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By Fernanda Gándara one of six GEM Report 2021 Fellows, who will be joining a panel on 21 April at the CIES Conference to present her work

Acquiring language skills is critical to the healthy development of a child. Caregivers and parents constantly monitor whether their children have met language milestones, as established by specialists. For example, how many words should a three-year-old be able to identify? But should this look different for a toddler who uses two or more languages on a regular basis? The answer is yes – if a child uses more languages, a developmental assessment should consider the words that they speak in all languages. The rationale feels very intuitive. Why then does it not play out in the way we monitor learning? My research as a 2021 GEM Report Fellow looked at whether bilingual assessments have the potential to improve literacy assessment practices.

Let’s think about literacy. Literacy – or “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying context” – is considered one of the most critical skills that early grade students should acquire. The first indicator in the fourth Sustainable Development Goal on Education (SDG 4) aims to monitor the percentage of students who reach a minimum level of proficiency. Countries are left with the decision on how to report into this indicator, and most of them report outcomes based on students’ performance on literacy assessments in the official language of instruction.

Learning how to read and write in the official language of instruction is of paramount importance. However, literacy looks different for students who experience additional languages in their homes and communities, than for others.

It has been estimated that probably more than half of the world’s population is bilingual. Currently, however, the large-scale assessments used to measure the literacy of early grade students (and to feed into indicators such as SDG 4.1.1) are not designed to capture the breadth of skills that bilingual students possess. As part of my GEM Report Fellowship, I analysed large-scale data from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country with high linguistic diversity, to examine if bilingual assessments have the potential to improve the way we measure literacy.

The study shows that bilingual students’ literacy skills were best captured by items that recognize the relationship between their different languages yet acknowledge their distinct features. The analysis shows that such complex bilingual measures of literacy are more appropriate than double monolingual measures (i.e., measuring languages separately) and unidimensional measures of literacy (i.e., not recognizing the distinct features in each of the languages). The study also shows that assessments are not inherently equivalent from a psychometric point of view for students of different linguistic backgrounds, suggesting that validation is needed before they can be considered for global reporting.

In brief, we need to try harder to understand and properly measure bilingual students’ literacy. Monolingual measures in official languages of instruction are the easiest way in which we can tackle the complex problem of measuring literacy at national level. But bilingual students do not acquire literacy as monolinguals and may follow different trajectories in their language acquisition. Measuring their literacy through the lens of monolingual assessments is as inappropriate as evaluating a bilingual toddler’s development based on the number of words they know in a single language. The optimal solution should go beyond double or multiple monolingual assessments.

The inability to capture bilinguals’ literacies sets the wrong incentives for schools and communities. For example, the pressure on schools to increase performance using monolingual frameworks will likely push teachers to reinforce literacy acquisition in one language only. Similarly, bilingual parents may experience anxiety and even guilt if they feel that their children are lagging behind academically just because they use more languages in their daily lives. Unless measures and standards of proficiency change, bilingual parents will continue to feel as if they have to choose between protecting their culture or their children’s performance at school. Bilingual students and communities would benefit from measures of literacy that fully account for the complex developmental trajectories followed.

Some will argue, and I would agree, that it is impossible to design bilingual assessments to account for all combinations of languages. But this should not stop us putting in any effort at all. Technology-based translingual assessment solutions should be explored to account for the challenge of accommodating all linguistic combinations and behaviours. And, in the meantime, we need more large-scale bilingual assessments, more bilingual data, and more research around this topic, so that we fully transition out of a monolingual framework for conceiving and measuring literacy.

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