Amidst all the playing, programming, and tinkering we wrote about for our story on the Remake Learning Digital Corps last month, the work going on at El Círculo Juvenil de Cultura stood out. The Carnegie Mellon University-sponsored program caters to Spanish-speaking youth. Their mission:  To familiarize young students with their heritage and, increasingly, to provide them with digital learning opportunities.

While working to bolster the kids’ literacy in both their native languages and in English, El Círculo staff has recently added digital literacy to its agenda.

Many of the 6-to-12-year-olds who attend the program have access to cell phones or iPads, said director Felipe Gómez. “But beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the technology and how to explore their own identities with technology,” he said.

El CírculoHe is describing a perennial task for educators, who know how savvy their students are as consumers and users of technology and want to leverage this interest and acuity for educational or civic ends. The challenge is even more pronounced in bilingual populations, Gómez said. The kids he works with often attend under-resourced schools and come from families who may lack the resources to facilitate digital education.

Findings from the Pew Research Center corraborate Gómez’s anecdotes. Along with their black peers, Latino youths are no strangers to technology, using digital devices even more than their white counterparts. Thirty-two percent of Hispanic teens report going online “almost constantly.”

But professor S. Craig Watkins who studies young people’s digital behavior, finds that digital prowess on its own does not equal digital empowerment.

“While digital media is more widely distributed than ever before, not all learning ecologies, literacies, and pathways to digital participation are equal,” he wrote at the Connected Learning Research Network.

While bilingual students might miss out on some of the digital education that their native-speaking peers are more likely to receive, they are also in a powerful position if they have access to scaffolding and guidance.

We call them digital literacy and coding languages for a reason. Technological agility is another means of communication, one that is increasingly valuable in professional and civic settings. If bilingual students can add this third “language” to their repertories, they are poised for a wealth of opportunities.

Isabel Gordillo, a Digital Corps member and volunteer at El Círculo, is a good example. A native of Ecuador who started learning English as a teenager, and who also speaks Czech and French, Gordillo uses her multilingualism in her career as a translator and court interpreter. Her tech savvy has come in handy when using translation software—and when securing the Digital Corps gig.

“We’re trying to foster the idea that bilingualism is an advantage,” Gordillo said. “And on top of that, if you can combine it with literacy in terms of how to think critically about solving problems with computers and programming and design, I think that makes a very strong set of skills these kids are going to have later in life.”

Thoughtful educators of bilingual kids, in and out of school, try to cultivate digital and linguistic literacy in tandem.

Some use digital tools to help non-native-speaking students settle into classrooms or social settings. One preschool teacher helped a boy who spoke only Chinese use a digital storytelling program to introduce himself and his background to his classmates.

“With the connection of seeing and hearing about his home, the communication began to flow,” wrote Diane Bales on the National Association for the Education of Young Children website. “The children worked together to find other ways to communicate, and the boy’s English skills grew quickly.”

Educators should be aware of the specific needs and existing skills of dual-language learners when it comes to digital literacy. When kids are given opportunities to develop bilingualism and tech skills, it makes for “a very powerful combination,” Gordillo said.