March 2015
Bilingual Basics



Dear BEIS Community,

What a year! We celebrated “40 Years of Multilingualism Within TESOL” at last year’s convention in Portland, Oregon. This celebration honored all who dedicate their lives and work to the power of language, the inherent human right to speak our mother tongue, and the years of research that demonstrate that additional languages are learned most effectively after children become highly literate and fluent in their mother tongue. Our gathering honored past presidents of BEIS, those whose vision, transformative research, and deep caring have kept our community thriving through the decades.

From left to right, Nancy Dubetz, Yvonne Freeman, David Freeman, Ester de Jong, Aida Nevárez-La Torre, Mayra Daniel, Shelley Taylor, Joan Wink, and Sandra Mercury

In keeping with the tradition of honoring our heritage, present, and future of multilingual and multicultural education, editors Andrés Ramírez and Alsu Gilmetdinova have created a newsletter that explores the rich heritage of multilingual education and what lies ahead. Stories convey deep human truths. The personal and professional stories highlighted in this newsletter lift deep truths about multilingual education, and perhaps we may recognize some of our own journeys, as well. Enjoy.

We’ll soon gather in Toronto, Canada to celebrate TESOL convention 2015. Chair-Elect, Sandra Musanti, has composed vibrant BEIS academic and InterSection sessions focused on pressing contemporary issues that affect us all: “Opportunities and Challenges: English Learners in the Times of Standards,” and “Multilingualism: Voices From a Globalized World.” I look forward to seeing you there.

“Language,” writes Wade Davis,(Chadwick & Davis, 2003) “is a flash of the human spirit.” Our BEIS community holds enough human spirit to light the world.

Dawn Wink
BEIS Chair


Chadwick A., (Interviewer) & Davis, W. (Interviewee). (2003). An Interview with Anthropologist Wade Davis [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from National Public Radio Web Site:


Andrés Ramírez

Alsu Gilmetdinova

We would like to welcome the reader to the new issue of the newsletter of the Bilingual Education Interest Section (BEIS). Last year, BEIS celebrated its 40th anniversary, which prompted the topic for the current newsletter: the past, present, and future of bilingual education. For this special issue, we decided to interview established scholars, activists, and administrators who have made a significant contribution to the development and growth of the field.

As such we hereby offer interviews with Wayne Wright, Sonia Nieto, David Rogers, Kate Menken, and Ofelia García. Each of them has a unique and inspiring journey to bilingual education, at times personal and at times professional, driven by natural curiosity, local circumstances, diverse experiences, and the desire to provide best education for their students. Their stories shed light on the field as a whole as they take us back into a time when they were students and teachers themselves to then bring us back again to current times. Each of these journeys highlights important implications for what lies ahead for advocates of bilingual education.

As the interviews organically evolved, the order of their answers and type of follow-up questions vary, yet they provide a broad spectrum of meaningful comments which may further enrich readers’ knowledge about the scholars and the field. Without further ado, we invite you to take on this personally moving, intellectually stimulating, and professionally enriching journey into the lives of those who have lived and/or studied the origins of bilingual education and continue to work relentlessly toward the betterment of the field.

Andrés Ramírez is assistant professor of TESOL and bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, USA. His research focuses on the academic achievement of emergent to advanced bilinguals in K–16 contexts.

Alsu Gilmetdinova is a PhD candidate in the Literacy and Language Education Program at Purdue University. Her interests revolve around bilingual education, language policy, and TESOL.



At the May 2014 meeting of the Purdue University Board of Trustees, Wayne E. Wright was approved as the Barbara I. Cook Chair of Literacy and Language within the College of Education. Wright’s appointment was effective 18 August 2014. Prior to coming to Purdue, Dr. Wright was an associate professor in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Wright was a Fulbright Scholar at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2009. From 2004–2008, he was an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Prior to that, from 2003–2004, he was a faculty associate at Arizona State University East and, from 2001–2003, an adjunct professor at Mesa Community College, Northern Arizona University, and Arizona State University.

His research focuses on language and educational policies, programs, and practices for language minority students. He has many years of experience teaching in bilingual and ESL classrooms with students from kindergarteners to adults. Wright is editor of the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement and is book review editor for the International Multilingual Research Journal. He is author of Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Theory, Research, Policy and Practice (Caslon Publishing, 2015). He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from California State University Long Beach and his doctorate from Arizona State University.

Can you tell me about how you got into the field of bilingual education and bilingualism, and how your career unfolded?

How long do you have? I’ll tell you the short version. When I was 19, I went on a mission for my church to Washington, DC, and once I got there, I was assigned to work in what we call the Asian Program. And essentially, what that was is there was a large number of Southeast Asian Americans who were refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam who had resettled in the Washington, DC, area. A lot of them had joined the church, and there were a lot of needs that they had: linguistically, academically, culturally, and so on. So a lot of my mission was spent helping people adjust to the United States and I did a lot of work helping at hospitals and things like that, teaching English as a second language. So that really kind of did two things: One is help me understand the needs of newcomers and the challenges of adjusting when they are coming to a new country, and also the horrors that people could experience in other places and why that might bring them to the United States. It also gave me a little dabble in ESL teaching, because we did a little bit of that even though I had no experience or anything.

I also learned the language, so Cambodian became my second language. Because I didn’t receive any formal training as it is usually common for missionaries and I was just kind of thrown into it, I got books—...and I would sit at home and I would play these tapes, and I would learn to say things like, “where are you going?” But it was a very formal variety, so the book would say, “Madam, please tell me where are you going?” I was over at someone’s house and I would say that, and they would laugh at me and say, “you sound like a book, here’s how you really say it.” So through this process of just authentic communication, I was able to pick up quite a bit of the language.

I did it for 2 years; it was ‘86 to ‘88. I came home in 1988, and I didn’t know what else to do. I was in community college, and I was a business major, and then I found out from a friend of mine, he says, “Oh you know what, the schools are looking for para professionals”—we called them “college aids” back then—“and they need an aid that can speak Spanish and Cambodian.” I said, “Oh, really?” So I went to take the test, and I got approved, and I just went to my old high school, and I knocked on the ESL teacher’s door, and I said, “I heard you’re looking for college aids.” She looked at me, she says, “Yeah, but we’re only looking for people who speak Spanish or Cambodian, sorry.” I said, “Well, actually, I speak Cambodian.” She goes, “You what?” And then one of her Cambodian students was sitting near the door and she overheard me, and she ran over, she goes, “You speak Cambodian?” I said, “Baht,” which means yes, and she goes, “Wow,” and the teacher said, “you’re hired,” and that’s how I got into education.

So I ended up working there, at the high school, then once word got around that there was this guy who could speak Cambodian, they moved me to an elementary school, where they actually wanted to do kind of like a pseudo bilingual program. We would pull the kids out of their regular classroom and teach social studies, and there was one teacher that was teaching social studies in Spanish, and then I would do the same thing in Cambodian with a lot of the newcomer Cambodian kids, and it was kind of just the first little experiment with bilingual education.

Which grade level was that?

All grades. I would pull a first-grade group, a second-grade group, all the way through the fifth grade. And I’d have them for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. In the process of this, I was working at Thrifty’s Drugstore scooping ice cream, and I decided that I didn’t enjoy that, but I loved working in the school. So I went and changed my major to education and, of course, the teachers that I worked with were like, “Wow Wayne, you’re really good at this and you should think about changing your major to teaching,” so eventually the message got through.

I changed my major to education, and then I finished my bachelor’s degree and I planned to just go right into the classroom, but then I had an opportunity to go work and teach in Cambodia for a year or so. The district said go to Cambodia, come back, we’ll have a job for you. So I went to Cambodia, was there a year and a half, and then when I came back they had a job waiting for me. They had an elementary school in Long Beach that was half Cambodian half Latino, and I became the kindergarten teacher, and the first year was more of kind of a sheltered English instruction approach, but then they decided to actually create a bilingual program modeled after one that was up the street that a lot of my colleagues had been able to start, and so we became the second school in the country really to have a Cambodian bilingual program.

And which years were those?

That would have been ‘93; ‘94 is when I came home, and so between ‘94 and 2000 is when I worked there. So I was there, happy, program was doing great, we were expanding it, kids were doing great. Proposition 227 happened, then the following year they took the program away. Then they started making us do these really horrible phonics lessons, and then high stakes testing was starting to take off. And I just realized that these policies were very harmful for my students and were really limiting what I could do as a teacher. During this time, I finished my teaching credentials, and I had also finished my master’s degree, and Terry Wiley was one of my professors at Cal State Long Beach, and my thesis actually looked at the policies and programs of the district for the Cambodian students. It was frustrating to be able to write this thing at the time, when all the good things that had happened were being taking away again. The bottom line is I decided I wanted to leave the classroom; I didn’t want to leave the field.

Terry Wiley kept talking about how [I] should do a PhD program sometime, and so I finally said [to myself], oh maybe now is the time to do that. I actually had gone to his house and talked to him about different PhD programs, and I started applying to programs. Then I got a call from him saying, “Wayne what programs are you looking at?” And I said, “well I’m really interested in UPenn where Nancy Hornberger is, but those programs at Arizona State look really good.” He said, “I’m glad you said that, guess what?” And that’s when I found out that he had gotten a new job and he was going to be the department chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Arizona State University. So I went there and then, of course, I had a great opportunity to really explore language and education policy and worked with the Bilingual Research Journal during that time, helped start the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education at that time. Then my dissertation looked at some of the same issues of bilingual education and Proposition 227, or 203 and No Child Left Behind, and how all those were converging in Arizona in a way that made education worse for English language learners. From there, [I] got the job at University of Texas in San Antonio in bicultural and bilingual studies and got to work helping to train ESL and bilingual teachers.

I see, I see, interesting. And so now the second question is now that we’ve contextualized your interest and your journey within the field, now the question is very broad about the purpose, scope, outcome, the process of bilingual education and bilingualism. How would you define them?

