Can Dual Language Teachers Be Language Policymakers in their Schools?

Blog Post
Oct. 5, 2018

When I started teaching as a dual language (DL) teacher, I thought that I was prepared. I graduated from a teacher preparation program, had a masters degree in curriculum and instruction, and am bilingual, biliterate, and biculturally competent in English and Spanish. What else did I need to know? As it turned out, much more. I quickly realized that I needed more preparation to effectively teach my DL students.

I learned that I didn’t know much about all of the educational policies that affected my DL students directly such as finding instructional materials in Spanish that aligned with Common Core State Standards (CCSS). But most importantly, I didn’t know that I had agency to improve the DL program where I was teaching and better serve my students. Due to this lack of awareness, I thought that I only had control of what was happening inside my classroom. So I closed my classroom door and focused only on teaching my students.

A new study published online in the Bilingual Research Journal explores DL teachers’ perceptions of their agency as local language policymakers capable of making changes within the programs they worked in, their ability to recognize tensions within their programs and to take action to address these tensions.

Specifically, the researchers focused on 13 DL teachers and 4 administrators from two elementary DL schools in one large, suburban school district in the Southwestern United States. Teachers who participated in this study represented a range of languages (i.e., Spanish and English), cultural backgrounds (i.e., Latinx, Black, and White), years of teaching experience (i.e., between 3-20 years), and grade-level teaching (i.e., K-5).

They found that DL teachers perceive themselves as having limited agency as local language policymakers within their own programs in three ways. First, teachers feel unable to fight against the dominance of the English language in DL programs. For example, teachers noted that their curriculum in Spanish is not as good as the curriculum in English, that it lacks resources, and that it needs to go beyond literal translations of the English version. Second, teachers and administrators perceive themselves with hardly any agency to affect high-stakes testing and feel pressure to demonstrate the English language growth of students labeled as English learners (ELs) in their DL programs. And third, teachers didn’t know how to follow language separation policies that mandated a strict separation of languages in DL models. This strict separation of languages limits students' opportunities to engage in translanguaging practices—a theory that emphasizes language as a dynamic process of linguistic resources that bilingual students use—to communicate and enhance learning in their DL classrooms.

While teachers don’t perceive themselves to have agency to affect language policy within their DL programs, especially in the area of high-stakes testing, administrators believe that teachers can work on fighting against the tensions of English dominance and strict language separation in their DL program models.

Findings also highlighted that DL teachers show critical consciousness—an awareness of tensions and the actions resulting from that awareness—of their program tensions and do take action to improve their program.

Teachers are aware of tensions in their DL program models. They recognize that their program model structure did not allow for greater differentiation based on students’ academic and linguistic development, particularly for recently arrived students to the country, gifted and talented, and Spanish language dominant students. Teachers express an awareness of the dominance that the English language has in their DL model—due to the lack of a quality curriculum and authentic resources in native Spanish—which affects the goals of the DL program for students to become bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. Moreover, teachers share that the Spanish language is often sacrificed to accommodate teachers, administrators, and staff who do not speak Spanish in their schools. Similarly, upper grades (e.g., fourth grade) teachers have concerns about high-stakes testing in English that was prioritized over the Spanish language instruction in DL programs. And they are aware of the tension that strict language separation creates in their classrooms because they are unable to let their students use their translanguaging abilities.

However, findings indicated that teachers do take action to alleviate the tensions they identified in their DL programs. Teachers and administrators shared that they are working on improving the quality of Spanish curriculum and resources in the content areas. They also provide language support to their students’ first language in spite of strict language separation policies.

Taken together, the study offers three recommendations to help DL teachers become language policymakers within the programs they work in:

  1. Communication and collaboration between teachers and administrators to address tensions in DL programs.
  2. Creation of local and district bilingual assessments that cover the content equally in both languages.
  3. Discussion (e.g., fieldwork and reflection) of DL programs tensions in teacher preparation programs to develop agency and tools to improve DL programs.

Certainly, this study calls for teacher preparation programs to help DL teacher candidates develop agency and critical consciousness. The study also highlights the need for collaboration between school administrators and teachers to address programmatic tensions and take action together to improve DL programs. Dual language programs are becoming increasingly popular and framed as a solution to closing the persistent achievement gap, however, realizing those results will necessitate intentional planning and ongoing refinement to identify tensions and develop solutions to ensuring program quality within a policy context designed for English-based instruction.

Related Topics
Dual Language Learners English Learners