UMN, St. Paul schools partnership aims to support Hmong students

University researchers are partnering with St. Paul Public Schools to develop Hmong literacy indicators based on community input.

Ella Johnson

In an effort to better track student literacy, University of Minnesota researchers are working with St. Paul Public Schools to design early literacy assessments in Hmong.

St. Paul is home to more than 26,000 Hmong speakers. Researchers and educators hope the initiative, which relies heavily on community input, will allow them to better support bilingual students.

These assessments, called Individual Growth and Development Indicators, use reading activities to determine whether students are reading at the appropriate levels. Teachers guide students through the assessments, which makes the tests more flexible and accurate, said Alisha Wackerle-Hollman, a researcher in the University’s Department of Educational Psychology.

IGDIs — which already exist in English and Spanish — need to be quick and easy for teachers to administer and interpret, related to long-term student outcomes and test underlying skills rather than content, Wackerle-Hollman said.

Research shows learning a second language is easier for students who have a strong foundation in their first language, so knowing how well a student understands Hmong is key to helping them learn English as a second language, she said.

The researchers and their SPPS partners are gathering community input as part of the design process, working closely with Hmong community members to ensure the indicators are culturally relevant and effective for the language. Researchers have met with young parents, elders and a legislative advocacy group, and also surveyed customers at a Hmong market.

Organizers also sought to spread the word by discussing the project on a Hmong community television show called Xav Paub Xav Pom, said show host MaiKou Xiong, who is also the program manager for the prekindergarten programs at SPPS and the project’s primary point of contact in the Hmong community.

Xiong said the community has been very receptive to the initiative. Elders are hopeful that gaining a better understanding of students’ Hmong literacy, especially in the district’s Hmong immersion programs, will help preserve the language. They worry that once the older generation dies, the language will too, since many younger parents were raised in the U.S. and only speak English.

“It is a growing and evolving process, so we’re just excited to have [the project] up and running and are very thankful that we’re doing it in a way that is honoring the needs of the community and involving the community,” said Lori Erickson, the project’s principal investigator and the SPPS prekindergarten assistant director.

As a next step, researchers will gather feedback through a formal survey, but they say they have already learned a lot from the community. For example, they found that Hmong is not traditionally a written language. 

This can pose problems for assessing the literacy of native speakers, who may speak the language fluently without knowing how to read or write it. 

Additionally, written Hmong educational materials are sparse, so SPPS has turned to hiring Hmong authors to produce books at different reading levels and of different genres for students. The district has also translated all of its curriculum into Hmong. 

Researchers also learned that tone is extremely important in Hmong— three words that sound exactly the same to an English speaker can have entirely different meanings based on the speaker’s intonation. The assessment will include components that test students’ abilities to differentiate meaning by tone.