Well, I really agree with Ofelia Garcia when she says that bilingual education should be the only way to educate students in the 21st century. We were talking a minute ago about how…most people in the world are bilingual or multilingual, and that’s the reality, and when you have less than 200 nation states but 6,000 languages or more than that, then I mean that’s just an actual consequence of reality. And so I’m in favor of bilingual programs and multilingual education programs that accept that reality and prepare students to work in a world that is multilingual and bilingual. But stepping back from that a little bit, the schools have done a very poor job, not just in the United States, but around the world, of educating language minority students. I think it’s a huge issue of equity and equality to ensure that all students have an equal access to education and all students have the opportunity to learn the dominant societal language; it’s going to be a key to getting to other places, while also maintaining and developing their home languages which are also a huge asset for society. I’ve always been motivated by, you know those kinds of programs. So I would like to see, as the field grows, more recognition of that. I think the United States has kind of been closed off and only looking in terms of bilingual education in the United States. And I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned by looking globally in terms of how these issues are playing out, what they can learn from us, what we can learn from them.

But I’d like to see more programs that are provided as opportunities. And I think there’s a trend now where monolingual parents of these big dominant languages, like monolingual English speaking parents in the United States, see societal advantages of their children being bilingual. So they’re actually seeking out dual language programs or other programs, and I think that’s a positive development, but I want to make sure that when we move in that direction that it’s not only serving the needs of those students and those parents but it’s an equally beneficial, mutually beneficial thing. And so yes, I want everyone to be bilingual, but I don’t want everyone to become bilingual and then still have the language minority students on the short end of the stick. We have to be very careful about how we move forward in that direction.

But if you think about how the field evolved from where it started in the 70s and 80s and how far we’ve gotten up to this point…what will be your comments about the changes that happened?

Yeah, well that’s a whole dissertation right there, but I mean, in general, we have the Bilingual Education Act to thank for getting the federal support for education and promoting and providing resources for districts to start bilingual education. I think that we were limited by the federal government’s involvement, because it tended to favor transitional models over…what we call the stronger models, the models that actually lead to higher levels of bilingualism and biliteracy. An effect of that might be…the growing popularity of the dual language models. But you know, in general, when we had really the heyday, when a lot [of] states were allowing bilingual education, then when we have the propositions, the 227, the 203, the question 2 really targeting some of the largest states with the largest English language learner populations, along with No Child Left Behind, that really helped [make] bilingual education kind of take a back seat. You know, it took a few steps back. Even in the states that didn’t have restrictions on bilingual education. Because of what was in No Child Left Behind and some of the other challenges that also discouraged bilingual programs, and so we really took a big hit.

But I think it’s important to note that even in the states that have the laws, bilingual education didn’t get eliminated. And so a lot of people have this false notion like, “oh, well, they don’t do bilingual ed in California anymore.” Well, no, actually we do. Arizona and Massachusetts all had programs that survived. So, Jose Gonzalez actually said something interesting, he was one of the editors of the Bilingual Research Journal, and he said, in a way, maybe, what those propositions did, was like we have a forest that’s too overpopulated, [and] you have a fire to clean up the brush. Maybe that helped to get rid of some of the programs that weren’t very good or were too transitional in nature. Then, what survived were the stronger programs that were more about developing bilingualism, biliteracy, and things like that. I don’t totally agree with that a hundred percent, but I think he has a point. But what we’re seeing now is that there’s starting to be a resurgence back to people understanding like hey, maybe bilingual education is a good thing…California was the first state to create the Seal of Biliteracy, which means that we’re going to value and recognize graduates who can prove they have proficiency in two languages right on their high school diploma, and a few other states have copied that now, and even in Indiana they’re talking about it. And now there’s going to be a measure on the California ballot to basically repeal proposition 227 and, if that gets repealed, I think that’s going to help start a new wave of favoritism towards bilingual education in the United States, and so I’m excited about that.

At the same time, while we’ve been struggling with fighting to defend bilingual education in the United States, the research that I’ve been doing in Cambodia, for example, has been very exciting, because there they’ve realized as we did awhile ago (but seem to forget), “Wow, this is how we can actually make education accessible to all students in the country, especially linguistic minorities, who we’ve been having a really hard time to reach.” Because we realize now that if you don’t speak the dominant language, and we send a teacher that can’t speak [the] minority language, then that’s not very effective: Kids don’t want to come to school, and then the teachers don’t want to teach them. But if we do bilingual education, that seems to solve a problem. I see that happening in other countries around the world where they’re turning to bilingual education as a solution to solving just basic access to education issues...

I mentioned to you the Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015) that’ll be coming out later this spring. We’re really excited about that because it outlines not only the theoretical foundations of the field, but then it has a big kind of global perspective section, where we have countries from every continent except Antarctica, authors writing about what is happening in those countries or those regions. It’s not all pretty, it’s not all, “Oh yes, we do bilingual education, everything’s fine.” They’re each addressing a lot of the challenges in terms of policy versus actual practice, but again it does show that bilingual education’s alive and well and that we’re able to have a kind of dialogue and the debates that we need about how to make it better, and more effective, and have it serve more children, and to be able to use it to reach issues of equality and equity and things like that. So that’s my hope, too, in terms of the field going forward, is that we recognize what’s happening and that as we get rid of some of these restrictions that we have, we can go on and create even better and stronger programs that serve more and more people. That answers the question? I feel like I’m rambling here.

Yeah I think so, I think you even answered one of my next questions. Where do you want the field of bilingual education to go, and what aspects of your current work or past work have contributed to these goals? I guess more specifically, what are some challenges, how do you envision overcoming them, and what are some questions that you think should be answered or pondered over?

Well, I think one of the challenges that I mentioned earlier, number one is just to overcome restrictions. So you’re looking at language ideologies, and those in power, if they have certain ideologies, then that’s going to form the kinds of policies they have, and so we see cases of restrictionism. We’ve seen cases where when it is allowed, it’s a very limited form. Even in Cambodia where I was documenting programs, it’s very much a transitional model, because the minister of education said, “This is great, but you can only do it for three years.” And it’s very much in their mind the whole purpose of this is to transition to the dominant language, not to maintain the native language, and, of course, those that are fighting for it don’t see it that way, but they see this as a “foot in the door” strategy, right? And so my hope for the future is that we can take weaker forms that exist, make them stronger, and create programs where they don’t exist, whether it’s going to be weak or strong, and then build them up from there.

And I think that the more and more people that benefit from bilingual education…I think about the kids who are in dual language programs now who are going to have some language skills, and when they grow up, they’re not going to have the same kind of negative attitudes hopefully towards other languages that maybe their parent’s generation did, and so the more and more that grows, I think there’s going to be more openness to that. I think, too, as the demographics of the United States shifts, where, for example, and I think Texas is a good example, there was very little opposition to bilingual education in San Antonio and that’s because San Antonio is 59% Hispanic, and they’re not afraid of two languages. In fact, they’re proud that their city is bilingual and bicultural, so it’s only natural that you have bilingual and bicultural programs. So I think as the nation becomes more and more diverse and minorities become the majority, that we’re going to have an electorate that’s going to be more friendly towards bilingual education and multilingual education. And I want to make sure that we have the kind of research that’s going to guide people…to open the right kinds of models and programs and that are based in the realities of how people actually use languages in real life, their daily lives.

How did your own work contribute to these goals?

…I feel like a lot of my work is focused on the negative: on the bad policies, on the bad programs that have happened, and trying to warn of the repercussions of those, so that my hope is that it can be used to inform better policies and programs in the future. My own textbook, Foundations of Teaching English Language Learners (Caslon Publishing, 2015 ) isn’t necessarily a book about bilingual education, but it gets used in the types of programs like our EDCI370 here, where [the course is] designed to help prepare all teachers to work with English language learners in their class, but what I try to do in the second edition even more than the first edition is to have a bilingual thread throughout all the chapters. So that as teachers are learning about different program models, about reading instruction, writing instruction, that that’s always there…reminding them that these kids have another language and that’s a strength that can be drawn on, and that biliteracy is a good thing to develop. So I think that, too, we get more and more teachers to understand and value those things, having been added to, then they’re not going to be opposing if their school wants to start a bilingual program, but they’ll be supporters of that because that kind of a support in a school is important. So, so I hope that book is helping make a difference.

And then I mentioned again the Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education, it’s really the first handbook that deals with the issues the way we did. So there was an International Handbook of Bilingual Education (Greenwood, 1988) that was published I think 20-something years ago by Christine Bratt Paulston and [it] was like our section three: Here are a bunch of countries and here’s what they’re doing with bilingual ed. But what our handbook has is [it has] the first section that lays the theoretical foundations of the field in terms of language policy, language rights, culture, second language acquisition, research, assessment, etc. So those chapters kind of help lay that foundation for the field. Then the second section looks at bilingual education in different groups and different school levels. We have a chapter on preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, higher education, but also nonformal bilingual education, and then looking at, for example, special education and gifted and talented students and deaf students, so looking at those special populations. I failed to mention we have a chapter on translanguaging by Li Wei and Ofelia García in that foundational section. And then that kind of sets the stage for these global perspective chapters where drawing on those foundational issues, drawing on those different levels, they’re able to get an expert view of what’s happening there. I’m really hoping that handbook will prove a nice tool for people to use to really understand the field and move it forward. And then, of course, the book with Colin Baker, you know to be able to take this foundational book that’s being used around the world and being able to bring it up to date with the latest theories and approaches. The book I am talking about is the Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (Multilingual Matters, 2011) by Colin Baker. So between these textbooks and this more “researchy” handbook, you know we’re putting products out there that people can turn to as resources, and hopefully that will have an influence on the field.

You mentioned the fact that you are trying to have a bilingual thread in your textbook, and you said something along the lines of how important it is for ESL teachers or teachers working within the field of TESOL to be aware of bilingualism and to tap into students’ bilingual strengths. Can you now talk a little bit more broadly about the role of BEIS—the role of the Bilingual Education Interest Section within TESOL?

