The University of Connecticut has been awarded a $179,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education for a new research project centered on reimagining dual language education. The project’s purpose is to improve the ability of dual language programs to promote the equitable bilingualism and biliteracy development of all students through a greater focus on sociocultural competence.
Neag School associate professor Elizabeth Howard will serve as principal investigator and project director for the three-year interdisciplinary project, and Manuela Wagner from UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) will serve as co-principal investigator. The research team will also include the Neag School’s Aarti Bellara, alumna Elena Sada ’20 Ph.D., now assistant professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, as well as UConn doctoral students Sandra Silva-Enos in the Neag School’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Dominique Galvez in CLAS’ Department of Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies.
“The research is important now due to equity concerns that are increasingly being raised within the field of dual language education.”
— Associate Professor Elizabeth Howard
“The research is important now due to equity concerns that are increasingly being raised within the field of dual language education,” says Howard. “It seems likely that the lack of attention to sociocultural competence is part of the issue.”
Sociocultural competence is the ability to communicate in a language appropriately, situationally, and culturally, and comprises the knowledge of customs, rules, beliefs, and principles of a given society.
Criticism of Dual Language Education Programs
Dual language education — an approach that promotes grade-level academic achievement, bilingualism and biliteracy, and sociocultural competence to integrated groups of students through content-language integrated instruction — is a rapidly growing program model in the U.S. According to current estimates, there are more than 2,000 such programs in place nationwide.
The reasons for this growth include a mounting body of research on the benefits of bilingualism, awareness of the competitive advantages of multilingualism and sociocultural competence in a global economy, and the demonstrated efficacy of these programs for students from diverse backgrounds. However, the rapid increase of these programs and their embrace by white, affluent, English-speaking parents has led to criticisms of such programs as being elitist, biased toward the interests of the dominant culture, and failing to serve the needs of students of color in general — and English learners in particular.
Critics have called for programs to respond to the cultural needs of minority students and interrogate the power dynamics that may be influencing program design and outcomes. This call aligns with sociocultural competence’s goal, which has been excluded from accountability systems, thus relegating it to a low priority for overburdened educators who are evaluated based on their ability to promote students’ academic achievement.
“Sociocultural competence is one of the three core goals of dual language education (along with academic achievement as well as bilingualism and biliteracy development), but it has received the least attention in the field,” says Howard. “There’s no clear consensus of what it is, no pedagogical recommendations for how to teach to it, and no assessments of it to determine the extent to which students are developing it.
“This is problematic, as sociocultural competence is not only important in its own right, but may also be a factor in the equitable attainment of the other two goals of dual language education,” she adds.
Strengthening Dual Language Education
Through the project, Howard and her fellow researchers seek to strengthen dual language education by:
- helping to define sociocultural competence and identify its subcomponents;
- working with teachers to create and implement pedagogical strategies to foster its development within the context of language and literacy instruction;
- creating a measure to assess its development; and
- investigating the relationship between sociocultural competence and the development of bilingualism and biliteracy.
In an effort to better understand the role of sociocultural competence in promoting bilingualism and biliteracy among dual language students, the project will focus on upper-elementary dual language teachers in an urban Connecticut school district. The dual language students in the study will include students classified as English learners, former (reclassified) English learners, and students never classified as English learners, all from homes of varying socioeconomic status and linguistic and cultural profiles.
“The upper-elementary grades are particularly well-suited to this investigation because developmentally, it is the time period immediately preceding adolescence, when identity development and other aspects of sociocultural competence are heightened for students,” Howard says. “Moreover, it is precisely the time in which high-stakes standardized achievement testing gets underway. This puts enormous pressure on teachers to focus on academic English development, thus relegating the pursuit of Spanish proficiency and sociocultural competence development to the background.”
In response to the need for educating bilingual learners, Howard recently launched an online graduate certificate program. The program offers general education teachers and other school personnel an opportunity to learn how to better support English Learners in their classrooms. Graduate level coursework leading to the bilingual and TESOL cross-endorsements are also offered through the bilingual/multicultural concentration.