Maine Voices: Reading K-12 World Languages Has Many Benefits
“Oh! I know this one! It means sun!” cries McKenna, a first-grader at Kate Furbish Elementary School, pointing to a brightly painted sun in a picture book. She remembers that word the last time I read to him in Spanish; the visual helps trigger his memory. “That’s how we say it in Portuguese too!” remarks her classmate Kevin. McKenna is thrilled to hear that she now knows this word in three languages.
By introducing bilingual and multicultural storybooks into preschool education, students gain access to a language and culture very different from their own.
Every noon during the school year at Kate Furbish Elementary in Brunswick, Maine, between five and 15 K-2 students can be found sitting with their lunch on the steps outside the cafeteria. Here, for almost every lunch hour block, one or two Bowdoin College undergraduates read a children’s book to students in a language other than English.
For some students, reading at lunchtime with Multilingual Mainers, a learning partnership established in 2017, is the first place they hear a language other than English spoken. In select classrooms across the school, students have access to weekly learning with Bowdoin students for three-month rotations.
For multilingual pupils, it is exciting to hear several languages used in a school setting. And monolingual students acquire more than just new vocabulary. All students make connections about identity, difference and culture. The conversations that take place during lunchtime readings foster curiosity about differences and a desire to learn new languages.
Research shows that fluency in a second language leads to higher salaries, greater empathy, and increased creativity. Bilingual students are better thinkers, communicators and leaders. Yet world language instruction is not integrated into most Maine schools until college and even then is optional.
Education experts say understandable input, like reading, is one of the best ways to build second-language vocabulary. “Free” supplementary reading has a significant impact on language production. Beyond grammar or vocabulary, however, using literature in language lessons can foster conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion, and introduce students to the concept of global citizenship.
Research shows that college-aged and high school students learn valuable cross-cultural skills through the analysis and study of multicultural and multilingual literature. Children understand deeper meanings through listening, and character portrayals can leave lasting impressions.
Additionally, a teacher’s own presentation, celebration, or questioning of a story shows feelings toward difference, regardless of the content of the story. Children can detect racism and prejudice in their environment from early childhood. Additionally, students can adapt their own presentation to mask learned biases by the end of primary school.
With this in mind, schools not only need to introduce multilingualism and identity at a younger age, but the conversation needs to continue. Portland’s Lyseth Elementary School, for example, offers a dedicated, award-winning Spanish immersion program dedicated to developing cognitive skills and increasing cultural awareness. Ultimately, we need more bilingual schools in the state. The early integration of a multilingual representation, through literature, is a feasible first step.
Reach out to school board members and express your support for authentic texts, multilingual books, and early exposure to world languages. Have intentional conversations and self-reflections. Start early with anti-bias education.
— Special for the Press Herald
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