Bilingualism as a Superpower: The Urgency to Improve Spanish Language Arts Materials

April 25, 2024

As a bilingual education professor, I began each class with a Spanish-language poem, focused on a different poet from around the Spanish-speaking world.

This was my way of introducing my students to the rich and striking literature in Spanish, and it was a revelation for my students. As they became more accustomed to this practice, the discussions about the meanings in the poems and the beautiful language used became more animated. They lamented not having had this exposure earlier. 

When children are introduced to both classical and contemporary literature in their native language, they come to see themselves as belonging to an extraordinary and beautiful literary trajectory. And they understand that the Spanish language is something to be proud of.

In November of 2023, the Biden-Harris administration launched the “Being Bilingual is a Superpower” initiative because, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, “We cannot seize our nation's full potential to compete and lead the world unless we Raise the Bar and provide all students with opportunities to become multilingual.” For this ambitious vision to come to fruition, we must ensure that all dual-language programs implement high-quality instruction in both languages. Instructional materials are a critical factor in supporting high-quality instruction. 

Dual language programs are growing nationwide, especially as the number of English learners grows. The American Council for International Education found more than 3,600 dual language programs in the U.S. in 2021; roughly 80% of those are Spanish/English programs. Despite the growing number of Spanish-speaking students and dual-language/bilingual programs, little attention has been paid to the quality of Spanish language arts instructional materials. A study conducted by scholars at San Diego State University found that most Spanish bilingual or dual language teachers did not feel their materials met their or their students’ needs. This led them to spend hours developing their own materials. 

The lack of quality materials leaves states and districts with dual language programs in a conundrum. They must choose high-quality ELA programs for their districts, along with high-quality Spanish language arts programs. At times, this means choosing two different programs or, even worse, a resource that has simply been translated into Spanish. 

Spanish Language Arts materials must be rigorous, demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual and creative abilities, and be aligned with state standards. Absent this, students do not receive the appropriate instruction to truly embrace bilingualism and achieve biliteracy.

At the ELSF, we believe it is essential to define what the research says about supporting multilingual students and then apply that to instructional materials. This is just as essential for Spanish language arts and corresponding instructional materials. That is why we are excited to publish our groundbreaking report “ La trascendencia de los materiales de calidad en la educación bilingüe y de inmersión dual / Materials Matter: Parity and Quality for Spanish Language Arts.” 

In this report, we review the current state of research and materials for Spanish language and literacy development and give concrete recommendations of what can be improved within five key areas of focus. The report also highlights three main elements that are foundational to high-quality Spanish materials:

  • Spanish language materials must be equally rigorous as their high-quality ELA counterparts and must be aligned with state standards.
  • Spanish materials must utilize original, authentic Spanish language texts, both literary and informational that reflect the content and focus of the lessons and that provide modelings of Spanish structures and discourse styles appropriate for the genre..
  • Spanish materials must include the varieties of Spanish in the Spanish-speaking world. 

Spanish is a language with a great cultural history and pedagogy. For students to have equal opportunities to develop their language skills and literacy in both languages, English and Spanish materials cannot differ in quality. Parity requires that each language (English and Spanish) has equal status, focus, dedicated time, and space in the curriculum. 

Ultimately, we urge publishers and content developers to improve their instructional materials to come closer to this vision of quality. We urge states and districts to hold the bar high for creators of instructional materials so that teachers have the materials they need on a day-to-day basis so that the students in their states, districts, and schools can truly grow to be bilingual, bi-literate, bicultural, and strong contributors to our local and global communities.

This newly published report is a first step in supporting publishers, content developers and states and districts in better understanding what high-quality Spanish language arts instructional materials could, and should, look like. Later this summer, we will publish accompanying Spanish Language Arts Guidelines for publishers and Benchmarks of Quality for educators.

Rebecca Blum Martinez is the Dual Language National Advisor for ELSF. She is also the Emerita Professor of Bilingual Education in the Department Language Literacy and Sociocultural Studies at the University of New Mexico, where she specialized in bilingualism, second language learning and language maintenance and revitalization in language minority communities - particularly Spanish-speaking and American Indian populations. Her research and scholarly interests have long centered on the study of language development in bilinguals and second language development across varied learning contexts.

Presently, she is assisting the English Language Success Forum in developing guidelines for high quality Spanish language materials. She serves on the board of NABE, and Dual Language Education of New Mexico.


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