This year, Inside IES Research is featuring a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Dr. María S. Carlo, associate professor at University of South Florida, about her career journey and the need for more research on bilingualism. Dr. Carlo is the PI of an IES grant that compares bilingual and monolingual methods of explicit vocabulary instruction for Spanish-speaking English learners, as well as another IES grant exploring instructional strategies intended to help English learners learn the meanings of new words.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
My memories of childhood are tagged by language. Language is a marker for where I lived, who my friends were, and my feelings toward school. My interest in bilingualism stems from life-long experiences managing my personal and academic identity through the use of Spanish and English.
In a graduate school course on applied and basic cognitive development, my instructors Dr. Keith Rayner and Dr. Alexander Pollatsek told us that we would be learning the scientific explanations for everything our grandmothers could already tell us about human cognition. My anxiety about the course rose because I was convinced that my grandmother, who had not been to college, had nothing to say about human cognition. About a year later, I explained to my mom a study I was doing testing the belief that academic skills can transfer across languages in ways that support the development of the second language. Perhaps sensing that I was sounding a little too impressed with myself, my mother looked at me and said, “Well, your grandmother could have told you that!” And then she told me a story.
Upon hearing that I was having difficulty learning to read in English, my grandmother got on an airplane for the first time in her life and travelled from Puerto Rico to New Jersey to teach me how to read. She brought with her a cartilla fonética (phonetic primer) that she had used with her five children. Her rationale: “You need to teach her to read in Spanish first before teaching her to read in English.” As my mom tells it, I was reading English perfectly after my grandmother’s intervention. This, and other experiences with language, have shaped my interest in the role of the mother tongue in second language development.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
I think that one of the problems we face in studying bilingualism is that we really have not figured out exactly how to measure bilingualism. I often find myself having to rely on measures that were normed on monolingual speakers of Spanish and English, and that I believe, often fail to fully capture how bilingual experience impacts performance in each language. One important theoretical assumption about bilingual language processing is that bilinguals never “turn off” a language. We assume that both languages are always simultaneously active and thus susceptible to each other’s influence through bottom-up processes. I believe this has profound implications on language measurement as it can impact everything from item response times to judgements about the plausibility of item distractors.
I think we need measures that are based on a model of the expert bilingual and that are sensitive to the changes individuals experience in language as they move from the novice bilingual state to the expert bilingual state. But to get there, I think we need more research that helps us understand what expert bilingual performance looks like. Some of the most influential concepts guiding our understanding of the development of reading among monolingual children have emerged from research on fluent adult monolingual readers. In education, we are understandably preoccupied with the progress of the beginner. But I think there is much that we can understand about the beginner from looking at the expert. So, if I had a magic wand, I would ensure programmatic support to study expert bilingualism.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
My perception is that young scholars from underrepresented groups do their work feeling a high sense of urgency to transform education to better serve their communities. I tell them that it is true that their work is urgently needed, but that they need to take the long view. My doctoral advisor, Dr. James M. Royer of the Psychology Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, encouraged us to think of our work not as single studies but as a series of studies. It is hard to take the long view when you are constantly having to sell your work for being innovative and cutting edge. The process of securing research funding is an example of a context in which innovation is paramount. One of the conversations I have had with young scholars (and with myself) is about making the distinction between innovation (which leads to change) and novelty. I think that we serve our transformative goals better when we identify small changes in our research approach that allow us to move knowledge forward. I believe that these increments in knowledge across an entire community of scholars seeking to advance equity and inclusion inevitably leads to innovation.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?
I try to take a bilingual perspective when I study the English development of English learners. One can study the English development of English learners by measuring progress on English measures exclusively, but researchers who take a bilingual or multilingual perspective have shown that you gain a great deal of explanatory power when you choose not to ignore the other half of students’ language repertoire. My hope is that the work I do advances the idea that a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens is integral to producing high quality rigorous research.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
Dr. Royer made me a part of his lab long before I was admitted into the department. He needed a research assistant who was proficient in Spanish and English to help him develop a series of listening and reading comprehension tests using a test development technique he had developed called the Sentence Verification Technique. I had recently completed my BA in psychology without ever working as an undergraduate research assistant. I had no real sense of what psychology research entailed or that it could offer me a career. The day I joined his lab he gave me a desk and a computer and added my name to list of lab members on the door. My socialization into a research career started that day. I was allowed to be fully immersed into the experience. I was invited to lab meetings, to guest talks, to proseminars. I eventually applied and was admitted to the doctoral program in educational psychology.
I share this story to make the point that many others have made before me, that the work of increasing access to academia by members of minoritized groups needs to start long before graduate school admission. We need to open our academic space to young people who may not be able to articulate why they wish to be in that space. I don’t think I would have pursued a doctoral program otherwise.
Dr. María S. Carlo is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida in the Department of Child and Family Studies. Dr. Carlo specializes in bilingualism and literacy development in children and adults. Her research focuses on the cognitive processes underlying reading in a second language and in understanding the cross-language transfer of reading skills and how it affects the development of such skills. She is also interested in generating educational interventions that support first- and second-language development, particularly around vocabulary.
This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), program officer for the English Learner Portfolio at NCER.