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Bilingual education will only continue to grow, but we need to look at it as a strength to support and develop with the right edtech tools.

How edtech is transforming bilingual education in the U.S.

Bilingual education will only continue to grow, but we must view it as a strength to support and develop

Key points:

Millions of students within the United States public school system are non-native English speakers. As this figure continues to grow year over year, true bilingual education is becoming more vital to equitably support student success.

How do we ensure students achieve proficiency with the English language while receiving a rich and comprehensive education? One that affirms and celebrates their identities and helps them learn about and understand others?

Today’s technology presents us with answers. Thanks to computer-driven translation, AI, and advanced classroom tools, we stand to put every student on a path to success with the English language and beyond.

The numbers behind bilingual education

Within three decades, the number of households speaking a language other than English has nearly tripled from 23 million to 68 million. In states like California, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada, these numbers are even more drastic, with 44 percent, 36 percent, 33 percent, and 31 percent of their populations speaking a different language at home.

As expected, this is reflected in the United States’ student population, which also grew in non-native English learners over the last 10 years. In 2020, one survey found that approximately 5 million public school students were English learners–that’s over 10 percent of students. Again, Texas has about 20 percent of those students, California has 17 percent, 16 percent are in New Mexico and 13 percent are in Nevada.

Bilingual education’s impact

With 1 in every 10 students experiencing a lack of English proficiency, millions are at risk for struggles with reading and writing comprehension, reduced academic achievement, and less rigorous tracks of study, which lead to increased dropout rates, and lowered educational attainment and human capital.

Bilingual education has been shown to not only increase native language proficiency but English proficiency as well, as the ultimate goal should be to build mastery in both languages. If a large contingent of the United States population were to not have English proficiency, they would suffer. Some studies have suggested that non-native language speakers struggle to access effective healthcare, while others have found increases in negative interactions.

It should be recognized that bilingual education lifts all boats. In a world that is now so connected, those who speak multiple languages have much to gain. These speakers are more competitive in the workplace, see more job opportunities, and even are found to have better brain health.

Further and especially in these new days of AI, human-to-human connection, communication, and collaboration have and will only become more paramount.

Where edtech steps in

While the student population speaking languages other than English within the U.S. has rapidly grown over the last three decades, technology has advanced even faster. Now, edtech can support bilingual education in a way impossible before.

Smart investments in technology not only improve education for bilingual and non-native English speakers but also help make educators themselves more efficient and impactful, effectively preparing all students for the future.

Building bilingual materials

It’s uncommon for educational materials to be authored for non-English speakers in the native language of the user. It comes down to a simple return on investment calculation, as the number of users is too low compared with the larger market for a publisher to produce these materials in a cost-effective manner.

Educational content within the U.S. is typically written in English, and then translated into other languages as needed. Largely human-driven, this process is error-prone,  resource-heavy, slow, and costly. Since this process is so intensive, curricula available in languages other than English were typically limited to the most common, specifically Spanish, even though there are far more others that need to be served.

Today’s computer-driven translation and AI translation can translate a text with incredible accuracy in a matter of minutes. Then, human translators can check for accuracy, add relevant context, and run quality control, significantly reducing production costs and increasing the effectiveness of the text.

With cost and resource savings, more time can be dedicated to improving the quality of these texts, ultimately improving how the curriculum in languages other than English flows into and improves English learning, to create truly bilingual students.

Technology can also assist in solving the issue of the limited number of languages available. There are over 350 languages used within the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the most language-diverse countries in the world. In fact, 21.6 percent of the population reports speaking a language other than English at home. Outside of English and Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Arabic are the most common. There are also Native North American dialects like Navajo, Yupik, Dakota, Apache, Keres, and Cherokee.

Because AI and machine learning can translate far more quickly, it is significantly less costly to create content in any given language, adding to the number of curricula offered in languages other than English.

Many make the mistake of believing that bilingual education means that you are separately teaching students in different languages forever. This is not true. Real bilingual education is developing a path that gently brings learners who speak languages other than English down the path to full English instruction, developing proficiency in both languages as their education progresses.

With this in mind, producers of high-quality core curricula are already offering a comprehensive set of resources and strategies to support bilingual education. Both EL Education and Illustrative Mathematics, national nonprofit publishers of K-12 curriculum, include the development of English language proficiency within their curricula.