Right. I think that’s critical, right? Because in a lot of places, sometimes people think that ESL and bilingual education are opposites, and they’re against each other. And to be blunt, if you go to NABE (National Association for Bilingual Education), it’s predominantly Latino educators and scholars, and if you go to TESOL it’s primarily White and Asian, right? And so there are some kind of racial and linguistic divides there among the field, but TESOL has always, at least at the service level, been supportive of bilingual education, and I think an interest group within TESOL is critical to be able to show that. And TESOL has come up with some statements very much in favor of linguistic diversity and bilingual education. I’d like to personally see TESOL take a stronger role, especially since NABE has had some challenges recently and their conferences are dwindling in attendees. I think they’re starting to turn around a little bit, but I think TESOL can really step up and take more of a leadership role. And I think TESOL has a better advocacy platform. I think they have more good lobbies on the legislature than necessarily NABE did. I’d like to see TESOL take more advantage of that, and hopefully, the BEIS group can be the driving interest with that and be the ones that are pushing by example to take this certain position they can stick to, and to lobby the right kinds of issues on Capitol Hill, and also to make sure that bilingual education is addressed at the conferences, so that there’s always sessions that deal with those issues.

And any other final comments, questions, or recommendations?

No. I just think it’s an exciting time to be in the field, and I think for the first time I’m a lot more hopeful than I was maybe 5 or 6 years ago, where I’m starting to see the tide shift a little bit even in those places where there [are] more and more restrictions. I’m starting to see those restrictions fall away; if we can get even more and more people to recognize the benefits, then I think we can have changing attitudes, which can lead to change in policies, which will lead to more effective programs that are going to be more helpful to more students. So I’m always a hopeless optimist.

Okay, well thank you very much.

Alsu Gilmetdinova is a PhD candidate in the Department of Literacy and Language Education at Purdue University. Her interests revolve around bilingual education, language policy, and TESOL.


Dr. Sonia Nieto holds a bachelor’s in science in elementary education from Saint John’s University in Brooklyn, New York. Born and raised in New York, but as proud a Puerto Rican as any can be, Sonia continued her studies at New York University, where she pursued a master’s in Spanish literature in Spain. She then moved to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she finished a doctorate in curriculum development with minors in multicultural education and bilingual education.

At UMass-Amherst, professor Bob Suzuki’s course on foundations on bilingual education gave her the language to label her thoughts and beliefs—what she had been experiencing and thinking about. As a young teacher, Sonia was hired, “to her surprise,” in the P.S. 25 in the Bronx, the first bilingual school in the Northeast and second in the United States. Such an event, prompted by the vision of then principal Hernan LaFontain, proved to be the true beginning for her career. To this day, P.S. 25 continues to be an excellent bilingual school serving a multilingual population of diverse cultural backgrounds. In this interview, Sonia describes the exceptional path that led her to be the author, advocate, and lifelong teacher she is as she inspires with her always refreshing depth, humanity, and clarity of thought.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. How does your personal story intersect with bilingual education?

I was born and raised in New York. I have never lived in Puerto Rico; I have visited many times. But at home we spoke only Spanish. That’s why when I went to school, I didn’t speak any English. My family was a very close-knit family. Several of my father’s brothers also came from Puerto Rico with cousins and other family. It’s a very close-knit, big family. My mother’s sister came some years later, so we also got to be with them. So family has been really important to us. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. My father didn’t finished fourth grade, even. He had to leave school so that he could work on a farm in Puerto Rico. He was the second oldest son, but when his brother, who was 7 years older, got married very young…that left my father as the oldest one, and his father had already died. His mother was very young and his father was very old when they got married, so after they had around 12 kids (I think 8 of them survived), he died. My grandmother was left a young widow with eight children.

That is when my father started working so he could contribute to the family. He was born in 1901 and came over to the U.S. in 1929; he came when he was 28 years old to seek a better life as so many immigrants have. My mother came in 1934 from Puerto Rico, and she came by herself which is pretty amazing in those years. She came from a very difficult childhood, and I think she just wanted to get away. She went to Brooklyn. She met my father, and they got married in 1941. My parents were older when they got married, which was unusual; my father was 40 and my mother was 32 when they were married, and they had the three of us, my sister, me, and then my brother.

Until I was 10, we lived in a community with growing numbers of Puerto Ricans with few vestiges of European immigrants and [a] slowly growing African American community. Then we moved to a neighborhood that was mixed Puerto Rican and African American mostly. When I was 13, we moved to a more middle-class neighborhood, we bought our first house, a small two-family house, the only house we ever lived in. I always say that it was only because I moved to that neighborhood that I was able to accomplish everything that I have. Because then, I was able to move into a junior high school and then to an excellent high school, and I got [a] very good education. If I hadn’t gotten that education, I don’t think I would be here today. That’s why I’ve always told people that zip codes matter. It does matter where you get your education, and it’s not just what the color of your skin is, what your race or ethnicity is, what language you happen to speak. What matters most [are] the opportunities and the resources that are spent on your education. Kids from middle-class and wealthy families have a better chance, because a lot of resources are spent on their education.

I did not have access to bilingual education. When I was in school in New York, I started school speaking only Spanish, and there were no resources for people like me. My sister, who was a year older, had an ESL teacher. I think that must have been an experiment, because by the time I got there, there was no ESL teacher. So, I had to learn English “a la nada, a la fuerza [out of nothing, forced into it].”

Luckily, I was able to do that, but many of my classmates did not. There were lots of stories of children who were left back, or who were put back a year when they came from Puerto Rico, and so on. I think it was a difficult time. What is interesting is that I became a bilingual teacher in the first bilingual school in the Northeast, which is in the Bronx—it’s still going, P.S. 25. I went to the interview, and the principal asked me about this idea of bilingual education. I said: “I don’t know if we need it. After all, I didn’t have bilingual education, and I am doing fine.” Interesting that we think that our experience is the “normal” experience. He also asked me about parent involvement, because the school was founded on these principles: bilingual education is good for kids, and parental involvement is helpful for kids’ learning. I answered to this question in a similar way. I said: “Well, I don’t know…my parents were never really involved in my education, and I did okay.”

He hired me, anyway. I don’t know why. Within a couple of months, I was completely on board [with the school philosophies] and, in fact, some years later when I did my dissertation, it was on the role of parents on bilingual education. So, I was completely won over by the philosophy of bilingual education, I saw that it worked, I saw that what I had learned before, that is, that culture has no place in the classroom [and] the role of school is just to assimilate students needed to be challenged. I saw first hand, with my own eyes, that students who were able to learn in their native language while they are learning English can do well in school. Our school was the kind of place where everybody spoke English and Spanish. From the principal to the custodian to all the teachers, kids felt very comfortable there. They could speak in either [or] both languages, and the goal was that everybody would become bilingual.

That’s how I started as a young teacher, and I learned very early on that it was a very promising approach. Not that it can solve all problems, of course it can’t because there [are] a lot of problems with inequality and inferior education that cannot be solved by bilingual education, but that bilingual education can be a great strategy for teaching kids who speak languages other than English. If the resources that they receive are the same as kids in well-resourced schools, in middle-class schools, then it will be really excellent. Unfortunately, this is not the case right now. Most bilingual schools have a lot of problems of resources. “y con todo y con eso” [even with that], I think they can be really successful.

Do you use these personal experiences regarding your initial doubts about the need of bilingual education in your talks and in your writings regarding people, especially from Latino backgrounds or other linguistic minority backgrounds? This seems to be a common argument.

Yes. And you have to understand that there are exceptions to every rule. My sister and I were very fortunate. We were exceptions to the rule of Latino education achievement because most Latinos have not done well in school. I know from personal experience that it is not because they are not smart or capable, but because they have not had the opportunities or the resources that we were able to have, especially after we moved to a middle-class neighborhood. So, I use some of those experiences sometimes, but I also think that we cannot count on experiences; we also have to look at research, and we have to look at other kinds of arguments to convince people. Now that you mention it, I want to let you know that I am finishing my memoir right now, and it should be out in the fall published by Harvard Education Press, and a lot of this should be in the memoir.

Tell us more about the bilingual education experience in this school you just told us about.

This was in 1968. [P.S. 25] was the first bilingual school in the Northeast and the second one in the country. The first one was in Miami Dade County in Florida. [P.S. 25] was established for the student population. Puerto Ricans and African Americans had been here for many years before, but they had not had bilingual education before, until 1968. That was the year that the laws passed and there was more support. There has never been overwhelming support, but there was more support then than had been the case many other times. We were learning to do it just by doing it. None of us had studied bilingual education, and we were having to make it up, basically.

We also helped put on one of the first conferences in bilingual education, led by my principal Hernan LaFontain (who later, by the way, became the first director of the Office of Bilingual Education in New York). Then he was a significant player in NABE (National Association for Bilingual Education). Many of the teachers who started with me also went into careers in Bilingual education as professors, principals, and many other roles. That experience was very significant for me, and it was from there that I was recruited to teach at Brooklyn College in the Department of Puerto Rican Studies. Puerto Rican studies was just beginning with a program on bilingual education to prepare bilingual teachers, since all of a sudden [there] was a need for bilingual teachers. In 1972, I was hired in that program, because we had the program between the school of education and Puerto Rican studies. That’s how I really learned. I mean, I have known the praxis of bilingual education, I had been appointed a specialist for that bilingual school, but it was not after four years when I was hired at P.S. 25 that I started teaching courses in bilingual education. In fact, Brooklyn College was one of the first to have a bilingual education program.

All of a sudden, since we were the only ones doing this, it was a very exciting time to us with a lot of learning, but I think we need to understand the sociopolitical context of the times more. This was the late 60s, early 70s, this was the hype of the civil rights movement: Black power, Brown power, women’s rights, all of these movements were happening at the same time. These grew out of the civil rights movement that was headed by African Americans, so here were all these people who were all of the sudden demanding their rights. A lot of these things were happening before, but they really took hold in the late 60s and early 70s. There was also opposition to the Vietnam War and, all in all, there was a lot of political activism and activity going on at the same time. Students were in high schools and colleges demanding ethnic studies for example, that’s how the Puerto Rican Studies Department and the Africana Studies Department came to be at Brooklyn College. That’s how ethnic studies started in the late 60s and early 70s.

There was all this political turmoil and activity that supported these movements at the time. Things have changed a lot now, and while I think bilingual education is seen in a more traditional way now, its important to remember that its roots came from an activist more community oriented space.  

