Bi-literacy program brings high school students to UNK campus
By Tyler Ellyson
KEARNEY — When Angie Wagoner started teaching at Crete High School in 2009, there were just five students in the advanced level Spanish class.
Now that number is 45.
This increase reflects a trend across Nebraska, where about 12% of residents speak a language other than English at home. As the state and nation continue to diversify, bilingualism and biliteracy become even more valuable.
“We have a lot of students in Crete and other parts of Nebraska who grow up hearing and using Spanish often because their parents are from a Spanish-speaking country. But they also grow up in an area where English is the dominant language, so often they lose the ability for literacy, like reading and writing,” Wagoner said.
For these students, studying Spanish is a way to hone their skills and reconnect with their family’s heritage while developing a stronger sense of identity.
For others, learning a second language allows them to meet more people, experience another culture and see the world in a new way.
Both groups benefit from a job market that favors candidates who can communicate with clients, clients and colleagues in multiple languages. By some estimates, being bilingual can increase an employee’s salary by up to 20%, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 24% increase in demand for interpreters and translators from 2020 to 2030.
“Whatever career they choose will benefit them in the long run,” Wagoner said.
The Cretan teacher brought 27 of her students to the University of Nebraska at Kearney last week to participate in a literacy promotion program.
As of spring 2021, UNK’s Department of Modern Languages has offered high school students the opportunity to take language proficiency tests that can earn them the Nebraska Seal of Biliteracy. A collaboration between the International Language Association of Nebraska and the Nebraska Department of Education, this award recognizes students who have achieved a high level of proficiency in English and at least one additional language. The seal is a way for employers and post-secondary institutions to identify people with multilingual skills.
There are several ways to qualify for the Nebraska Seal of Biliteracy, but many students, especially those attending rural schools, do not have access to necessary exams or advanced coursework. UNK purchased licenses from Avant Assessment, allowing students to test on campus at a discounted rate.
Janet Eckerson, assistant professor of Spanish, sees the program as both an outreach effort and a recruiting opportunity.
“We believe that students who have already invested a lot of time and energy into language learning in high school and students who are traditional speakers of languages are excellent future language students for our department,” a- she declared. “They are invested in furthering their education and they are the kind of students who might consider majoring or minoring in a language they have studied.”
The STAMP 4S language proficiency test offered at UNK assesses four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. It is available in Arabic, English, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and several other world languages.
“Nebraska’s first-ever Biliteracy Seal in Somali Maxaa will be awarded this year to a student who took the test here at UNK,” Eckerson noted.
In addition to Crete, high school students from Arlington, Columbus, Gibbon, Lexington, Lincoln, and North Platte took the STAMP 4S exam at UNK this academic year. Students who earn the Nebraska Seal of Biliteracy receive advanced placement in UNK’s modern language courses, saving them money and accelerating their path to graduation.
“We are proud to honor the effort and skill that students bring to our department by awarding this credit, which brings them one step closer to a major or minor at UNK,” Eckerson said.
UNK’s Department of Modern Languages offers undergraduate degrees in French, German, and Spanish, as well as courses in Spanish translation and interpretation, and modern language teaching. Minors are available in French, German, Japanese and Spanish.
Students coming to take the proficiency test can tour the campus, attend a language class, have lunch in the dining hall, and visit the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.
This aspect of the curriculum is also important, according to Wagoner, who teaches many first-generation high school graduates.
“We have a lot of students from diverse backgrounds,” she said. “Getting them to a campus where they see people who look like them is a big deal. They feel they can belong.