The benefits of rapid translation go beyond the walls of the classroom as well. Parents and/or guardians, of course, want to be updated on the progress of their children and what they are learning. In the past, limited-English or non-English households may have struggled with understanding assignments, feedback, or grading. Now, not only is the curriculum more accessible, but translation and chat capabilities power direct parent-to-teacher communication in any given language.

Better assessments and educational outcomes

We can lean on technology to do more than recreate texts. Through the use of AI and large language models, it is possible to efficiently generate standards-aligned assessments in foreign languages as well.

As with content, most assessments and standardized tests are simply translated directly from English into another language. Imagine how difficult it would be to try and learn something that wasn’t translated perfectly to your native language, and then try to take a test that wasn’t translated well either.

Again, technology can drive English language translations, leaving the final quality assurance and relevancy check to instructional experts. When both the learning and testing materials are correctly reflected in the right language, with the right cultural context, and delivered in a relevant way, testing becomes far more reliable.

Take today’s state standardized tests as an example. What we’ve learned is that most are not actually testing for a skillset, but really just test how prepared you are for a standardized test. These test procedural fluency and general background knowledge more than skill and ability.

A study found that on average, English-learning students score approximately 46 percent lower on high school reading tests and 31% below on high school mathematics tests. But this is not because of lack of skill; it’s for a lack of proficiency in standardized testing.

Students with experience in standardized testing and general background knowledge typically perform the best, whereas those with a lack of context underperform. True bilingual education equips non-native English speakers with the tools they need to perform on standardized testing. On a macro level, this provides more accurate insights into state, district, and school performance.

More support for educators

Perhaps one of the most important ways technology can benefit bilingual education is by supporting teachers. Educators are burdened enough, and while 62 percent of U.S. schools have at least some English-learning students, not all teachers are properly equipped to provide equitable education.

Thankfully, we are at a place where edtech can significantly reduce the cognitive load placed on teachers. Tools like digital assessments and grade books can automatically grade assignments and assessments, including those in other languages, alleviating the stress of grading across dialects.

Classroom technology provides easier access to curriculum in multiple languages, making it easier to navigate, utilize, and distribute. These technologies can give teachers their time back, reducing their burden and allowing them to spend more time with students.

Digital tools such as digital assessments, grade books, and learning management systems enable teachers to efficiently manage classroom activities and personalize instruction for diverse learners. Moreover, technology-integrated professional development programs empower educators to enhance their pedagogical practices and effectively implement bilingual curriculum frameworks.

But educators still require support, and with savings in materials and time, school leaders need to make an investment in teacher training. The bilingual population will only continue to grow, so the right investments need to be made to support teachers in their roles.

Technology can support here too–with tools that integrate professional learning and curriculum together, educators can become more proficient at teaching the bilingual curriculum, leading to more successful students.

Policy is a key player

Bilingual education will only continue to grow, but we need to look at it as a strength to support and develop. One of the great things about the United States of America is its cultural mix, diversity, and willingness to open its doors to others.

Another great aspect of the U.S. is the partnerships between the public and private sectors. In the case of bilingual education, the private sector has responded. Technology companies have, and will continue to, build products to support classrooms, but ultimately there is a policy call that must be made on the public end.

Effective bilingual education requires a comprehensive policy framework that supports the needs of diverse learners and promotes equity in education. Edtech plays a pivotal role in informing policy decisions by providing policymakers with data-driven insights into the efficacy of bilingual education initiatives.

By leveraging technology-enabled assessment data and analytics, policymakers can identify areas of improvement, allocate resources effectively, and develop evidence-based policies that promote educational equity and excellence. Moreover, partnerships between the public and private sectors enable the co-creation of innovative solutions that address the evolving needs of bilingual learners and educators.

While edtech is currently transforming the landscape of bilingual education, we won’t reach an optimal level of benefit until smart policy decisions are made in the name of bilingual education. Those in decision-making capacities at every level must recognize this as a high need and know that the problem cannot solve itself. Policymakers need to open the door to allow edtech providers to make an impact.

The time is now to make smart investments into the right curricula and tools to support educators and students. Educators need to be unburdened, and students need to be put on a path to success.

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