Seal of Biliteracy Research Brief

By Margaret Borowczyk

How can students’ multilingualism be recognized officially? This brief highlights one U.S.-based effort to document students’ proficiency in two languages.

This research brief can also be viewed and downloaded as a pdf here.

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The Seal of Biliteracy is a way to credential students’ literacy in two or more languages by the time they graduate high school, according to a nationally understood standard. It benefits students in dual language, ELL, and world language programs.

The initiative is meant to encourage longer sequences of language study, provide employers and universities with a way to identify applicants’ bilingual skills, and strengthen relations between cultures and linguistic groups.

Recent research on the Seal has examined variation in implementation within different states and districts, obstacles to full implementation, and benefits to different populations of learners.

What does it mean?

  • Biliteracy: the ability to listen, speak, read and write in two or more languages
  • ELLs: English Language Learners
  • LCTLs: Less Commonly Taught Languages
  • Heritage language speakers: students who come from a home environment where a language other than English is spoken


  • Policies and practices around the Seal tend to inadvertently advantage English-dominant students. To achieve equity, future work should prioritize and find strategies to highlight ELLs and linguistically diverse students (Heineke, Davin, & Bedford, 2018; Heineke, Davin, & Davila, 2019; Subtirelu et al., 2019).
  • States vary in terms of minimum proficiency requirements for earning the Seal and ways of demonstrating this proficiency (i.e. tests, portfolios, community service requirements) (Davin & Heineke, 2017).
  • In Illinois, the Seal is promoting a shift toward proficiency-based instruction and increased enrollment in world language courses (Davin, Heineke, & Egnatz, 2018).
  • Challenges to full implementation include: 1) lack of extended sequences of language study 2) difficulty disseminating information 3) lack of accredited exams in LCTLs 4) lack of qualified raters in LCTLs (Davin, Heineke, & Egnatz, 2018; Subtirelu et al., 2019).

It can be said…

The Seal is improving the status of language education in the US by creating more excitement for language learning among students, educators, and employers. It also has the potential to recognize the language abilities of students whose bilingualism has long been ignored or labeled deficient, namely English- and heritage-language learners. However, obstacles to implementation for administrators and obstacles to access for ELLs and heritage language learners demonstrate that more effort is needed to ensure full and equitable implementation. Below, we present takeaways and suggestions for policymakers, program administrators, and teachers on how to improve access to the Seal.

So What?


Prioritizing access to the Seal for ELLs and heritage language learners will be critical in the upcoming years.

Ensuring funding for exams and availability of exams in LCTLs will be crucial to full implementation. Overseeing exams at the state/district rather then the school level tends to improve access.

Working with  universities to recognize the Seal will be crucial to improving its relevance beyond high school.

To improve data and accountability, schools should report 1) languages in which students earned the Seal; 2) methods used to demonstrate proficiency; 3) free/reduced lunch status; 4) race; 5) gender; 6) ELL status.

Language Coordinators

Reaching out to community organizations, local universities, consulates, and education non-profits can help in finding raters and translators for LCTLs to ensure heritage speakers can earn the Seal.

Collaboration of language coordinators from dual, ELL and world language programs tends to strengthen school language programming.

Effective information dissemination often requires outreach in classes attended by all students, to capture those not currently taking a world language.

Outreach before 9th grade can also increase student and parent investment in the initiative.

Assessments for the Seal can promote increased attention to the most current teaching practices.

More reading…

Burnet, M. M. (2017). Signed, sealed, delivered: District-level adoption of the Washington State Seal of Biliteracy (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Seattle: University of Washington.

Castro Santana, A. C. (2014). Herencia y legado: Validating the linguistic strengths of English language learners via the LAUSD Seal of Biliteracy awards program (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). California State University, Long Beach.

Davin, K. J., & Heineke, A. J. (2018). The Seal of Biliteracy: Adding students’ voices to the conversation. Bilingual Research Journal41(3), 312-328.

DeLeon, T. M. (2014). The new ecology of biliteracy in California: An exploratory study of the early implementation of the State Seal of Biliteracy (Doctoral dissertation). Loyola Marymount University.

Heineke, A. J., & Davin, K. J. (Eds.) (forthcoming). The Seal of Biliteracy: Case studies of language policy in practice. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.


Davin, K. J., & Heineke, A. J. (2017). The Seal of Biliteracy: Variations in policy and outcomes. Foreign Language Annals50(3), 486-499.

Davin, K. J., Heineke, A. J., & Egnatz, L. (2018). The Seal of Biliteracy: Successes and challenges to implementation. Foreign Language Annals. 51(2), 275–289.

Heineke, A. J., Davin, K. J., & Bedford, A. (2018). The Seal of Biliteracy: Considering equity and access for English learners. Education Policy Analysis Archives26(99).

Heineke, A. J., Davin, K. J., & Dávila, A. (2019). Promoting multilingualism for English learners: The Seal of Biliteracy in Washington State. TESOL Journal, e00451.

Subtirelu, N., Borowczyk, M., Thorson Hernández, R., & Venezia, F. (2019). Recognizing Whose Bilingualism?: A critical policy analysis of the Seal of Biliteracy. The Modern Language Journal103(2), 371-390.

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