What remains in bilingual education despite all the different sociopolitical contexts of the last four decades or so?

The debate around bilingual education is mostly a political issue. It has to do with power. I don’t think the opposition to bilingual education has ever been about language. It has always been about power. Who has power? How is it used? What would the language of this country be. I think there is tremendous fear that we will become a Spanish-speaking nation. And in some way, we already are, we are a multilingual, a polyglot nation, and that is something that is hard for people to accept.

That is the fear of bilingual education; it is certainly not that bilingual education is a bad thing. In fact, it is not that [people] are afraid that it would not work, but it is the fear that it may work and that all of the sudden we would have a mixture of bilingual people. I think that would be a beautiful thing, although some people do not believe that. In this country, it has become that people who are monolingual have more power than people [who] are bilingual, and that is not understandable in a global context.

Where do you think bilingual education should go toward?

I’m in support of understanding language as a resource rather than as a deficit. That was my growth, that’s what I got to realize. I was 25 years old when I was hired at [P.S. 25]. My whole education had stressed Americanization, assimilation, learning English, being ashamed of speaking our native language, and so on. Suddenly, I saw in this school where I was, P.S. 25, that all those ideas had to be challenged, because I saw the reality in all my students and how they all benefit from bilingual education.

This is why I say that it all depends on the sociopolitical context. The context in which I grew up, the feeling was that immigrants need to assimilate, and they need to forget their native language. I’m really grateful to my parents, because they spoke Spanish to us. But there was a time when my sister and I spoke English back to them instead of Spanish. We found it easier, and we also found that it was not cool to speak Spanish. I’m glad we went back to speaking Spanish to them years later.

I feel that globalization may help us, but at the same time it may not, because one aspect of globalization is that everybody wants to learn English. I understand that having a Lingua Franca is important, but while we work toward that, I think it is very important to maintain and retain native languages and to let children and their families know that speaking and maintaining their native language is as important as speaking English. That to me is a nonnegotiable.

What is your vision on where we should be 20–30 years from now?

One way in which I have evolved is that I now support this notion of dual language education. I have to say that this issue was difficult for me as a proponent of bilingual education, because I saw that again people who were privileged were the ones who were asking for this for their children. They wanted their children to understand another language so they can become bilingual. I thought that this would take away resources away from students who really needed it, Latino kids and other kids who needed to learn English while maintaining their native language. I was really concerned that our kids would be left behind.

Now, I think that dual language—especially if we are talking Spanish/English or other world languages Chinese/English, French/English—that this is a very good strategy for getting support for bilingual education. I’m glad to see that there are schools that are using the dual language approach because it is good for everybody.

We need to remind ourselves, however, that for many years, Latino and other students from cultural and linguistic diverse backgrounds have…received an inferior education in general. So the priority should be on immigrant kids in bilingual programs while other kids can also continue learning in the target language. I think it can work for both, but people in charge of these programs have to be very careful about what the priorities are.

Any message you have for the BEIS group?

Bridging the gap between the bilingual and the TESOL worlds is not only valuable but also necessary. From the time I was a bilingual teacher, I thought that the connections with ESL were very important. I think that they shouldn’t be seen as different fields, I thought that they should be seen as complementary, as enriching one another. When people learn English as an additional language, they should also be thinking about learning other languages. I don’t think they are contradictory at all. So, I’m very glad to be able to speak at the TESOL conference with that message.

Andrés Ramírez is assistant professor of TESOL and bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, USA. His research focuses on the academic achievement of emergent to advanced bilinguals in K–16 contexts.


Dr. David Rogers serves as the executive director for Dual Language Education of New Mexico (DLeNM), a nonprofit that is committed to promoting the effective design and implementation of dual language enrichment education across the country. David has taught in Paraguay, South America; South Bronx, New York; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. He received his MA in bilingual/bicultural education from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1992, and completed his EdS in educational administration at the University of New Mexico in 2000.

In this interview, teacher, advocate, executive director, and host of the well-known annual “La Cosecha” (The Harvest) Conference David Rogers shares his personal journey starting when he first confronted the exclusionary power of standard language, in this case Spanish, while teaching in Paraguay, South America. This significant experience and its teachings were catalysts for his continued academic journey and advocacy leading to the critical moral imperative of bilingual dual language education he outlines. His strategic vantage point as seasoned teacher; as relentless advocate for bilingual dual language;and as executive director of DLeNM in times of great dissonance between theory, research, and educational practice for linguistic and cultural minorities makes his advice unique and more timely than ever.

Please talk a bit about your personal story and how it intersects with bilingualism and bilingual education. What do you still carry with you from those days in your present role as advocate for/scholar in bilingual education?

I didn’t know anything about bilingual ed until I went to Paraguay and stayed there for 4 years with the Peace Corps. I lived in a “pueblito en el campo campo [small village in the middle of nowhere],” as they say there. We didn’t have electricity or tap water, we had wells and it was a very isolated community. But we had very good schools. I lived in the school house with three other teachers who came from the city that was about 50 miles away.

At that time, the language of school was Spanish, even though only some percentage of the students spoke any Spanish, but they all knew and spoke Guarani, their indigenous language. What I came to realize was that although all students loved to be in schools, and they never missed school and the families and the parents valued the school, by the time they were in second grade or third grade, those who did not speak Spanish would finish their studies and then they will go to work with their families in the fields. This was not seen as shameful in any way, it was just the way it was. If their Spanish was not very strong, then that was an indication that they would be better off working with their parents in the fields.

At that time, I started to think about this. [The students] were very intelligent, as I would talk to them about politics and government and topics like that. So this didn’t really seem right to me, although there was nothing to be shameful of. If they didn’t have the language, they didn’t continue. Those who continued their studies would go onto fifth grade. After that, if they wanted to continue their studies, then they had to take the bus to another town that was about 10 kilometers away from our community. They would have to walk about 3 kilometers on a dirt road to reach the bus stop, and then come back at night. So they could continue their studies, but only about 10% continued with their education after fifth grade due to lack of resources.

That’s when I became curious about bilingual ed, or the lack of it. Why couldn’t they continue their studies in Guarani as well as in Spanish? With those experiences, I went to Columbia University and studied a degree in bilingual and multicultural education and also taught in a school in South Bronx. It just made sense to me, as bilingual education would be the path for all to study and develop two languages as a minimum.

Now, as the executive director for Dual Language Education of New Mexico, what parallels do you see from  that time with the challenges we are facing today?

I think it is absurd. “Es una locura [it’s crazy]” that we have 50 years of strong research that show us that bilingual education works for all students, not just for linguistic and cultural minority students. And even though all our politicians, and for me in New Mexico our Governor, our secretary of education, our national secretary of education, the president all say that learning in two or more languages is a positive thing, politically [bilingual education] is not represented in any of the educational reform that is being discussed. We are fighting just to get more money for Title III, we’ve got twice as many of the English language learners we had 10 to 12 years ago, and yet Title III money—the only money that comes to us from the Federal government for those students—has remained the same. It stays in only words. It is crazy that we still have to fight to justify bilingual education in this country. Unlike many other countries, and to use the ideas of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, the U.S. insists in staying monolingual. Our leadership continues to consider bilingualism somehow as an attack on our feeling of nationalism in the U.S. Somehow, if we say that any other language besides English is appropriate for a U.S. citizen, we are being disloyal to our nationalistic feelings; it’s just absurd.

From your perspective, and taking into consideration your personal experiences as well as the political arena of much rhetoric and not as much action that you describe, how do you perceive bilingual education? How has your perspective on bilingual education changed (or not) over the years? Is there something different that we could be doing?

Yes. Twenty-five to thirty years ago, the main purpose and the reason why we considered bilingual education as a primary program in our schools was to help close the achievement gap and provide equity and access to good education for our second language students. While I still think that applies today, the big change in these 30+ years is that now we are a much more global society thanks to the Internet, thanks to air travel, thanks to the different international agreements. Not only is bilingual education a primary program for closing the achievement gap and ensuring equity and access to quality education, but it’s also needed to develop multicultural and multilingual citizenry that can compete at a global scale. Compete in politics, education, business. It’s needed in all countries to be able to ensure a sound future for their citizens. Those are some of the bookend motivations for bilingual education and personally [they are] also what I believe is the promise of dual language education; an education in preschool all the way through university level where we educate students in at least two languages.

The other motivation is an ethical and moral one. If we don’t embrace bilingual/multicultural education, we are going to continue to tell linguistic and cultural minority students that come to our kindergarten to leave their culture and their mother tongue at the door and basically take away from them that which is an asset, putting them at even more of a disadvantage than when they enter schools.

In dual language education, we often talk about the imperative to develop more dual language education so there is opportunity for more students to build on their linguistic and sociocultural capital that they bring with them. This is something that we need to turn into an asset and leave that deficit model thinking that we have. Somehow, all students need to do well in English only in what still is an Eurocentric curriculum that we offer.

All in all, we think that there are three motivations/purposes for bilingual (dual language) education today:

The first, that has been with us for more than 40 years, is to close the achievement gap between White and linguistic/cultural minority students to ensure equity in high quality education.

The second being a moral and ethical purpose, which is to build rather than to tell students to abandon their mother tongue, rather to build on the linguistic and sociocultural capital of our students—changing deficit to asset way of thinking.

The third is to build a multilingual, multicultural citizenry to ensure the U.S. is competitive in the world, in education, politics, business, etc.

For me, it will always be about  students, families, and communities. Our future is improved when we can prepare, engage, and support the education of students and families within their community. When the student is prepared for a career or college of their choice, then we have ensured their future. However, when a student is educated and returns (or remains) to their community to serve and contribute as a multilingual/multicultural citizen, then we have secured a better future for us all. That’s capacity building at its best.

One of the events that has been growing over the years is “La Cosecha” conference. Please tell us a bit more about “La Cosecha” and how it has been changing over the years to its current state.

