Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Trends that Expand How We Think About Multilingual Students

Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) is here once again, and with it, an opportunity to celebrate the many strengths, talents, and achievements of students who identify with this ethnic community. In this guest blog, Dr. Molly Faulkner-Bond, a senior research associate at WestEd and principal investigator of two NCER research grants and an NCEE contract, discusses three trends that reflect efforts to celebrate and support all multilingual students.

The word “Hispanic” often makes people think of students classified as English learners, and not without reason—as various federal data sources show, about three‑quarters of English learners speak Spanish. As someone whose career focuses squarely on English learners, I’m always thrilled to see this group celebrated and acknowledged in research, policy, development work, and any kind of reporting and dissemination.

But the Hispanic population is broader and richer than just English learners. It includes millions of Hispanic students who are not currently, or perhaps never were, English learners. These students—many of whom are multilingual—also deserve to be celebrated and acknowledged for their knowledge, strengths, and contributions to their academic communities.

In thinking about the work I see happening in the field—be it in school districts, universities, research firms, or government agencies—some of the trends I find most exciting are those that reflect ongoing efforts to embrace and celebrate all types of multilingual learners in our schools. I have noticed three trends that reflect efforts to expand our thinking about multilingual students, including those who are Hispanic.

Labels and Language are Evolving

When I talk to policymakers, educators, and researchers, it’s clear that everyone is thinking more deeply about the words we use to describe students who speak multiple languages. Over time, federal policy has evolved from “limited English proficient” to “English language learners” to “English learners.” These days, I increasingly hear the phrase “multilingual learners” instead. In general, this evolution reflects growing awareness of the deficit orientation implied by many of our older labels and an effort to shift our language from what multilingual students can’t do or need help doing to focus on the strengths they bring to school.

I’m excited about these efforts and shifts. I also think more work and clarity are needed in the field to come to a consensus about who and what we mean by “multilingual learners.” In some states (for example, California), the phrase “multilingual learners” is used as an umbrella term for all students who use or are learning multiple languages, regardless of whether they are formally classified as English learners. In these cases, the term “multilingual learners” includes students who are screened for English learner status but not classified, heritage language learners who are fluent in English but also learning an ancestral or cultural language they did not grow up using, and English-only students who are learning a world language via direct instruction in school. In other states (for example, Rhode Island), the term “multilingual learners” is used to replace the term “English learner” with a more asset-oriented alternative.

I see opportunities and challenges in each approach. The broader use in California gives us language to acknowledge the many profiles and faces of multilingualism and the many students who are learning and using languages other than English in their lives and schools. It can also lead to confusion and make it challenging to communicate about the specific group of English learners who constitute a protected class, are entitled to specific supports and services by law, and whose achievements must be tracked and reported for federal accountability. The narrower use in Rhode Island is more straightforward in this sense, requiring us to attend more carefully to a specified group relative to the larger multilingual population. The narrower approach, however, leaves us without the language to acknowledge and celebrate the many multilingual students who are not classified as English learners for service and accountability purposes.

I believe (and evidence suggests) that the labels we use for students matter, so these conversations are consequential and important to have. I am excited about the conversations that are to come, as they are likely to move us forward as a field, regardless of where we land on the labeling.

Nurturing and Celebrating Multilingualism

Another area where I see increased awareness and advocacy is around celebrating the value of multilingualism for all students. Perhaps the most notable example of this is U.S. Secretary of Education Cardona’s Raise the Bar initiative, which includes pathways to multilingualism for all students as a key goal and a strategy to support global engagement.

A related sign of this shift is the general expansion of dual-language (DL) instructional programs and the State Seal of Biliteracy (SSoB) across the country over the past two decades. Given that research suggests multilingualism and multilingual education confers benefits for academic, social-emotional, and workforce outcomes, these expansions should not be surprising.

It’s important to acknowledge that enthusiasm for multilingualism is a shift from former practice, which tended to center monolingualism in English as a desirable norm and sometimes made it challenging for families to pursue dual language education. There is also concern that the expansion of DL programs and the SSoB does not always benefit English learners or students from communities whose languages are undervalued or minoritized. More research and discussion are needed on these topics. As part of a recent IES-funded research, my colleagues and I are examining implementation of the Language Opportunity for Our Kids (LOOK) Act in Massachusetts, focusing on the extent to which the expansion of bilingual programming through the LOOK Act supports equitable access to and participation in DL programs and SSoB for English learners. Stay tuned for our findings!

Substantial Investments in Rigorous Research

One final area for hope are the substantial investments from the U.S. Department of Education in multilingual learners and English learners. In addition to initiatives like Raise the Bar, IES currently supports two $10M research and development centers focused on secondary English learners, as well as a large-scale evaluation study on the impacts of English learner classification and reclassification policies in 30 states. This is in addition to annual funding from NCER and NCSER on English learner-focused research projects, both through a topic area dedicated to English learners and through other topics that support research that will generally improve the opportunities and outcomes of multilingual learners. These investments are critical to advancing our understanding of what works for which multilingual students under which circumstances. I appreciate the Department’s attention to this vital population of students and look forward to seeing these students continue to thrive as we improve our practices and understanding of how to help them unlock their potential. I see many exciting things happening in the field around multilingualism, all of which give me hope for Hispanic students both within and beyond the English learner group.

Molly Faulkner-Bond is a senior research associate at WestEd and focuses on understanding and improving policies, assessments, and programs for students identified as English Learners, and amplifying that knowledge for the benefit of all students and educators. She supports a variety of stakeholders via several federally funded centers, including the Regional Educational Laboratories, the Regional Comprehensive Centers, and the National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners.

This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (, program officer for the English Learners portfolio at the National Center for Education Research.

Comments are closed