How language and multilingualism can be a resource for supporting Somali student achievement

Last week, MnEEP released a policy report on Somali Student Achievement in Minnesota, in collaboration with the East African Student to Teacher (EAST) program at Augsburg University. More than 100 people attended the release event at Augsburg to learn more about policy recommendations to strengthen Somali student achievement in Minnesota.

After a brief presentation on the report’s recommendations—including supporting relevant curriculum and instruction, integrating Somali language, increasing Somali teacher workforce, and growing stronger family engagement—a community panel discussed their own experiences and insights.

Mariam Adam, a New-to-Country Accelerated Bilingual Academic Development teacher at Anne Sullivan Elementary School, spoke about seeing the enthusiasm her new students have for learning. Yusuf Dayur, 9th grader at Edina High School, expressed that Somali history is seen in classes like World History, but not often in other courses. Dr. Muhammad Khalifa, Associate Professor of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of MN, spoke about redefining what “success” means in the classroom. Yodit Tesfaye, Achievement and Integration Specialist at the MN Department of Education, shared the need to be an engaged stakeholder at school when it comes to strategic plans the school/district puts out.

And Leyla Sahan, EAST Scholar, shared her experience as a student helping her family understand the US education system and how schools and families need to better understand each other. It was an event that highlighted community, history, and hope.

Below is an outline of one of the report’s key recommendations, and how educators, school districts, lawmakers, and the public can work together to support our diverse Somali community.

Key recommendation 1: Using languages as a resource

In Minnesota, with a growing Somali student population, it’s especially important to support native language development. And while Minnesota enjoys more than 70 immersion programs,[i] none support the language development of Somali, the third-most spoken language in the state.

Research shows that bilingualism has positive effects on test scores and executive function,[ii] and recognizing the refugee background of many students, native language development is crucial to integrating students into Minnesota schools and teaching literacy. In addition, it is important to have language retention and acquisition so that students feel connected to both the home and new community.[iii] The LEAPS Act also calls for native language development.

Students who participate in two-way immersion and developmental bilingual education score at or above average reading scores of native English speakers.[iv] Bilingual staff and curriculum, and connections to community-based organizations, begin to establish these programs.

Beyond bilingual and immersion program models, a variety of pedagogies include translation and the creation of dual language multimedia books and projects. Research shows that translation promotes the acquisition of English, biliteracy development, and identities of competence.[v] Overall, open language policies including multilingual pedagogies that support native language use and development foster stronger academic achievement.

One aspect of Somali language development is its linguistic history. The written form has only existed since 1972 and draws from one dialect.[vi] Therefore, it is imperative to include more academic oral language in all instructional phases to establish a foundation. Because oral traditions are more highly valued in Somali society,[vii] written Somali may require agreement due to different dialects and vocabulary.[viii]

Teachers and school leaders have a responsibility to promote native language development and its value to both students and families. Although the written Somali language may not be used widely and often competes with English,[ix] community-based organizations and schools can develop and apply real-life resources and purposes for literacy and language development.

Bilingual and multilingual seals and certificates is one part of the LEAPS Act that has gained ground. The MN Department of Education has developed native language assessments for schools and districts to use so that students who perform at a certain level can receive recognition and even course credits. Since 2015, 53 students have received some type of seal or certificate for the Somali language.[x]

Read the entire Report here, and learn more about our recommendations for supporting Somali students, including:

  • Developing Culturally Responsive and Relevant Curruiculum: The curriculum, practices, and school environment must reflect the student body and experience for students to feel powerful in owning their education, especially for SLIFE.
  • Developing a Multiple Literacies Approach: Integrate literacy and native language development at any age to establish a linguistic foundation for English learning and strengthen identity.
  • Supporting Teachers and Parents Together: Families are interested and willing to engage in their children’s education and teachers can develop a strong team with families.
  • Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Students are more engaged when they see a teacher who looks like them and understands their experience, so barriers must be addressed that prevent more Somalis from pursuing the career.



[i] MN Advocates for Immersion Network. (2017). Master List of MN Immersion Programs. Retrieved from

[ii] Bigelow, M. H. (2010). Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, racialized identity, and education in a new land (Vol. 60). John Wiley & Sons.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Thomas, W., & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. National

Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education Resource Collection Series, 9.

[v] Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 10.

[vi] New York University: Steinhardt. (2012). Somalia: Language and Culture. NYU Steinhardt. Retrieved from

[vii] Bigelow, M. H. (2010). Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, racialized identity, and education in a new land (Vol. 60). John Wiley & Sons.

[viii] Augsburg EAST Policy Fellow meeting with St. Paul Public Schools Somali Parent Advisory Committee. April 21, 2017.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ursula Lentz, interview by Aara Johnson, Minnesota Department of Education. March 7, 2018.

Posted in Our Voices

Aara Johnson View posts by Aara Johnson

Aara Johnson collaborates with English Learner teachers, coordinators, and communities to strengthen English Language Development and advocate for native language development and multilingualism for all Minnesota students.
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