I would think that so far I’ve talked about some things that we haven’t been truly successful in, but I think that “La Cosecha” has been our greatest success. One of the purposes of “Cosecha” is to provide professional development and professional growth opportunities for educators, administrators, and policy makers. More than anything, “La Cosecha” has been our main tool in getting the message out to people that dual language education is for all students, not just for culturally and linguistically minority students. It’s a promise of enriching education for all students to be able to learn in more languages. “La Cosecha” has done well to get that message out and to plant seeds to motivate educational leaders in school districts around the country and around the world. This past year, we had visitors from seven countries, and we are going to visit two schools, one in Cuernavaca, Mexico and the other one in Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica this coming summer. It has really done well to inspire. For DLeNM, this is our 12th year as a nonprofit, 18 here unofficially as we began with “La Cosecha” 19 years ago.

What we haven’t been able to do completely, and it is part of our daily work, is to build capacity in our schools, our school districts across the country, to provide what our small nonprofit provides to schools, which is support for program development, professional development, advocacy, policy—these are all things with which we are all engaged. The next step we are taking is to work with NABE (National Association for Bilingual Education) affiliates, with the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education, with the San Antonio Area Association for Bilingual Education, the California association, the Colorado association. We are trying to help them build capacity, as this is the kind of work that we do in program retreats or training in sheltering and scaffolding, biliteracy development training. Those are areas we are developing and areas that we are not even close to achieving yet. It is our hope that the political environment would change and that our politicians would start to not only talk about learning in two or more languages, but actually start to write policy, maybe the reauthorization of the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), and that we actually start to appropriate funds for at least start up programs like the ones we had with Title VII. All those are long gone, we are talking about 11–12 years ago, and we need those back. So, hopefully, they would start walking the [walk] instead of “puras palabras [only words].”

You mentioned previously the three goals and imperatives of bilingual education as you see them, not only as closing the achievement gap, but as a way to build on the multilingual repertoires of our communities as well as to build competitive citizenry for the 21st-century global world. Have you seen any trends or patterns in new approaches to bilingual education to try to advance these goals?

One trend that I don’t necessarily know is a good trend but that we are following closely, is how the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) seems to be growing in its influence. In my opinion, the office was quiet for about 10 years during the Bush administrations and No Child Left Behind. Then, we started to note how the number of OCR cases began to drop down significantly. I’m not saying that OCR should be called for every little thing, but we certainly saw more school districts being content with doing less bilingual education or in some cases eliminating bilingual programs. We saw money being taken away from bilingual education as well. Anyway, the trend now is how we see OCR involved in New York, in Los Angeles, in Denver, and they are demanding programs and initiatives that bring equity and access to quality education for linguistically minority students for the underserved. In those areas, we are seeing school districts choosing dual language education as the core program for turning academic, linguistic, and sociocultural success for those students who have not been doing well historically.

I hesitate to say that this is a good trend yet. What I would say is good about it is that for the first time in my career, I have seen the programs being developed first at the district level. That is, before they allow or require a school to implement programs, it is the districts that are looking at the model they want to implement. The district is the one that is looking at what kind of resources they must have, what kind of professional development they must have, what kind of materials they must have. Up until now in my career of 27 years or so, it’s mostly the school community that started [developing programs]. It has been a very grassroots effort for dual language programs to appear. There have been very few districts—and I can name them on one hand, like Ysleta School District in El Paso—there have been very few districts that have had district-wide initiatives for pre-k–12 dual language. So, one trend that I’m very appreciative of and one that we are not sure but there are good things about it is that the OCR is now working with the districts that are beginning to look and plan for dual language education as a way to provide access to quality education for cultural and language minority students.

Another trend that I see and that is very early in its stage, I’m hearing finally about a good number of institutions that are seriously looking at revamping their teacher education, their preservice programs, in order not only to increase the number of bilingually endorsed or bilingually certified teachers, as there is a huge shortage of bilingual education teachers, but to strengthen the quality of the teacher that is available to take on these new positions that are being created as the dual program languages grow in number. Those are trends. I’m seeing great leadership at the district level and even at the state level. For example, there is Utah, there’s Delaware. North Carolina should not be included just yet, but there are state initiatives that include dual language education and dual immersion. I’m a little hesitant to say that these are completely possible trends, because so far some of those state initiatives have gone to serve more middle class students and by default more Anglos in many communities, and those are not the students that I personally feel need these programs as much as others. There is certainly room for them to participate, but we are concerned here in DLeNM about the student that is not making it in school because they do not have a program that uses their first language and validates and celebrates their culture.

So, there are some state trends going on. North Carolina is actually one of those states that has increased their dual language programs significantly, and the majority of their programs are serving lower socioeconomic students, those who have been historically underserved. I’m very excited about that initiative, and they are defining the initiative as they go. Maybe that is the best way. In New Mexico, we may see a more favorable attitude toward dual language. We have a lawsuit in the state by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) involving more than 60 families. We are saying that they did not have equitable access to quality education. Bilingual education and dual language is talked and mentioned in these hearings and these conversations that are happening as one way the state could make the community happier if they were to support the program. Of course, in New Mexico, we do get additional dollars for bilingual education, but what that has done is that some districts simply say they have bilingual education in order to get dollars, but they do a very poor job in designing and implementing their programs.

What about at the level of curriculum, instruction, theory, and the like? What have you seen in the later years in “La Cosecha,” for example in terms of buzzwords or concepts teachers are talking about?

For veteran teachers, for those who have been successful and who are committed, the topic right now is biliteracy development and what does it mean. So, you have several debates going around, you have your educators and educational leaders that continue to say that there needs to be strict separation of language when you are instructing in a dual language classroom or a developmental bilingual classroom, and you have those who believe that there should be fluidity between the use of languages. Ofelia García talks about translanguaging as something very natural that is happening in our communities and that should be fully integrated into the way we instruct our students.

These are healthy debates in my opinion. They are very healthy debates. I tend to believe that there is a time for both: When you are instructing a course, let’s say “biologia [biology]” the course should be given in Spanish. But I think there is a time, especially in our language arts classes, when we can compare and contrast the two languages in which the students are learning so they come to understand better where they are coming from—underlying proficiencies between the two, and what traits of language are specific to that language. I think that helps students be better language learners. So, I do believe there is a time where we should be free and we should give our students freedom in the classroom to move between languages. In social studies, we should be extremely supportive of that because that is just a natural way for social studies.

So, right now, biliteracy development and how we do that—how do you ensure that happens since they are learning in two languages, how from the language and literacy perspective do we maximize the student’s learning through direct teaching on commonalities and differences between the two languages? There are a number of exciting things that are happening with the work of Carol Beeman and Sheryl Urrow, Ofelia García, and Kathy Escamilla. There are a number of great things that are happening, so right now that is a trend, that is a hot button with anything that has to do with biliteracy or teaching for transfer. Those presentations at “La Cosecha” are always full. They are always filled to capacity.

Anything else you may want to say to the readers about the past, present, and future of bilingual education?

My recommendation for people who are struggling with development and implementing good bilingual education is that, of course, they need to be advocates of their program, but my recommendation is not to get trapped in the pettiness of the political debate. Don’t allow yourself to get trapped in debates about whether or not bilingual education works. Speak with authority from the 50 years of research that shows it works and that it is the best way to serve linguistic and cultural minority students. Speak with authority about what is happening in the classroom, what is happening in your school that is evidence everyday that bilingual education works. Involve yourself in building and implement the best program possible and let everyone and anyone come and see the great work of your school community.

Don’t get trapped in those debates about testing, and don’t allow yourself to believe that the tests, especially the standards-based testing, are the best indication of success in your program. We all know that it only touches the surface as far as a demonstration of what the students are doing well or not. It does not get to all the pieces of what is important in education. Everyone, even the politicians, seems to be reaching that conclusion.

When you have an opportunity to advocate, speak with authority from research and from your own observations about how things are going in your school, in your classroom. That’s the way we are going to change policy. That’s the way we are going to change the focus and we are going to start getting politicians to just stop with the words and start writing or revising policy or reauthorizing education acts that support dual language and more developmental bilingual education.

Andrés Ramírez is assistant professor of TESOL and bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, USA. His research focuses on the academic achievement of emergent to advanced bilinguals in K–16 contexts.


Kate Menken is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), and a Research Fellow at the Research Institute for the Study of Language in an Urban Society of the CUNY Graduate Center. She is Co-Principal Investigator of the CUNY-New York State Initiative for Emergent Bilinguals (CUNY-NYSIEB) project, and Associate Editor/Review Editor for the journal Language Policy. Her research interests include language education policy, bilingual education, and emergent bilinguals in secondary schools. Her books are English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy (Multilingual Matters, 2008) and Negotiating Language Policies in Schools: Educators as Policymakers(with Ofelia García, Routledge, 2010).

Can you tell me about how you got into the field of bilingual education and bilingualism, and how your career unfolded?

I started out in 1994 in an ESL pull-out program teaching students K–4 at an elementary school in New Jersey. I had a TESOL degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but because Pennsylvania did not offer state certification in TESOL or require that ESL teachers be certified, I went to New Jersey. In the school where I worked, they offered a Spanish-English transitional bilingual education program with a pull-out component. It was an overcrowded school, and I served 15–18 students at a time, but my classroom was a converted storage closet with space for only 10 students, and the chairs were sized for the kindergarten and first-grade students. I went to the principal to discuss the situation, and though I was a first year teacher, she asked me to figure it out on my own. That same year, she was awarded administrator of the year.

There were two main things that I learned from that experience and my 2 years there. First, emergent bilinguals who have the opportunity to receive bilingual education were able to maintain and extend their home language practices and access grade level content while acquiring English. Yet, students who spoke languages other than Spanish and were only in the pull-out ESL class progressed less and couldn’t access the content in the mainstream classes. They tended to have lower self-esteem and more difficulty adjusting to schooling. Secondly, I learned that working with emergent bilingual students requires advocacy. This is something that I hadn’t learned in my teacher education program but is necessary to serve the needs of this population. So, one of my colleagues invited a journalist from a local Spanish-medium newspaper who documented the classroom conditions and the school. I showed him my attendance roster, and he wrote an article that came out on the front page of the paper. Several months later, an inspector came to evaluate the school. Back then, trailers were used to service emergent bilinguals, special education students, and students who needed additional services. It was very much racially and linguistically segregated.

Where did you work after those 2 years?

