English-Language Learners

Utah Unveils New Wrinkle For Seal of Biliteracy Honor

By Corey Mitchell — January 06, 2016 3 min read
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Utah is the 15th state to adopt an official seal of biliteracy, an honor that promotes bilingualism among K-12 students by offering special recognition for graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages.

But it may the first in one respect. Following the recommendation of the nation’s leading bilingual education groups, officials in the Beehive State will establish a two-tier seal of biliteracy to separately honor advanced and intermediate speakers.

The two-tier biliteracy seal was among the recommendations presented by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and other organizations that drafted recommendations for the seal of biliteracy in spring 2015.

Using ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines for speaking, writing, listening, and reading languages, the state will award platinum seals to students who reach an “Advanced Mid” level. According to the guidelines:

“Advanced Mid speakers contribute to conversations on a variety of familiar topics, dealt with concretely, with much accuracy, clarity and precision, and they convey their intended message without misrepresentation or confusion. They are readily understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives.”

Gold seals will go to students at the Intermediate Mid level. According to the guidelines:

“Intermediate Mid speakers are able to express personal meaning by creating with the language, in part by combining and recombining known elements and conversational input to produce responses typically consisting of sentences and strings of sentences. Their speech may contain pauses, reformulations, and self-corrections as they search for adequate vocabulary and appropriate language forms to express themselves. In spite of the limitations in their vocabulary and/or pronunciation and/or grammar and/or syntax, Intermediate Mid speakers are generally understood by sympathetic interlocutors accustomed to dealing with non-natives.”

Utah will offer its biliteracy seals to students proficient in English and one or more world languages or the indigenous languages of Navajo or Ute. The honor is available to all students, including English-language learners, starting with the graduating class of 2017, said Gregg Roberts, a world languages and dual-language immersion specialist with the Utah State Office of Education

Other states that offer biliteracy seals have toyed with the idea of a two-tier system, but face a quandary: set the bar for proficiency too low and the honor loses some of its luster because students aren’t truly proficient in the language; or set the bar too high and make the seal nearly unattainable?

“We want to make sure that students are truly achieving in that second language,” Roberts said.

The state school board in December unanimously approved the plan to offer the seal. The seal will be administered at the state level and school districts may not opt out.

“For equity reasons, we wanted to make it available to all students,” Roberts said.

Roberts said a committee of language-learner experts will meet in the coming weeks to determine which assessments the state will use to measure students’ proficiency in the second language.

The ACTFL, the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and the TESOL International Association, recommend that students demonstrate proficiency on state tests for English/language arts for all students and English-language development exams for English-learners; and that native English speakers seeking to demonstrate proficiency in another language should achieve a state-determined minimum score on any number of tests, including Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, and tribal-language assessments.

Establishing the seal of biliteracy in Utah is just the latest push in the state’s effort to boost foreign language education.

In recent years, government and industry leaders in Utah have ramped up resources and funding for dual-language learning, offering languages ranging from Portuguese to Mandarin, with the goal of developing a multilingual work force to lure international companies to their state in an increasingly competitive job market. The state is among a growing number that see foreign language acquisition as the key to accessing the global economy.

Seal of Biliteracy Approved Guidelines

Seal of Bilteracy Utah

Image Source: American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.