“Oh! I know this one! That means sun!” shouts McKenna, a first-grader at Kate Furbish Elementary School, pointing to a brightly-painted sun in a picture book. She remembers this word from the last time I read to her in Spanish; the visual helps trigger her memory. “That’s how to say it in Portuguese, too!” her classmate Kevin remarks. McKenna is thrilled to learn she now knows this word in three languages.

By introducing bilingual, multicultural storybooks into early education, students gain access to language and culture very different from their own.

Every lunchtime during the school year at Kate Furbish Elementary in Brunswick, Maine, between five and 15 pre-K to second-grade students can be found sitting with their lunches on the steps outside the cafeteria. Here, for nearly every lunchtime block, one or two Bowdoin College undergraduates read a children’s book to students in a language other than English.

For some students, lunchtime reading with Multilingual Mainers, a learning partnership established in 2017, is the first place they hear a language other than English spoken. In select classrooms at the school, students have access to weekly learning with Bowdoin students for three-month rotations.

For multilingual students, it’s exciting to hear multiple languages being used in a school setting. And monolingual students pick up more than just new vocabulary. All students make connections regarding identity, difference and culture. Conversations that take place during lunchtime readings help promote curiosity about differences and a desire to learn new languages.

Research shows that proficiency in a second language leads to higher salaries, stronger empathy and increased creativity. Bilingual students are better thinkers, communicators and leaders. Yet world language instruction is not incorporated into most Maine schools until middle school and even then, it’s optional.


Educational experts state that comprehensible input, like reading, is one of the best ways to build a second language vocabulary. Supplemental, “free-choice” reading has a high impact for language production. Beyond grammar or vocabulary, however, using literature in language classrooms can promote conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion, and introduce students to the concept of global citizenship.

Research shows that college-age students and secondary-school students alike gain valuable intercultural competency skills from the analysis and study of multicultural and multilingual literature. Children understand deeper meanings through listening, and character representation can leave lasting impressions.

Furthermore, a teacher’s own presentation, celebration, or questioning of a story showcases sentiments toward difference, regardless of the story’s content. Children can pick up on racism and bias in their environment in toddlerhood. Additionally, students may adapt their own presentation to hide learned bias by the end of elementary school.

With this in mind, not only do schools need to introduce multilingualism and identity at a younger age, the conversation must continue. The Lyseth Elementary school in Portland, for instance, has a dedicated, award-winning Spanish immersion program, dedicated to building cognitive skills and increased cultural awareness. Ultimately, we need more dual-language schools in the state. Incorporating multilingual representation early, through literature, is an attainable first step.

Contact school board members and express support for authentic texts, multilingual books and early world language exposure. Have intentional conversations and self-reflections. Start early with anti-bias education.

— Special to the Press Herald

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