your passion around biliteracy and your wisdom for implementation. It was such an honor to have you on.
Lillian Durán: Yeah. Thank you so much. And be happy to do it again or answer more questions in the future.
Susan Lambert: Sounds great. Thank you so much.
Lillian Durán: All right. Adios.
Susan Lambert: Thanks for listening and keep your feedback coming. Want to learn more? Be sure to stay connected by subscribing to your favorite podcast app and join our Facebook discussion group, Science of Reading the community. Don't forget to register for our new webinar series, The Science of Reading is for Everyone. Over the next few months, experts, including Natalie Wexler, Dr. Jan Hasbrouck and Dr. Carolyn Strom, will discuss how the science of reading can help all students. Educators like you, will talk about their journeys with the science of reading and why making the change is worth it.
Susan Lambert joins biliteracy expert and professor Dr. Lillian Durán, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota and researches the improvement of instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs).
Durán begins by pointing out the difference between being bilingual and biliterate, then describes the key advantages of being bilingual and the unique skills students who speak multiple languages bring to school. She then discusses how the Simple View of Reading connects to Spanish, the double standard often occurring when bilingual students are celebrated vs. when they are not, and the process of screening and assessment for multilingual students. Lastly, Dr. Durán compels educators to avoid viewing biliteracy and dual language support as a sub-population of their classroom and instead prioritize the development of students’ home languages, whatever they may be, alongside English instruction.
“Language is inextricably linked to culture. We want to make sure these families and children feel valued and honored within our schools.” —Dr. Lillian Durán
“No matter what language you start to learn some of those skills in, there's a transfer and understanding of how to listen to sounds and how to put sounds together.” —Dr. Lillian Durán