Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 28, 2017

Seal of Biliteracy Update

Seal of Biliteracy Update

By Nicole Sherf

MaFLA, working as a part of the Language Opportunity Coalition, has again worked with lead sponsors Representative Kay Khan and Senator Karen Spilka to re-submit legislation for a state Seal of Biliteracy which would reward high school graduates for their functional level of proficiency in English and another language. The Seal encourages a foreign language department focus on proficiency development and pushes for testing of student proficiency using one of several tests available at the national level that assess language proficiency according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. The Seal also rewards heritage speakers of languages other than English for the skills that they already have.

Our sincere thanks go to those of you who answered my request on behalf of the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association (MaFLA) in late January to contact their legislators to ask them to co-sponsor this important but, now, brand new legislation. Even though we are beginning our third two-year legislative session attempt to pass the Seal legislation, we remain hopeful that it will pass. Why the delay, you ask? Why has it taken so long to get this no-brainer, no-cost and so beneficial legislation through? Well, there is no easy answer in legislation and politics. In the last legislative session, we came very close to a full legislative vote on the bills and the legislation did pass favorably through the Joint Education and the Joint Ways and Means Committees. We are confident that there is wide and bipartisan support for the Seal and that it will pass in this session with our continued advocacy and your continued support when we ask you to reach out to legislators.

As frustrated as I am that the Seal of Biliteracy legislation has taken so long to pass, personally, I have continued to press on in leading this effort because I believe that this is the most important transformative action that can happen to language teaching, learning and programming in our state right now. When we value proficiency development as a critical college- and career-readiness skill, programming transforms to better meet the needs of students, and students engage in the transformation as they see the utility of the work they are doing and are rewarded for the progress that they are making. To me, it is thrilling to have a way to document proficiency in a scale that is nationally understood.

In most of my classes at Salem State University, from beginning Spanish language to graduate level courses, at some point in the semester, the discussion will turn to why language teaching and learning just does not seem to be a priority in the US or why we are not graduating great numbers of highly proficiency students. At Salem State, for our language requirement students, this judgment stems from the fact that so many students have to start their course work at the 101 level since they do not remember enough of the language they learned in high school or it just didn’t ‘stick.’ For my Methods students, the discussion grows from the fact that while the MA Framework for Foreign Languages elaborates the ideal K-12 programming where all students have access to language learning, the reality is that only about 20% of MA districts have any kind of elementary language program and there is no state foreign language requirement, nor, for that matter, a dedicated Foreign Language Coordinator position at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Most recently, in my Peer Tutoring course, the heritage Spanish speaker students in the class were discussing their k-12 school experience of being told not to speak Spanish in the playground and the cafeteria. Peer Tutoring course is one of two community service courses in our department, and in this one, students are trained to tutor and support the language requirement students in the department or students in other settings such as Melrose High School and the Salem State Preschool. The first third of the semester orients the new interns to the special needs of teaching and tutoring, and discussions are on going about how to motivate language students and make language learning engaging and communicative.

The proficiency movement is transforming language learning and teaching since it pushes teachers to engage students in their developing language proficiency. The Seal of Biliteracy offers a way to concretize the classroom experience and demonstrate what students can actually do with the information learned in class. Unlike the standardized tests offered to try to validate most subjects, a proficiency test is not actually connected to specific content. This means that the proficiency oriented classroom practices a variety of performances to get our students ready for open-ended, creative communication outside of the classroom with the expectation that it will develop to a functional level of ability.

Bottom line, the need for proficient citizens is only going to increase. In fact, a recent report from Renew Our Economy showed that between 2010 and 2015 the number of online job postings in Massachusetts requiring bilingual candidates had almost tripled! The Boston Globe’s article “Which job seekers are in hot demand? Bilingual workers” (March 13) elaborates on that report. And, the tides seem to be changing in terms of the national focus and appreciation of language learning. As a result of a bipartisan commission by Congress, the first since the Carter administration, a “Commission on Language Learning” was created at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015 to study the importance of languages in our economy, diplomacy, productivity and overall fulfillment and determine the actions that need to take place to ensure excellence in languages. Their report entitled “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century” was just released in February. The report outlines the recommendations to create the pipeline and build capacity to provide strong foreign language learning opportunities for all students. To coincide with the release of the report, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the national foreign language (K-20) teacher organization, launched a campaign called “Lead with Languages” with a great video to raise public awareness about the report and the importance of language learning in general.

The “Commission on Language Learning” report underscores that there is a critical need for language teachers across the US. It is a great time to be a language teacher! But it is not only language teachers that are in great demand, positions in every field are enhanced with languages! I envision a near future where college credit is given for proficiency gained in the K-12 programming and employers will expect a proficiency level on résumés when knowledge of a language is mentioned, as a result of the Seal of Biliteracy. Even more exciting, I envision a near future where, when I say I am a language teacher and Spanish teacher trainer, people respond enthusiastically about the importance of language learning in the United States!

Seal of Biliteracy Pilot at SSU!

As we wait for the legislation for the Seal of Biliteracy to pass in Massachusetts, state leaders from the state foreign language, bilingual education and English language learning organizations MaFLA, MABE and MATSOL, are running a pilot in the state of in which districts elect to participate in awarding their students for the functional level of biliteracy attained through their programming.

Dr. Nicole Sherf, representing MaFLA, is on the Steering Committee of the Language Opportunity Coalition which is developing resources for Seal implementation including a PowerPoint and a Toolkit. Find the 2015-6 pilot results at

This year, students in the Bachelor of Arts in World Languages and Cultures and Master of Arts in Teaching Spanish who elected to take the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPIc) and attain the Advanced Low level of proficiency according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, will receive the Platinum Seal at the Phi Sigma Iota Ceremony on April 19, 2017, at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem.

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