Sealing a Biliterate Future
By Rita A. Oleksak | Published: November 20, 2018
To the student sitting in circle time for Spanish in the early first days of class in Glastonbury, Connecticut, the idea of second-language mastery may seem farfetched. To others who daydream of speaking Russian or Chinese, this mastery may seem even farther off. But real life proficiency is possible—and achievable—for students in language programs throughout the United States, and these students are starting to be recognized for their achievement.
It all began with Californians Together, an education-advocacy coalition “of organizations from all segments of the education community,” which developed the concept of a Seal of Biliteracy in 2008. Their objectives were twofold: to emphasize “that mastery of two or more languages is important” and to provide an external symbol—a seal—to both honor students and serve as evidence of skills that are attractive to future employers and college admissions offices.
The idea quickly gained traction on the local level and through activism and lobbying; legislation creating a California State Seal of Biliteracy was passed in 2011, and it became the first in the nation to establish a state standard for a Seal of Biliteracy. Now more than 33 others (and Washington, D.C.) currently grant a seal based on this model, with other states following suit.
Beginning in 2015, the Connecticut Council of Language Teachers (CT COLT) pursued a similar model to California's. It outlined its state-specific purposes and rationale and formed a working group to bring its cause to the state legislature. According to the national Seal of Biliteracy website, “It is important that a governing body create the award through policy. This is what gives it the weight of a statement by the schooling system that the skills of bilingualism have value. It is this process that provides the opportunity for a community to articulate how and why language diversity is important.”
The CT COLT solicited input from individual districts—many of which had different goals and capacities for the Seal of Biliteracy—and began general outreach to spread the word. It established evaluation and application standards, designed an award, and sought out endorsements in the form of formal resolutions (as in individual districts) or letters of support from the School Boards Association, chambers of commerce and teachers’ unions. After two years, Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed HB 7159/PA 17-29, An Act Concerning Connecticut's Seal of Biliteracy, on June 6, 2017, officially making Connecticut the 27th state in the country with a Seal of Biliteracy.
This past school year (2017–2018), the Glastonbury Public Schools graduated 182 students with the official Seal of Biliteracy. To attain the seal, students take an external test that demonstrates actual use of their target language rather than simply possessing a passive knowledge of it. It’s this practical command of language that makes these 182 students so extraordinary; students awarded the seal not only know how to speak, but also write, read and otherwise live in the language according to school district standards as validated by external measures.
The Seal is a tremendous honor with an exacting standard that provides recognition of superior excellence. Part of a wider movement towards leading and changing the world through language, the Seal of Biliteracy has—in the words of Lead with Languages— “evolved from a grassroots movement to a national phenomenon.”
These first 182 Glastonbury students qualified mainly in the more common languages available (Latin, French and Spanish), but also others in Russian, Chinese and Arabic. Seventeen students qualified for seals in two languages other than English, and one student even qualified for seals in three languages other than English.
That’s a bright light to aim for.
About the Author
Rita Oleksak is the Director of Foreign Languages/ELL in the Glastonbury Public Schools. She is the past president of ACTFL, MaFLA, NADSFL and NNELL. She is president-elect for JNCL-NCLIS and serves on the Committee on K–16 Alliances for the Modern Language Association.