I worked for another year teaching English as a foreign language in Kenya and then began work at the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit organization in education reform. We worked with teachers to provide professional development, and on various initiatives with the School District of Philadelphia. It was also an advocacy organization, with a focus on professional development and support for educators. It was a very interesting time as standards were coming in nationally and I became involved in the development of Philadelphia’s standards (benchmarks) for emergent bilinguals, the start of a Chinese bilingual program, and other things. During that time, I took a class on language policy with Dr. Nancy Hornberger at the University of Pennsylvania, and I felt her class gave me a way to describe the work I was doing at that time as well as new perspectives on it.

My next job was with the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education in Washington, DC. It was while I was working there that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed into law. The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education was a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, supported and funded by the federal government. So, I soon noticed a shift in policy discourse at the federal level from bilingual education to a focus on English language acquisition. Among my responsibilities, I had to write policy briefs. I wrote one on wide-scale testing of emergent bilinguals that came back to me after review by the Department of Education red lined, with certain things that were politically sensitive crossed out. And in order to continue to receive federal funding, we had to rename the organization the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), which it is called today. Also what used to be the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education, or OBEMLA, is now the Office of English Language Acquisition, or OELA. It was interesting to be working in DC at the policy level, but as NCLB went into effect, I could not stop but think about how it would affect emergent bilingual students.

That is when you decided to go to Columbia University for a PhD and pursue your interest in bilingual education and language policy?

Yes, I worked for 7 years altogether before going back to graduate school. When new policy changes your work environment, it’s a good time to go back to school! And New York is an exciting place to be. I remember when I first visited one of the International High Schools, I realized how amazing and full of promise that some schools for emergent bilinguals can be. New York has always served large numbers of emergent bilinguals, and some schools do it incredibly well. So I felt things were more upbeat in public schools. I joined the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, specializing in bilingual/bicultural education. I knew when I was coming in that I wanted to look into the effects of the policy on emergent bilinguals.

After some courses, I began thinking that I might compare the impact of standards-based reforms in the U.S. with other countries in the world, and do a comparative study. But with time, I came full circle and decided to focus on the U.S. only. It was also the year when Ofelia García joined Teachers College, and she became my advisor. You have to have some personal connections to make your research more meaningful and feel passionately about it. So, this is what happened to me. For my dissertation, I went into 10 schools and studied the impact of NCLB on emergent bilinguals.

The next question we have is a broad question about the field of bilingual education. What are the purpose, scope, process, and outcomes of bilingual education and bilingualism? How did they change over the years? How do you envision their evolution in the future?

To start with the changes in the field, one main shift was that bilingual education programs were defined as transitional in the past. I was not an educator in the 1970s and 1980s, when the first federal policies were set, but I can comment from the 1990s onwards from what I’ve witnessed myself. So, the move from the popularity of transitional programs to dual language bilingual programs is the biggest shift I’ve seen. With increasing globalization, language contact, growth of the global economy and marketplace, bilingual education is being recognized as an opportunity to build upon and extend home language practices of emergent bilinguals with the goal of developing language and also literacies for academic purposes in the home language and English as well. We do not want the schools to be subtractive, we do not want to create linguistic fissures. Instead, we want to bridge the gap between home and school, community and school. And today, the shift is visible.

More and more parents are enrolling their children in dual language bilingual programs. However, dual language programs are still a small minority in comparison to other programs and the transitional models of bilingual education are still more common. But we have begun to move away from thinking of bilingual education as remedial into thinking about it as an enrichment model. This enrichment model entices English-speaking White parents to also enroll their children in dual language bilingual programs. People in the general public are more and more aware of the cognitive and economic benefits of bilingualism, and are seeking opportunities to find bilingual schooling for their children. The work of Bialystok on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism is taken up by the public, and knowledge of more than one language is an asset in the current global economy. For many parents here in New York, the choice of dual language programming is seen as an alternative to gifted and talented programs (G&T), as another form of enrichment. These parents are interested in finding either dual language or G&T programs for their kids, and all of this interest has made getting into dual language bilingual programs more competitive here.

However, there is also concern that this is a form of gentrification, or what Nelson Flores called a “Columbusing” of bilingual education in his recent blog. As a field, we need to consider how to harness this interest in ways that remain true to the original aims of bilingual education. How can bilingual education programs take all of that interest and use it to further the original aims of the field rather than undermine them?

So, from your point of view, what caused, served as an impetus for this shift in thinking about bilingual education?

I think it is a combination of things. We are past the period of thinking about the one nation, one language ideology as an ideal; it does not exist in the same way. What it means to be an American is being redefined, as according to the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) more than half of all students are minorities in public schools today. More and more parents, especially elite families, are choosing bilingual education for their children. Anti-immigrant sentiment is still present, though, through the adoption and implementation of English -only policy in states like Arizona. But it seems to be out of touch with reality. There is a real understanding among this U.S. elite about globalization. Everybody is affected by these changes. Even politicians are now more inclined to speak Spanish in public. The shifts are happening at the elementary levels as well. Parents here will pay top dollar to send their kids to language immersion preschools, many of which are extremely expensive. For instance, in Manhattan there are some of these elite immersion schools in languages such as Mandarin, Spanish, and French, where most of the students are predominately from wealthy, White families and very few home language speakers of the language of instruction—if any—enroll. There is great interest in such programs.

Another example is for older grades, too, such as at the Avenues school, which is a private school in Manhattan with grades Pre-K–12. Children at this school are extremely elite with tuition over US$40,000 per year (for instance Suri Cruise, the daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, is a student there). They offer dual language bilingual education in Spanish or Mandarin. So, families of the elite and middle class are recognizing the value of bilingual education and are seeking out these options in public and private schools, and clearly they have become trendy in many places. Again the key question is how we as a field can ensure that this popularity of bilingual education brings a positive change for all students, including emergent bilinguals.

What do you think about the fact that most of these schools are using Spanish, Mandarin, French, and Arabic languages? And what is the potential for bilingual education with languages that cannot be classified as world languages?

Political power of the communities and the numbers of speakers affect the provision of bilingual education. These languages can survive within their communities, in places where there is a vested interest in language maintenance and bilingual education. Some communities are well organized. Cubans in Florida after the Revolution of 1959 and later Puerto Ricans in New York City were instrumental in developing bilingual education nationally. These groups have legal status in the U.S., so were able to speak up for themselves and advocate their right for bilingual education. Bengalis who live in our community have not pushed for Bengali-medium education in the same way, for various reasons with differing degrees of acceptance that schooling will be in English among different language communities. But it is true, that in New York, less commonly spoken languages have far lower status within the school system, with bilingual education raising the status of certain minoritized languages.

At the same time, students’ home languages can and should be used in all classrooms, including ESL. Exciting positive changes can happen from bottom-up language education policies, through the adoption of bilingual programs, through their linguistic landscape to visibly acknowledge the many languages of their students, through classroom materials that support language learning and affirm their home languages and cultures, and through ensuring high-quality preparation of their teachers. At the same time, schools are struggling due to the imposition of top-down policies that are mismatched local programming, which implicitly promote English-only programs, especially through their assessment and accountability provisions. We must attend to the accountability provisions of NCLB in the English language, and these undermine instruction in students’ home language. Now we have new assessment requirements nationally, based on the Common Core State Standards. These do not replace NCLB’s accountability requirements, but if anything accelerate them. Two state consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), are charged with designing the assessments of the Common Core State Standards, and they still approach assessment through the same accommodations paradigm as under NCLB. Although New York State is outside of the consortia, they are also still approaching assessment using an accommodations paradigm with the belief that a few accommodations will level the playing field between students. It is a transitional, not an enrichment paradigm.

What these assessments reveal is that emergent bilinguals are again at the periphery of federal education policies. Both groups, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, are approaching the assessment of bilinguals through extended time, and other accommodations used in previous assessments. One of the two groups will provide translations perhaps. But the reality is that assessments in English are de facto language policy. It happens every time you adopt English-only assessments, and thus the Common Core is failing emergent bilinguals and repeating the worst mistakes of NCLB. In New York State this is the case, literally and educationally. These policies promise to serve bilingual students as well, but current assessments are undermining the efforts to serve students using their languages in instruction. In New York, we even have test translations, but still there has been a dramatic decline in bilingual programs in the wake of testing and accountability requirements relying on tests in English. Now schools have been pressured to adopt Common Core textbooks that match the new Common Core tests, and in New York where tests were developed by Pearson, schools are being pressured to adopt ReadyGen, a curriculum by Pearson that is only available in English. What also happens is that the publisher, Pearson, developed the curriculum one module at a time, and schools only received them one at a time so they could not see the entire curricula and that it does not include languages other than English. Even great bilingual education programs in the state are adopting monolingual curricula. And teachers have to navigate the pressures to teach only in English, and make some room for home language in the classroom. They have to prepare materials on their own which might not parallel that of the Common Core program, and might not be of high quality.

Where do you want the field of bilingual education to go toward? What aspects of your current or past work have contributed to this goal(s)?

It is important to recognize that teachers are policy brokers, and administrators play a huge role. Teachers are often the experts, the language experts in their buildings, they are those certified in bilingual education or TESOL. What is commonplace, however, is that a school principal, who has no background and has limited understandings of bilingualism and bilingual education, is the one who makes decisions about language programming. Teachers, while well versed in the topic, also receive no preparation as arbiters of language policy. They are not taught how to navigate top-down policies, reconcile them with the knowledge from their training, and implement them. So they need this preparation, and principals also really need to be prepared to effectively serve emergent bilinguals. Having teachers is not enough, you cannot have an effective program without an effective administrator.

More work has to be done in the area of curriculum and materials development. It is a constant battle, to think of bilingualism beyond the confines of bilingual classes and how to incorporate the home languages of all students into the mainstream classroom, even if the numbers do not warrant creating separate bilingual programs. How to create room for both languages in bilingual programs without separating them—for example, using only one language in social studies, language arts, and using another language in math and science. New research in translanguaging is promising in this regard as it allows breaking these boundaries between English-only ESL programs and bilingual programs. It is high time to move beyond the parallel monolingual approach, where bilinguals are misperceived as two monolinguals in one. How do we loosen these boundaries, and use students’ home languages in one and the same class? Thinking more holistically about bilingual education is important. TESOL teachers also need bilingual preparation, learning how to use student’s home language in ways that will support their learning of English and other content-area classes. This should become an item placed on TESOL’s agenda as no classrooms should ever be monolingual in English.

