Maria S. Carlo, University of South Florida
We asked scholars to describe some of the following questions: What drew you to do work on Latinx youth and families, or another topic that is important to you now? Who was an important mentor to you in this work, or was there a particularly influential study in the field or in a related field?
In my third year of college, I participated in an academic exchange program between the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) at Amherst. While at UMASS, I joined AHORA, a student organization devoted to increasing the university enrollment of Latinx students from the surrounding communities. At the time, Springfield and Holyoke Massachusetts were among the fastest-growing Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. My involvement with that organization opened my eyes to the great educational disparities experienced by Latinx youth in the U.S. I had great difficulty understanding how it was possible that students who had been schooled in the U.S. could experience difficulties in academic English. At the same time, these students held on fiercely to their linguistic identities as Puerto Rican users of Spanish, despite never having visited the island. My interest in bilingualism and its intersection with academic achievement grew from this experience.
Is there any particular advice that you would give to someone starting out in the field and doing work in your area?
My advice would be to get comfortable taking an incremental approach toward the pursuit of answering research questions. There is a great deal of pressure toward novelty and innovation, but I fear that research on bilingualism, particularly within the context of the U.S., lacks the breadth and depth of knowledge that is necessary for productive innovation. We need more research that “connects the dots” and contributes to the gradual building of theoretical models of bilingualism—models that articulate the mechanisms that drive bilingual development across the lifespan. I worry that a narrow focus on developing new interventions for Dual Language Learners, for example, puts too much emphasis on the production of outcomes, which comes at the expense of knowing why certain educational strategies work the way that they do. I would like to see more research that tests the unique effects of the various strategies we use, and the conditions under which such effects materialize.
We invited scholars to describe a recent finding, current study, or recent publication and what makes them excited about it.
As part of an Institute of Education Sciences-funded project, my colleagues and I recently completed an experiment in which we tested the extent to which Spanish-speaking 4th grade English Learners (EL) are able to use definitions, contextual information, and knowledge of cognates to learn general purpose academic English words. The use of monolingual and bilingual dictionary definitions to support vocabulary learning is a ubiquitous practice in EL instruction. Yet, the field lacks experimental research that isolates and tests the effect of dictionary definitions on EL vocabulary learning. In this experiment, we randomly assigned students to a Spanish-definition condition, an English-definition condition, or a no-definition condition. We measured the extent to which ELs learned the meanings of cognate and non-cognate words that were presented within high- and low-context sentences. The study results show that students benefitted equally from the provision of Spanish and English definitions. However, the effect was moderated by Spanish language proficiency. That is, students with high Spanish proficiency benefitted significantly more from Spanish definitions than English definitions, whereas students of lower Spanish proficiency derived greater benefits from English definitions. These findings point to the role of cross-language transfer of learning in a second language.
Any upcoming talks, presentations, or publications we should know about?
We will be presenting the above results this spring at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference as part of a symposium entitled “The Role of Language Input and Production in Academic Language and Literacy Development of DLLs.”
Reflections on Latinx Caucus Experiences
Finally, we asked about experiences with the SRCD Latinx Caucus: Why is the caucus important and/or your views on the role of the Latinx Caucus vis-à-vis SRCD, research on child development, policy/practice.
The caucus brings together researchers who are working toward a more nuanced understanding of the Latinx experience. It helps to break down the false homogeneity of the Latinx category by providing a forum in which attention to within-population variability is encouraged.