Embracing Additive Bilingualism in the Classroom

This blog post is dedicated to Javier Amir Rodriguez, who was the youngest victim of a mass shooting that was motivated by hatred and racism. Javier was preparing for the back to school season and was at Walmart picking up school supplies with his uncle. All of the deaths that day were unnecessary, but Javier’s story hit close to home because he was a young student getting ready for a new year. I think of the excitement that our students and we, as teachers feel during that back to school rush. There is much anticipation for a great year and on that day, that excitement was cut short for Javier. Today we remember Javier as the light that his teachers and classmates described him as and we move forward to create a better world for all of our students.

In preparing to write this post, I spoke to my friend Bailey who is originally from El Paso. She speaks of the unity in her community. El Paso is El Paso because of its people.

Many of us have students like Javier in our classrooms. Students whose first language is not the dominant language in society. When we think of bias, we most often think of race, but bias can be shown in many different circumstances. Language is one of those areas where many students and immigrants find themselves being mistreated or looked down upon for.

Language is not linear; it is complex. Language is tied to much more than just the way our tongues produce sounds and words to communicate. The status and prestige of a language in society influences the people who live in it. We often find bilingual students rejecting their home language because they begin to view it as minority language that holds no value. This thinking leads to the replacement of the first language. The problem with losing one’s first language by replacing it with another, is that it not only removes the language, but it also demotes the cultural and ethnic identity.

Additive bilingualism is the concept of adding a second language without replacing or displacing the first language or culture. In contrast, subtractive bilingualism is when someone learns the second language at the expense of the first. In many ways and in many classrooms across America, we have created a subtractive environment for our students. We often find ourselves celebrating and considering emerging bilinguals “successful” if and only they learn English.

Many times we don’t even realize that we are reinforcing a subtractive attitude and consider that we are doing right by our bilingual students. Here are a few ways in which we can foster a love and acceptance of students’ language and identity.

Social Justice Standards

As described by, the Social Justice Standards are a set of anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes divided into four domains—identity, diversity, justice and action (IDJA). The standards provide a common language and organizational structure: Teachers can use them to guide curriculum development, and administrators can use them to make schools more just, equitable and safe. The identity strand in particular focuses on the embracing of one’s self and the groups that one is a part of.

Books in other languages

There are many amazing books that we can add to our classroom libraries, particularly ones written by diverse authors about diverse topics. In addition to those books, we should also carefully curate a library that has voices of people who speak other languages. In the primary grades, there is a misconception that students’ reading will be hampered if they are exposed to books in their native language. Reading is much more that just looking at words on a page. It involves the mind and higher order thinking as well as the ability to make connections and use prior knowledge. Reading in one’s native language does not hamper reading; it supports it.

Curating a classroom library takes time. We can’t simply search for books that have been translated from English. Although those books are good, there are also many books that were originally written in students’ native language and that have cultural significance. In the same way that we have English “classics”, there are many classics that are part of our students’ cultures. Some websites to visit…

Cultural Awareness

Understand that language is as much a part of a student’s identity as anything else. We must become socio culturally competent and understand our students’ culture and differences. We will have diverse students in our classrooms year after year and when we strip them of their language, we essentially strip them of their identity. It is imperative to seek to learn cultural variations and encourage our students to embrace their language and background.

Additional suggestions…

  • Build on prior knowledge that has been obtained from students’ first language. An assets-based approach focuses on what the student brings to the table and not on what they are lacking.
  • Value cultural and linguistic diversity.
  • Have posters that include your students’ home languages. The classroom is their space and should be student centered.
  • Have high expectations. Differentiate and scaffold without watering down content.
  • A student’s conceptual understanding in English is not a representation of their knowledge.
  • Be an advocate for children and families.
  • Under no circumstances should we make assumptions about our students’ families and cultures. Our assumptions are often motivated by stereotypical points of view.

This post is from a blog post series on racism. Continue Reading.

Gracias por tomar este tiempo para aprender más sobre la importancia del lenguage en referencia a nuestra identidad.

previous article

No Comments

Leave a Reply