October 1, 2017
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Lauren Harrison, MATSOL, Watertown, Massachusetts, USA


Many years ago in our public integrated preschool just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, USA, speech and language pathologists (SLPs) began advocating for an ESL specialist to provide support in an official capacity in particular with evaluations of dual language learners. SLPs saw the need for a team member who was trained in understanding second language acquisition to help the team make more appropriate decisions for these children who are disproportionately identified for special education in programs across the United States (Sanatullova-Allison & Robison-Young, 2016; Morgan, et al., 2015). Eventually, a position was funded and I was fortunate to begin working with the preschool team as the only general education teacher on a team of special education providers. Together, we created an atmosphere of genuine collaboration that promoted achievement for our students and enhanced family engagement. Through our efforts, we especially identified some critical steps in processes for evaluating dual language learners, including explicitly affirming bilingualism in our conversations with families and other service providers.

Though our town is only 4.2 square miles, our district is linguistically and culturally quite diverse with approximately 40 languages represented and over 30% of students being bilingual. Such diversity is rich. It can also be challenging for a mostly monolingual, English-speaking staff in our schools and service providers in our community as they work to reach all students and families in culturally responsive ways. Preschool staff members were especially eager to work with families more effectively. We sought professional development to build capacity and found strong guidance through WIDA Early Years at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the New England Equity Assistance Center at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Addressing a Myth

Through these professional development opportunities, we began to gain more research-based arguments against a commonly held myth related to bilingualism: “Bilingual parents, especially parents of children with disabilities, should only speak English at home.” This myth was frequently communicated to bilingual families by relatives, our own staff, or other professionals in the community, such as pediatricians and psychologists. Some families were abruptly discontinuing the use of their home languages and beginning to speak only English at home no matter their level of English proficiency. Though we knew this message was incorrect, we were becoming increasingly aware of the amount of research and resources available that showed the benefits of bilingualism for children of diverse abilities and how to support continued home language development. While we believed that families should make their own decisions about language use, we also felt a responsibility to ensure they had accurate information to guide their decisions.

Research continues to reflect the cognitive, social-emotional, and economic benefits of bilingualism (Zelasko & Antunez, 2000; Kessler & Quinn, 1980; Jessner, 2008; Kovács & Mehler, 2009; Keysar, Hayakawa, & An, 2011; Paez & Rinaldi, 2006; Fradd, 2000). Bilingualism has been shown to be beneficial for children with disabilities as well, including autism (Reetzke, Zou, Sheng, & Katsos, 2015; Paradis, 2016). The Importance of Home Language Series from Head Start is a resource for families and educators and is available in multiple languages. The Hanen Centre, a Toronto-based speech and language organization, also published a helpful article addressing common questions about bilingualism for children with disabilities (Lowry, 2011).

The Campaign and Outreach

As a result of this learning, we knew it was imperative for us to be explicit in our support of bilingualism for the benefit of our diverse families and the community. So for 9 months, a team of us—including the ESL coordinator, the early childhood director, the preschool evaluation team chair, and I—worked on refining our message for families and stakeholders. We sought advice from bilingual experts and feedback from various professionals. We considered the most common questions we would hear from families that reflected their concerns. The result was the start of our “Bilingualism is a Gift!” (BiG!) campaign with our message communicated through a flyer and a letter signed by our superintendent and other administrators. The flyer highlights some benefits of bilingualism, answers the most common questions we have heard, and encourages the use of home languages every day and in all activities. The flyer has been translated into eight other languages besides English so far: Spanish, Portuguese, Armenian, Urdu, Simplified Chinese, Bengali, Telugu, and Pashto. Some of these translations have been made possible through partnerships with other public school districts.

