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Bolstering heritage language learning: reflections on UW symposium

A group (including Shuvalova) presents at the symposium

February 5, 2014

By Larisa Shuvalova

A group (including Shuvalova) presents at the symposium. Bridging the Gap: What do universities and K-12 need to do to know about heritage learners?

A group (including Shuvalova) presents at the symposium. Bridging the Gap: What do universities and K-12 need to do to know about heritage learners?

During my early commute from Bellingham on Jan, 25, I had plenty of time to think about what I was expecting to learn by attending the Heritage Literacy Symposium at UW. My commute reminded me about the summer of 2012 when I decided to join the STARTALK program and personally learned how to connect my present experience as an ELL teacher in US schools with my past as a student majoring in Russian language and literature at the St. Petersburg (Leningrad) State University.

One idea that drove me to invest my personal time into attending the Symposium at UW is my desire to learn how to connect the literacy in heritage language (i.e. first language, the language one learns from his or her parents, home language) and the target language (i.e. the language of study, the language of the country in which one lives). As an English learner and a mother of one, and as a Russian and English language teacher, I look for a balanced approach to bi-literacy. In other words, we do not have to forget our first language in order to learn a new one. On the other hand, we should learn how to transfer the knowledge we already have about our first language to the new language we are learning. This is true not only for adults, but it works for children as well. However, children who do not develop full competency in their home language should continue their heritage language development alongside the learning of the new language.

Language is acquired socially and even the best linguistically competent teacher could not achieve the desired results in isolation from the language community. The main goal of a language teacher is to create educational opportunities to use the language in a meaningful way. I am always on a lookout for these opportunities! While it’s not difficult to find authentic materials for learning English (we are surrounded by it!), I spend a lot of time looking for materials and experiences that will motivate children to continue learning their heritage language.

The Heritage Literacy Symposium helped me to understand the current situation in the world language class offerings and assessments in public schools in Washington State, and how the needs of heritage speakers could be met with the innovative approach to language teaching. There were about 60 people in attendance, representing wide range of connection to heritage literacy, from community teachers to public schools teachers and university professors. The Symposium consisted of five sessions, with panel presentations in the mornings, and interactive activities that helped the participants to share ideas, identify problems and brainstorm possible solutions, in the afternoon. During the panel presentation I was pleased to learn about programs created for heritage learners from preschool to the university level. Even though it is too early to say if this movement will grow rapidly in our state or not, there is a definite change in perspective on heritage literacy.

Students who are learning English used to be officially referred to as Limited English Proficient students, but now a new term has surfaced in the policy documents: emergent bilinguals. This underscores the value of the heritage language and culture of the students who are entering Washington schools. This change in perspective brought to life new programs in the past three years. World Language Credit for Proficiency Assessment gives heritage language speakers unique opportunity to earn high school credits for the knowledge of their heritage languages. For example, Russian language speakers could take a proficiency test that measures reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, and earn up to four high school world language credits. This gives recognition and pride to students and their families, as well as motivation to continue studies of home languages. Of course, it is possible only if school board adopts the policy to grant the credits for proficiency, but many of the districts in Washington have already done so.

Heritage speakers at Bellingham School district earned collectively more than 400 high school credits in the last three years. STARTALK summer programs, afterschool Vietnamese pilot program, Chinese bilingual elementary school and special courses for heritage speakers at the university level — all are designed to meet the unique needs of heritage speakers, to challenge them and give them the opportunity to become part of mainstream education. I was particularly impressed by the data from Jing Mei Chinese dual language school in Belleview, where heritage speakers of Chinese, who were also English language learners, showed rapid progress in English and exited ELL program faster than their peers who were not in bilingual school.

I also was delighted to hear about Vietnamese afterschool program in Seattle. I teach an afterschool Russian language program in Bellingham, and, even though my program consists of heritage speakers as well as non-heritage speakers, I can relate to the demand of time spend on lesson preparation in order to appropriately challenge all students, a concept that Michele Aoki (UW Slavic Studies) mentioned during her presentation. I was interested to hear about using authentic materials and authentic tasks when teaching language classes. In fact, for my Russian language club I create authentic language experiences and stage plays based on traditional Russian folktales at the end of the year. I also hope to incorporate materials developed for STARTALK during the three summers the program was offered in Washington. I left the Symposium energized and dreaming about Russian dual-language school where Russian heritage students study all subjects alongside non-Russian students in both English and Russian — from preschool to high school and beyond. We know that this is the best from the point of view of World Languages and ELL, so we need to bring two worlds together and continue raising awareness among the public, families, and stakeholders.

Larisa Shuvalova is an ELL Specialist and World Language Credit for Proficiency coordinator with the Bellingham School District. She is also an adviser of Russian Language Club and a Russian language interpreter/translator for the district.