Assessment is another big area of research and practice. In applied linguistics, we have experienced a multilingual turn, even linguists are now questioning what is language, complicating the idea of one nation one language, and no longer seeking that as an ideal. This multilingual turn needs to happen in TESOL as well. Teachers of English to speakers of other languages should also receive bilingual training. The multilingual turn is also in contrast to what is happening in schools, which are still typically monolingual. There is a need to recognize that language practices are more fluid, flexible, dynamic. Instead of seeing students as partial, only knowing a language partially, bilingual language learning and teaching should become more holistic, allowing students to learn and speak two or more languages, and leverage students’ home language practices to deepen and extend them.

Lastly, another piece is policy, and we have talked about that already. The question is: How do we adopt top-down and bottom-up policies that are also flexible and support bilingual education?

Alsu Gilmetdinova is a PhD candidate in the Literacy and Language Education program at Purdue University. Her interests revolve around bilingual education, language policy, and TESOL.


Dr. Ofelia García is professor of urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has been professor of bilingual education at Columbia University's Teachers College and at The City College of New York, and has been dean of the School of Education on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

In this interview, mother, author, activist, and teacher Ofelia García shares her personal journey starting when she was an emergent bilingual student herself in New York City. Through her personal story and engaging academic career, Dr. García sheds light on the past, present, and future of bilingual education and on how to build community through education. She talks about the theory and practice of translanguaging, and provides poignant advice for new generations of teachers, students, and school administrators.

Through Dr. García’s lived experiences, it is clear that she has maintained a true scholarship of engagement: engagement with the needs, rights, and backgrounds of communities and the context they inhabit. From her journey, we learn that school is not a neutral institution, but one that supports mainstream assumptions of identity and language while suppressing alternative ones. True resistance to and contestation of default repertoires benefiting mainstream ideas presupposes a profound understanding of context. A scholarship of “contextation” unusually and yet faithfully describes Dr. García’s equally out-of-the-ordinary scholarship of engagement.

Please tell us a bit about your personal story and how it intersects with bilingualism and bilingual education. What do you still carry with you from those days in your present role as advocate for/scholar in bilingual education?

I was born in Cuba and came straight to New York when I was 11 years. I started school without knowing English, so that was a struggle. I was a good student, and I was offered a scholarship in a catholic school for girls, and I studied there for 4 years.

There I learned some lessons. I was only one of a handful of Latino students. Perhaps we were four or five in the whole high school, and similar numbers for African Americans. Today, that school is very different, but at that time it was a working-class neighborhood mostly with Irish and Italian populations. Even though it was a working-class neighborhood, I thought that those girls in my school were rich because they were a lot wealthier than I was.

After I finished high school, I went to Hunter College, which was one of the public colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. At that time, I think the tuition was about $30 a semester, and my parents could not afford that. I was one of four children, I was the oldest, and my parents had a very hard time. They always used to say that they sort of made a mistake by going to New York instead of Miami, even though I always say that I am the person I am because I grew up in New York.

I keypunched through college (keypunching was a way of opening up holes in the cards that were then fed into the mainframe computers of that time), and I became a teacher and majored in Spanish and education. I was then hired in an alternative school in New York. It was a wonderful school started by a great group of educators, all advocates for civil rights and all products of the Civil Rights Movement. I became a Spanish teacher, but at the same time I became the ESL teacher. There was no ESL certification or bilingual certification back then. Schools looked for people in foreign language education to be the ESL teachers as well.

After graduating from college in 1970, I started my first ESL class, and of course, 100% of the kids were Puerto Rican and did not speak any English. After a week with them, I stopped and said: “This does not make any sense. I speak Spanish, they speak Spanish, and teaching them through English does not make any sense because they don’t understand it.” After this, I went to the head teacher and explained the situation. She told me to do whatever I though was right.

This is why I always say that I was experimenting with bilingual education even before there was bilingual education, before they were paying attention to ESL issues. The Bilingual Education Act had just passed in 1968, and there weren’t any bilingual programs in the city. ESL programs were just starting in the city, but it was a very remedial orientation, it was not content based, which is what I was doing. I love teaching, and I was successful at it, and I became known within the circle of city educators as someone who was doing something different. I stayed in that school for 8 years.

In 1978, I had my son and stayed with him for 2 years.

After this, my intellectual curiosity led me to go on, and I got my master’s degree to be able to have permanent certification. I remember that it was a professor in Spanish, whose name was Jose Olivio Jiménez, I would never forget him, who told me that I should do a doctorate. I had no idea what a doctorate was or what it was all about. He actually walked me to the Graduate Center, which was amazing because I am sure that if he had not encouraged me and brought me there, I would have never done that.

I started taking courses at night. Back then, there were no doctorates in TESOL or bilingual education, and I ended up doing a doctorate in Spanish even though I was not interested in literature. Well, I was very interested in poetry, but I was always more interested in the language of the text. This is why I ended up taking a lot of courses in semiotics and discourse during my doctorate.

After I finished my doctorate, there was an opening at City College, again one of the colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. The mentor that I had at the alternative school where I had worked previously called me up and told me that I should apply. I was hesitant at first, because it was true that I had a master’s in education, but my doctorate was not in education. She told me that they were looking for a person in bilingual education and that nobody really knew what to do. “I know you do it. I know you know how you do it,” she said. So, I ended up applying for that position, which initially was nontenure track, but then became tenure track. The time I was at City College was a very happy time. It was a time where I stayed connected to the community, which was an African American community in Harlem but also a growing Dominican population in Washington Heights, and I loved working with that community.

Two years after I began, I knew that I could teach the methods courses at the college, but there was a whole lot of literature that I was missing as I didn’t have the training. That is when I started a postdoctorate at Yeshiva University with Joshua Fishman. With Fishman, I started taking classes in sociolinguistics, sociology of language, language planning, bilingualism, and education. This is why I always say that everything I learned about bilingualism I learned in Fishman 101, and then I have gone beyond it, but Joshua Fishman was certainly very influential for me because I was able to understand the realities I was seeing in the classroom, but he also taught me to see beyond what I could see and to think what could be possible and what was possible in other places of the world.

I was very happy at City College because, as we say in Spanish, “Estabamos haciendo pueblo [we were contributing to our community].” It was wonderful to see a taxi driver seeking a degree in bilingual education. We used to take the community in, and I always say that they were not prepared when they came in, but they were certainly prepared when they came out.

This situation changed, unfortunately, when teacher certification exams came into being. The state required 80% of the students to pass the exit certification exam, and we had a lower pass rate.

Faculty then decided to require the exam up front before being admitted into the teacher education program. I had a lot of objections to that, because we are educating. That’s what we are doing. If you want to educate those who already come educated, then how do you build a community? How do you build teachers for that community? This effectively closed the door. We used to have hundreds of students a year. They were students who went back and taught in those communities and were very good teachers. I became disenchanted after this resolution passed, and we ended up with very few students.

After 17 years at City College, I grew to be very disillusioned, and I began to speak out about what was happening. To make a long story short, the president of a small private university, the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, with a very large minority enrollment (almost 100%), heard me and told me that they were in a very similar position and that they were looking for a dean, as their school of education was about to close. Although I was not interested in a dean’s position, he convinced me to speak with the faculty and the search committee. After I told them what I would do, what they should be doing, someone asked me what I knew about budgets. I was surprised at this question and told them that I had no idea about budgets and that I had even trouble balancing a checkbook. After I told them once again that I was not interested in the position, that’s when they decided that they really wanted me.

My friend convinced me to do it, and I started to work as a dean. I am convinced that we did very good work there. This is work I have never written about, because it is work that you have to be completely focused on if you are to do it well. We attracted large funding and created a Center for Urban Educators. The idea was: How do you continue to admit these minority students, maybe raise the standards at admissions a little but without closing the door completely, and educate them in a way that they end up being excellent teachers for those communities but also excellent users of English for academic purposes? Over time, we registered all our teacher education programs again as we transformed the curriculum, and because the teacher education program had been on the verge of closing down, all the faculty joined forces trying to save the place. We all worked very hard, we turned the school around, and after the scores were good and we were no longer on the list (of underperforming programs), I started to feel restless. After I had done it, after I had created what I thought to be a very good education program, I didn’t want to become a manager.

Looking back at all this, I think the 80s were really good years; even though Reagan came in, they were really transformational years for the community and for education. That’s when all the issues that people were working on during the 70s really took root. I think we still held to the commitment to civil rights, but now we had enough educated people with strong scholarship, people had developed, people were ready. Even though the politics weren’t good, they were exciting years. By the mid-90s, the neoliberal movement really started to change things.

After 7 years at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, Teachers College [at Columbia University] had a position, and I applied as a faculty member because I missed my students and I missed my scholarship. When you are an administrator paying attention to rebuilding a program, you really cannot pay attention to scholarship. I was at Teachers College for 6 years in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, where the bilingual education program was housed. At Teachers College, I was not only looking inward, that is looking at teacher education and teaching and learning within the context of the U.S., but also internationally. I was troubled by the fact that I was doing a lot of international work and I was not doing what I liked to do most, which is local work, and you cannot do both things well. I also didn’t see myself in a private institution. Teachers College is a private institution, and I was not happy there. While Columbia is in Harlem, they saw themselves as in Morningside Heights and did not always acknowledge the community around them.

The Graduate Center, which is the doctoral program at City University, had an open position in urban education. Initially, I was not going to apply, but I was unhappy and restless. The great radical educator (who passed away in 2013) Jean Anyon, a wonderful person, began to call me and ask me to apply. I accepted the position, and, as I always say, I came back home. I’m extremely happy at The Graduate Center. I think it is a great place. I think you have to really understand how to start your career and how to end it as well. I think it is a good ending, because I’m working with very talented doctoral students who are going to be my colleagues and who are going to stay in the United States.

