Why assessing bilingual children in two languages is just a start

Gaining a clear picture of a student’s language and literacy abilities in both English and their home language is critically important in two scenarios:

  • the student has just entered your school and speaks another language at home (whether because he is entering the school system in kindergarten or is newly arrived from another country and entering in a later grade)
  • the student is in a bilingual program

Gaining information in both languages for bilingual students in these situations can portray a completely different spectrum of profiles than when assessing in English only.

Two Different Home Language and Literacy Profiles

For example, consider these two profiles:

Two children, Sulaima and Manuel, have just arrived on a bus in NYC with their family after crossing the border in Texas and requesting asylum. One is from Venezuela and the other is from Guatemala. Both Sulaima and Manuel are 10 years old. Both speak not yet a lick of English. Both have spoken Spanish since birth and speak Spanish daily with their families and with other families in the building where they are currently living.

Both, when assessed by their classroom teachers in English using classroom-based assessment methods, have very low literacy in English. It would appear that neither are able to read. They are therefore both placed in a basic phonics intervention program in English.

But when assessed in reading in Spanish, the results show that Sulaima is at or above benchmark for her age in reading in Spanish. And when given a prompt in Spanish and asked to write a response, she writes a coherent, clear, and well-crafted paragraph in Spanish. Manuel, on the other hand, is at a 1st grade-level in Spanish reading and has difficulty spelling and writing.

These are two completely different sets of literacy profiles. This is why it is so critically important to assess in both languages for newly arrived students.

Sulaima is fully literate. She understands the alphabetic principle, can decode fluently, and has been reading independently for quite some time. She will not be well served in a basic phonics intervention program. She does need explicit bridges and connections made between what she already knows in Spanish and how it transfers to English, and then have those differences and challenges of English explicitly taught and pointed out to her. This can—and should—be through the venue of her English as a New Language (ENL) program.

While Manuel has alphabetic knowledge and some decoding ability in Spanish, he lacks fluency and will most likely benefit from that basic phonics intervention in English, so long as he is supported simultaneously with vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension. And if the school has a reading intervention in Spanish they can provide first, all the better.

Gaining information about Sulaima and Manuel in Spanish is therefore critical to serving their unique needs.

Two Monolingual Assessments Do Not Make A Whole

But here’s another thing about perceptions of students like Sulaima and Manuel: because they don’t yet speak English, they are all too often perceived as just lacking in language, sometimes even in cognitive ability. This perception can apply even to students that have been born here in the U.S. and have been in our schools since the beginning, but are labeled English language learners (ELLs).

Let’s consider two other profiles, José Luis and Juan, both who were born and live in the Bronx and have just entered kindergarten. They both speak a home language of Spanish and have been identified as ELLs. When they are tested in Spanish, they also show low language ability in Spanish.

It would seem that José Luis and Juan are both students at risk, as they are low in language and literacy in both English and Spanish. But when José Luis is assessed using formative, classroom-based assessments, he is observed to demonstrate strong responsiveness to instruction and steady academic growth. Juan, on the other hand, struggles with classroom tasks and demonstrates the need for more intensive supports.

How could this be? The fact is that most current assessments that are available in two languages (mostly English and Spanish, currently) are essentially both monolingual tests — each language is assessed as its own construct. But a bilingual person negotiates understanding within and across languages.

This manifests most clearly in vocabulary knowledge. A student who can understand two languages has word and world knowledge in both languages, with some of that knowledge shared across languages and some unique to one or the other, based on exposure, use, and the features of the languages.

Some recent studies have demonstrated that when bilingual children are assessed in a manner that measures their vocabulary and conceptual knowledge within and across languages, students such as José Luis tend to score much higher. For example, in this 2023 study, “Results based on bilingual scoring of vocabulary knowledge reveal that the linguistic knowledge of DLLs in our study is on par with, and even above, national norms. These results noticeably differ from findings based on monolingual vocabulary measures (i.e., English-only and Spanish-only).”

So yes, we need to assess students in both English and their home language when they have just entered our schools, and when they are receiving instruction in both languages. But that’s just a start. We need to also look past how they may score in one or the other language, and consider the knowledge they may possess across languages.

Either way, we can never rely on any one measure of a child’s ability and potential. Assessment, including in both English and a student’s home language, is just a first step to getting to know each student well.

Some further reading:

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