In the fall of 2015, we mailed the letter and flyer (in English as well as other translations) to various stakeholders in our community: pediatricians, psychologists, early intervention therapists, daycare providers, and religious leaders. The superintendent invited us to share the campaign with town officials and the wider community at televised school committee meetings. We distributed the flyers and produced poster versions for our district’s teachers to be displayed in classrooms and hallways. New teachers have been provided with training on the topic as part of their induction programming. At our integrated preschool, we have explored ways to make all home languages and cultures more visible, including the integration of family music, bilingual books, and environmental print. Maryann MacDougall, SLP and preschool evaluation team chair, authored a three-part series of blog posts about our collaboration and campaign for ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) Leader Blog. We promoted the campaign at parent nights, the town fair, and literacy events hosted by district staff. Local organizations such as Project Literacy and our branch of the Parent Child Home Program also helped spread the word to families, promoting not only maintenance of home languages, but also using it to encourage parents to learn English. Among other benefits, this increases parents’ engagement in school. We continued to promote this message at trainings for early intervention and Boston area preschools. Some therapists at The Hanen Centre have used our flyer with their own clients. Social media has been an effective outlet (#bilingualismisagift) for the message as well as our English Language Education Resources site, which has pages devoted to home language supports for educators and for families (also available in Spanish). Members of our team have presented on our collaboration and campaign at state, regional, and national conferences. This year, we were fortunate to represent MATSOL with a Best of Affiliates session about our campaign at the TESOL international convention in Seattle, Washington, USA.

Positive Outcomes

We have continued to share this message directly with families and professionals in our school district with positive results. The flyer is an easy entryway into the conversation, equipping us with key talking points. Our integrated preschool team has had considerable success in preventing families from giving up their home languages altogether, particularly as more practitioners feel confident in promoting this message. After conversations with our team, one family of a child with autism rejected clinical advice from an outside provider to abandon their home language. Since their decision to continue with both languages, the family reports their child’s home language is rapidly reaching parity with his English across all four domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Now they have fully embraced their home language and are confident that they have made the right decision for their child and their family. Because of interdisciplinary collaboration, we have been able to reach more families and practitioners with sound guidance related to bilingualism, extensively impacting our community and the beliefs we hold about language.

The work continues both inside and outside of our district. If you are interested in utilizing the flyers in your setting, please email big_campaign@watertown.k12.ma.us to request access. Additionally, if you are willing to translate the flyer into other languages, a template is available. We only request that you share your translation with the BiG! Campaign to further its reach.


Fradd, S. (2000). Developing a language-learning framework for preparing Florida’s multilingual work force. In S. Fradd (Ed.), Creating Florida’s multilingual global work force, 3. Miami, FL: Florida Department of Education.

Jessner, U. (2008). Teaching third languages: Findings, trends, and challenges. Language Teaching, 41(1), 15–56. doi:10.1017/S0261444807004739

Kessler, C., & Quinn, M. E. (1980). Positive effects of bilingualism on science problem-solving abilities. In J. E. Alatis (Ed.), Current issues in bilingual education. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S. L., & An, S. (2011). The foreign-language effect: Thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychological Science, 23, 661– 668. doi:10.1177/0956797611432178

Kovács, A. M., & Mehler, J. (2009). Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6556–6560.

Lowry, L. (2011). Can children with language impairments learn two languages? Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Hanen Centre. Retrieved from http://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/can-children-with-language-impairments-learn-two-l.aspx

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., Mattison, R., Maczuga, S., Li, H., & Cook, M. (2015). Minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in special education: Longitudinal evidence across five disability conditions. Educational Researcher,44(5), 278–292. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/rbtfl/SczH6cdfaJjrg/full

Páez, M., & Rinaldi, C. (2006). Predicting English word reading skills for Spanish-speaking students in first grade. Topics in Language Disorders, 26(4), 338–350.

Paradis, J. (2016) The development of English as a second language with and without specific language impairment: Clinical implications. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 59, 171–182.

Reetzke, R., Zou, X., Sheng, L., & Katsos, N. (2015). Communicative development in bilingually exposed Chinese children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58, 813–825.

Sanatullova-Allison, E., & Robison-Young, V. A. (2016). Overrepresentation: An overview of the issues surrounding the identification of English language learners with learning disabilities. International Journal of Special Education,31(2), 145–151. Retrieved from http://www.internationaljournalofspecialed.com/docs/ISSUE%2031-2.pdf

Zelasko, N., & Antunez, B. (2000). If your child learns in two languages. National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. Retrieved from http://www.ncela.us/files/rcd/BE019820/If_Your_Child_Learns.pdf

Lauren Harrison currently teaches elementary ESL in Watertown, Massachusetts, USA; serves as a board member of Project Literacy; and has provided professional development opportunities in the Boston area on topics related to dual language learners and the intersection of special education and ESL. She has 15 years of teaching experience at various levels in the United States and western China. Find her on Twitter (@LaurenEHarrison).

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October 2017