All these years you have clearly maintained a connection of how you are/were as an emergent bilingual, then as a teacher, then as a scholar and administrator. You continued trying to go against the trends of monoglossic education and highlighting the dissonance between theory and practice. What other themes remain today?

Wherever I have gone, the emphasis has shifted a little bit because the context determines the work that you do in a lot of ways. But I think there are some things that have remained constant. Attention to the children and attention to the communities’ needs. That has been central in my work, and where I have not been happy I haven’t been happy because the work that the institution wants you to do does not respond to that focus on community. That has remained with me forever. Sometimes there are early experiences that stay with you. The fact that I had experiences in communities that struggle as a teenager, communities where immigrants come every day, communities where schools are not stable because of different conditions. Those experiences have stayed with me.

I was very fortunate that my teaching was in a school, an alternative school, where there were groups of educators, all activists that did not believe in traditional education for the poor, and that’s why they started this school. I must say I was just a follower, I was not in the forefront of that. I always say that, to me, that was a transformative experience being in the presence of those people who really wanted to change the system, who really wanted to do it differently. They were a group of liberal White teachers, and they hired me because they didn’t have any diversity, and they were starting up, so they needed me. I think these are things that stayed with me throughout.

How do you perceive bilingual education? What is its scope and purpose? How has your perspective on bilingual education changed (or not) over the years?

Well, it’s interesting. My positions have changed over the years as the world has changed. But I also think it is important to keep some principles in place that are nonnegotiable. To me, education is for the child and for the community. That to me is nonnegotiable, that’s the beginning. How you do it depends on where you are, what community you are working with, what context there is, what political context there is. What sociological context there is. So, that changes, and I think from the beginning I saw bilingualism as an enrichment activity, I knew that, for example, when I started teaching I knew Spanish was a scaffold to teach English, but I knew also that Spanish just couldn’t be a scaffold to teach English, but that it also needed to be what drove the children. So one of my goals was to develop their English, that goes without saying, but also to make sure that they learned content, that they were good academics and thinkers, to make sure that they were challenged intellectually and creatively, and also we learned about who they were. I’m not Puerto Rican, but I grew up with Puerto Ricans and that’s a community that I feel very close to. My husband’s family lives there, so I’ve learned a lot about Puerto Rico, and I was very involved in the Puerto Rican community then. I think that was essential. I did the same when I was at City College and the community there was not mostly Puerto Rican but mostly Dominican. And I did the same with the Dominicans. I, again, was not one of them, but they really embraced me and took me in, because I respected who they were and I tried to learn from them. I think that is key, being a colearner when you are an educator, because our communities change and we have to be open to the changes in the community. So, the idea that bilingual education is for enrichment and not for remediation, that has always been present for me.

I had wished that when there were a lot of bilingual programs in the city, I wished then that they had paid more attention to the development of Spanish as an enrichment activity rather than just as a transitional program. I think the situation now has changed because so many bilingual education programs closed in the city and most of the children are being educated in ESL-only programs. So, I started working with this concept of translanguaging really in response to the fact that I saw so many bilingual children in ESL classrooms where their bilingualism was not being used as a resource. So, the use of bilingualism as a resource has stayed, but the way in which we use it has changed, because the kids are in different kinds of educational programs. So the lens you have to use to study that, to see that, is different.

What do you think has been the biggest hurdle that the translanguaging approach has faced or will face?

The biggest hurdle is between those people who see education and bilingual education as just a language program and those who see education and bilingual education as educating the community. I think that with dual language bilingual education programs, as I call them to make sure people understand that these are one kind of bilingual education program, I think more flexibility is needed in the model. I think that when people started introducing it, they defined them in very rigid terms, and in many places I have seen how this rigidity is working against a good program in bilingual education. In other words, the idea that you have to start with 50% of kids that speak one language and 50% of kids who speak another is absurd, I think. The idea is that you have to build programs in communities as the communities are. If you have 80% of kids of one kind, so what? Big deal. You start with what the community has and you build the program around it. You don’t start with a model and then try to fit the community to the model. I have real objection to that because then you are building a model that is just for some but not for all.

It’s interesting, because in the work that we do in the program where I have been co-principal investigator, CUNY-NYSIEB, we work with both ESL and bilingual programs. With the ESL teachers, I think because the standards have been raised and because everybody now has to teach to the Common Core standards, they are open to experimenting and open to using the children’s languages to make them do all kinds of difficult things that children now have to do. This is because it is almost impossible to get the kids to find text-based evidence if they are doing it in a language they don’t know. So we changed it and tell the teachers to try to find a text in Spanish and then let them find the text-based evidence in the Spanish text and then let them apply it to the English text. Or to group the students according to the language they have so they can discuss what you are teaching or the text that they are reading in English, they can discuss it in Chinese or any other language they have. So, it’s easy to do that. With most intelligent ESL teachers, that happens. I think the biggest objections often come from the dual language bilingual education teachers who have been trained to think that they have to hold on to these spaces in a very rigid kind of way. I would say, I would really venture to say that this idea may work well for language majority children where Spanish-speaking places are only devoted to Spanish. If we are really developing bilingual children, teaching bilingual children, you don’t necessarily have to have two spaces. I think you have to have two spaces for the teacher; I don’t have objections to having a space for one language and one for the other as long as you build those spaces with flexibility and that you allow the children’s language practices, even when those language practices are bilingual. That’s what happens in communities; communities may be Spanish speaking, but they are not Spanish speaking in Ecuador, they are Spanish speaking in New York, therefore, there is a lot of bilingualism that comes in. That is natural, and it’s good, and I also think there is a need to bring the kids’ two languages together at some point, because then there is a tool to do the metalinguistic work that one can do if you can put two languages alongside each other. In fact, I always say that the translanguaging space is a good space to build children’s creativity and criticality also as they become critical of how language functions and why it functions that way, but they also become very creative, so that they can use the two languages at the same time.

In my opinion, dual language bilingual teachers have a hard time with the concept because they have been taught to protect Spanish above everything else. But in protecting Spanish in that way, there is a danger of alienating children who are really bilingual or who are going to become bilingual children. They are not going to become Spanish speakers and English speakers on the side, they are going to become bilingual speakers. So, I think the only thing I am saying is that the languages have to be used with some flexibility, so that you don’t start by saying, we are only speaking English now or we are speaking only Spanish now. Kids know that it is an English space or it is a Spanish space, but their language practices are accepted and not put down. And how do you build the space? It does not have to be every day if you can’t do it every day; it can be every week, when you actually let the children work through all the language practices that they have rather than the ones you impose.

I think it is important for us as bilinguals to be able to use oral language repertoires rather than just one or just the other. When you are doing that, you are really suppressing some features, and there is a space for not having to suppress them. It is liberating not to have to suppress them. But it takes training, it takes teachers who are not afraid, and that has to be built.

Anything else you would like to share?

The divisions between TESOL and bilingual education are unfortunate. I think all TESOL educators need to know about bilingualism and education, and all bilingual educators in the United States need to have ESL at the center of what they are doing. What are sad to me are the divisions that have occurred. TESOL and bilingual teachers should not be trained separately, they should be trained together. They can inform each other, and they have to work together as the children they are working with are the same kids. The ESL teacher should appreciate bilingualism, and the bilingual teachers must understand what the ESL teachers are doing. This is a wish I have. I don’t understand how it happened and how the professionalization of the fields divided those two camps.

It is important for younger people to understand that there is a history of political activism and that the bilingual education movement was not just born from nothingness. That this grew out of a relentless drive of communities to educate their children and that as direct result of the departmentalization of professional fields, this understanding has been lost. It is important that the new generations are very conscious of where it all started.

Andrés Ramírez is assistant professor of TESOL and bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, USA. His research focuses on the academic achievement of emergent to advanced bilinguals in K–16 contexts.



The Bilingual Education Interest Section (BEIS) of TESOL has the purpose of supporting and promoting primary languages and literacies as fundamental to the acquisition of English as a second or additional language. BEIS supports the human right of all individuals to develop and maintain proficiency in a primary language, including a native signed language, and in English. Teachers of English to Deaf Students (TEDS) is part of BEIS.

The BEIS leadership team for 2015–2016 is as follows:

  • Dawn Wink, Past Chair
  • Sandra Musanti, Chair
  • Francisco Ramos, Chair-Elect


Special Topic Issue:
Voices From the Field: Tensions and Promises in Assessment and Instruction of Bilingual Students

Andrés Ramírez
, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, Florida, USA
Alsu Gilmetdinova
, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

Bilingual Basics is a publication of Bilingual Education Interest Section of TESOL. Its audience includes teachers, teacher trainers, students, and researchers in the fields of bilingual education and TESOL. Bilingual Basics has an international scope and invites teachers and scholars from around the world to read and contribute to the body of knowledge on bilingualism and bilingual education.

Manuscripts for the 2016 special issue should address tensions and/or promises related to the education and assessment of emergent to advanced bilinguals in bilingual or English-only programs. This is an important topic in an era of accountability and standardization. Far too little attention has been paid to the nature of assessments of bilingual and multilingual students, despite the increasing pressures of high-stakes assessment on all stakeholders, but especially on teachers and their students. We look forward to hearing voices of teachers and educators who have been affected by the numerous changes in types, quality, and forms of assessment placed upon them by educational reforms. Below are some guiding questions to consider for framing manuscripts for this issue. Manuscripts in languages other than English may be submitted, albeit their acceptance is subject to the availability of multilingual reviewers.

  • What are your views of the tensions and/or promises of current instructional changes and assessment schemes taking place in the education of emergent to advanced bilinguals?

  • What are your personal stories regarding the impact of these changes on students and schools?

  • What are your views about the impact of national and/or federal mandates on both speakers of minority and indigenous languages, as well as sign languages?
  • How can TESOL better support teachers and students when it comes to fair, appropriate and meaningful assessment?

  • How can current scholarly knowledge on language development and learning, as well as research-based pedagogical practices, be used to promote language policies and practices and assessment schemes that create educational environments of excellence for immigrant and language minority students?

The deadline for submissions is 15 January 2016. Manuscripts should follow the standard submission guidelines (below). Submissions may be emailed to and


Articles should

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