IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

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 (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), program officer for the English Learners portfolio at the National Center for Education Research.

The Importance of Training and Mentorship: An Interview with Former IES Postdoctoral Fellow Priscilla Goble

The IES Postdoctoral Research Training Program  funds groups of faculty research trainers who recruit, hire, and prepare postdoctoral researchers to conduct high-quality education research. IES encourages training programs to recruit fellows from underrepresented demographic groups including minority groups and those with disabilities, those coming from smaller or less well-known institutions, or those with non-traditional backgrounds including former practitioners or institutional researchers. Priscilla Goble was a fellow in the IES-funded University of Virginia Post-Doctoral Interdisciplinary Training Program in Education Science and is now an associate professor of human development & family sciences in the School of Family & Consumer Sciences at Texas State University. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked Priscilla to reflect on her career journey and the experiences of Hispanic scholars.

How did you become interested in a career in education research?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the development of young children. I began taking child development and education focused courses as a high school student, and I had a clear plan to become an early childhood educator. As an undergraduate student at Purdue University, I became involved in several research projects, and one led by Dr. Karen Diamond was focused on young children’s development in preschool settings. This experience was fundamental in shifting my career goals from educator to education researcher.

Many young children spend most of their waking hours in education environments, and I became increasingly more curious about the factors that promote positive development within these early education settings. As I pursued my graduate degrees at Arizona State University, I explored child factors (for example, gender), family factors (for example, parent involvement), and contextual factors (for example, educational approaches) to better understand the relation between children’s preschool experiences, developmental gains, and formal school success.

The IES postdoctoral fellowship working with Dr. Robert Pianta in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia solidified my interests and career in education research. My current work focuses on the importance of adult-child relationships and interactions for promoting positive development within education settings. I also have applied research experience developing, implementing, and evaluating early education interventions. I aim to conduct sound education science that can be used to inform practice and positively impact our education systems.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge? 

The biggest challenge I have had to overcome as a researcher is imposter syndrome around academic writing. I never would have imagined that I would achieve tenure at an academic institution because I have never viewed myself as a strong writer. My parents differ in their educational attainment and in their parenting around education. My father, a U.S.-born college graduate and successful entrepreneur, always encouraged good grades, hard work, and academic success. My mother, an immigrant from Panama, never completed college and placed more emphasis on relationships than education. In addition to different educational perspectives, language barriers created obstacles in my education because my primary literacy support at home was from an English as a Second Language (ESL) parent who struggled with English fluency. My verbal scores on the SAT and GRE were consistently low, and from early on, I have struggled with feelings that I am not a strong enough writer to be a successful researcher.

I’m not sure imposter syndrome ever goes away. I still put in work to move past feelings of inadequacy. I began by listening to my peers and mentors when they emphasized my strengths. Through warm and supportive professional relationships, I learned that I am a strong critical thinker, I am well organized, I am passionate about education, and I am persistent. These skills are also important to be a successful researcher and, although I am not the strongest writer, I’ve learned to overcome that challenge. When my imposter syndrome pops up, I remind myself of the growth I’ve made as a writer and of the other skills that have helped me to achieve the career I have now.

As it relates to my research, I empathize with children in similar situations, and as a result, I have developed a professional interest in identifying factors that promote positive educational experiences for ethnic-minority children.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

To best inform policies and practices that influence education for diverse children, we need trained scholars who represent diverse identities, value inclusion, and challenge biases. Students who have opportunities to engage in undergraduate research are more likely to attend graduate school and proceed to research-focused careers; thus, the education research community can support underrepresented groups by targeting and enhancing their success through undergraduate research experiences.

As a Minority Serving Institution, Texas State University is dedicated to supporting opportunities for undergraduate involvement in research. For over 5 years, I have been co-leading a program to identify and recruit undergraduate students from underrepresented groups and provide them research training and experience. The goal of this program is to help develop strong connections with school faculty and peers that can build a sense of self-efficacy and provide underrepresented students with human capital and resources to navigate the maze of higher education systems.

I can speak from my own experience that my career trajectory was forever changed because of my engagement in undergraduate research experiences.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

My best piece advice is to believe in yourself. Being a successful researcher is about persistence. You will have failures and receive critical feedback, but if you keep working and believe in yourself, you can achieve your goals. 

The next best piece of advice is to identify strong mentors who believe in you. I cannot overstate the degree to which my success and self-efficacy as an education researcher have been influenced by the strong mentors who believed in me at every stage. Strike up a conversation with someone you admire, be vulnerable in sharing your aspirations, listen to their advice, and believe them when they say that you have what it takes.

Finally, find your community. Join groups of people who come from both similar and different walks of life but who are struggling with the same challenges at the same time. Lean on these people and let them lean on you. Support one another through all the ups and downs and enjoy doing life together.


This guest blog is part of a series in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. It was produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), a program officer in the National Center for Education Research.