Program Highlights

The Dual Language Classroom: Questioning Our Assumptions

Program Highlights

Nessa Mahmoudi is a second grade dual-immersion teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland, CA and is a teacher leader at her site. Through her Mills Teacher Scholar inquiry work she works to critically examine the varied assumptions we make about teaching and learning in our unique school contexts. 


My first year as a Mills Teacher Scholar, a colleague and mentor of mine told me that inquiry work is about reexamining your assumptions. She was referring to the assumptions that we hold that inform the decisions that we make in our classrooms. Sometimes these assumptions are about our students: what they can and cannot do, who they are, what they’re thinking. Other times these assumptions are about ourselves, our colleagues, our principal or our school.

One thing that I have learned about my assumptions is that they often over-simplify an inherently complex situation. When I started working at my school, I had very little experience or exposure to two-way immersion programs. I was excited to receive a rather succinct description of what two-way immersion is. The Center for Applied Linguistics, an important database and resource for bilingual teachers, writes that two-way immersion is a program with “a balanced numbers of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language that are integrated for instruction so that both groups of students serve in the role of language model and language learner at different times.”

“Great,” I thought at the time. “The kids will be able to learn from each other and everyone will have an opportunity to teach and to learn from one another.” The idea aligned well with my vision of a progressive, student-centered classroom.

As I got to know the diverse group of families and students in my classroom I soon realized that the simplified definition of two- way immersion did not represent the true linguistic complexity of my classroom. When I tried to pair students by language proficiency and when I thought about the language status of my students that were exposed to African American vernacular, I felt confused.  I quickly began to question two of the most commonly held assumptions about two-way immersion programs:

  • In the two-way immersion classroom there is a dichotomy of language resources.
  • Two-way immersion inherently creates opportunities for all students to be “language experts.”

 Who’s the Expert?

Each year about half of the students in my class speak English at home, but they often speak varying dialects of English, including African American vernacular and Chicano English. Last year half of the class also had some exposure to Spanish at home, but families spoke a variety of dialects of Spanish with students from Spain, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and so on. There were students like Juan who received a lot of Spanglish input at home. Akili’s father spoke to him exclusively in Swahili and Soraya’s first language was Arabic. In my classroom there did not exist a dichotomy of language resources but rather a plethora, which are all used to inform their second (and sometimes third) language learning. Thus, the assumption of equitable expertise became questionable.

A map on my classroom wall shows the many countries from which my students originate.

During my inquiry project last year, I was interested in creating opportunities where students were asked to engage in controlled practice of specific language features. I tried to pair my students by language proficiency to work on these language tasks. In my class of approximately twenty-four, I needed to pick 12 Spanish dominant students and 12 English dominant students. I immediately listed all of my Latino students on the Spanish dominant side, including some students that came from bilingual families. Akili, for example, spoke both Spanish and Swahili at home. I considered his Spanish to be proficient enough to be part of the Spanish dominant group. However, Sonia, a Mexican-African-American student was just beginning to gain confidence with Spanish and her proficiency was far from native. She clearly “belonged” with her English dominant peers.

Then there was Juan, who I had originally placed in the Spanish dominate group.  Juan’s mother was born and raised in the United States and generally code-mixed Spanish and English at home, which I heard during various home-visits and when I listened to her talk with her children. When I listened to Juan struggle to conjugate verbs and string together grammatically incorrect sentences, I knew he would benefit from a language buddy that was dominant in academic Spanish.

More Questions Arise

I had the opportunity to loop with many of my students, teaching them in 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade. As I watched students blossom over the years, the Spanish dominant students were becoming more proficient in English and the Spanish learners were becoming more proficient in Spanish. However, as I observed my students I noticed a disheartening trend. When I compared the academic Spanish language proficiency growth of my English dominant students, particularly those from a higher socio-economic class, to bilingual, low-income, Latino students like Juan, it was clear that the English dominant students were beginning to surpass them. What did it mean for Juan to be “labeled” as a Spanish Learner, while he was also labeled by the state of California as an English Learner? When did Juan get to be an expert?

During English instruction I also attempted to make pairs for oral language practice. My African American students had easily been placed in the “Spanish Learner” category during Spanish instruction. During English instruction, their expectation was to be placed as an English expert. Through my inquiry and conversations with my African American focal students, I found that their relationship to English in a dual-immersion program was integral to their identity development. There were some African American students that had strong academic literacy skills in English as they entered the program and they were clearly English experts during English instruction. However, there were also students like Jamal. Technically he would be designated as a “Standard English Learner,” often code-mixing African American Vernacular and Standard English during oral discussions in class and in writing. What did it mean for Jamal to be labeled both a Spanish and English learner? What role would this have in his identity formation? Did all students inherently have an opportunity to be language experts in my classroom?

Through my inquiry I began asking Jamal and other African American students in my class about language and their relationship to English and Spanish. I asked them about the idea of a “school English” and “home English” and found that their responses greatly varied. More questions arose from these conversations. One question particularly was at the heart of my inquiry: How could I foment meta-linguistic awareness in all my students about the various funds of knowledge they were bringing to their Academic English and Academic Spanish learning? What would that look like and sound like in my classroom?

 New Year, New Assumptions

By the end of my inquiry, I had come to a new set of realizations.

  • Every student is a learner of Academic Spanish and Academic English.
  • For students to reach high levels of dual academic language proficiency they need to have an understanding of the purpose of language (linguistic register) and to examine their own uses of language.
  • Curriculum that reflects and empowers our most marginalized students, those whose home language furthest replicates “school English” or “school Spanish,” will give students a genuine purpose for language proficiency.
  • Linguistic rigor is created through a counter-balanced curriculum, creating a dual focus for students on culturally-relevant content and the linguistic features that will allow them to dialogue about that content.
  • In order to create these learning opportunities, the facilitator of learning must come to know not only her students’ and their families’ values and aspirations but also strive to know their linguistic history.

As teachers around the country begin to implement the Common Core and shift their thinking about language use in their classroom, issues of language status become even more critical. Who is dominating these rich academic conversations that are supposedly happening in our classrooms? And as I move forward, this question ever-present in my mind, I realize that last year’s realizations have merely become a new set of assumptions about my students and my practice, ripe for inquiry.