• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2015 •

Much of the current research on early education of poor and minority children – although well intentioned – is biased and focused on family and children’s deficits and maladaptations as the causes for the lack of academic readiness and underperformance of a significant number of children in this country (Cabrera 2013; Robledo Montecel, et al., 1993).

Research is remiss in studying the effects of educational policies and practices that are detrimental to the performance of a large segment of the student population, primarily minority children, students from low-income families and English language learners. When schools use this research to inform interventions, they consequently fall short of creating an optimal learning environment for children and neglect to foster their intellectual and social well-being.

Cabrera explains that this deficit-oriented research overly emphasizes the “negative effects of inadequate economic and social resources and an elevated rate of behavior problems, decreased social competence, and lower rates of school success among these children” (2013).

The research needs a new asset-based approach to poor and minority children and their families. Schools should acknowledge these assets in their plans for a quality educational program and other interventions that lead to children’s optimal academic and social growth. In this article, we emphasize the need to redefine readiness to integrate the strengths bilingual children bring to the classroom, and detail the need to adjust instruction to enhance their academic engagement and performance.

For example, efforts to improve children’s readiness for school have profound implications for the quality of education that can be afforded in programs like Head Start, that cumulatively serve millions of children ages birth to 5, a student population that is projected to grow significantly. A report by the Office of Head Start at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveals that, in the 2012-13 school year, 30 percent of participants were from families that primarily spoke a language other than English at home. Twenty-five percent of participants were from families that primarily spoke Spanish at home (Office of Head Start, 2014).

What Research Says about Bilingualism that Must Be Addressed in Curricular and Instructional Decisions

Learning and transfer of knowledge refer to key processes in education that are manifested in the teaching process and become integral parts of an instructional plan. Learning refers to a knowledge-building process, while transfer involves using pre-existing knowledge in new contexts. Research on the effects of bilingualism reveals that a child’s ability to learn and transfer knowledge is enhanced when it is factored into the instruction (Zelasko & Antunez, 2000). In particular, these findings on the benefits of bilingualism generally have an impact on our understanding of language acquisition and learning processes that include phonological processing, syntactical awareness, working memory, morphological awareness, semantic processing and application.

Pedagogically speaking, the cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual represent a set of strengths that curriculum coordinators and teachers should factor into the teaching and learning processes. An effective teacher will build on these cognitive and social strengths when planning and delivering instruction first, by assessing the level of bilingualism that children bring to the classroom and plan accordingly to ensure greater engagement of these children in the learning process. A caveat, however, to be considered in making instructional decisions is that research findings also reveal that the level of bilingualism affects the quality of these cognitive and social benefits (Zelasko & Antunez, 2000).

Implications for Further Research

With the knowledge that already exists about the benefits of bilingualism and the cognitive processes of language acquisition and learning, the next step is to identify and commit to research the impact that these benefits have on the instructional process. The identification of the research question to be addressed may be based on an informed decision or inference about the potential positive impact that a finding (disposition to challenges, cognitive flexibility for complex tasks, greater receptivity and adaptability, etc.) can have on the teaching of learning objectives. In this case, how do findings on the benefits of bilingualism affect the teaching of critical learning objectives whose cognitive processes could be enhanced by a child’s level of bilingualism.

The instructional implications are many and range from timing of the learning objective (when), delivery mode (how as it relates to delivery of instruction in a cultural and linguistic context), length of instructional time and assessment strategies. Research must focus on studying these inferences and supplying teachers with research-based strategies that build on the cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual.

Key learning objectives that will be positively affected by five major findings on the benefits of bilingualism have been identified for further study. The table above delineates the five major findings and the learning objectives identified from Head Start competencies and, for example, the Texas standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills).

Research on bilingualism is a work in progress and continues to provide valuable insights into its cognitive and social benefits. We, as educators, must be aware of these advantages and integrate them into our instructional practice. The need for pedagogical research that focuses on children’s strengths and for teachers to conduct action research are in greater demand now than ever. In an upcoming issue of the IDRA Newsletter, we will address other assets and strengths that bilingual children, in particular,  bring to school.

Positive Relationship between Research Findings on Bilingualism and Selected Learning Objectives

Selected Research Findings
Sample Learning Objectives for Children

Children who are bilingual have minds that are cognitively active and flexible (Zelasko & Antunez, 2000)

  • Match language to social contexts
  • Identify and sort pictures of objects into conceptual categories

Children who are bilingual are better at switching between tasks (Wisehart, et al., 2014)

  • Follow two- to three-step oral directions
  • Engage in exercises that requires various steps or tasks

Children who are bilingual are prone to adjust more easily to environmental changes (Marian & Shook, 2012)

  • Use language for different purposes
  • Use descriptive words to describe an object or topic

Young bilingual children “consistently show a semantic preference suggesting they reach a semantic development two to three years earlier” (Ianco-Worrall, 1972)

  • Combine more than one idea using complex sentences
  • Separate words within a sentence

Bilingual children show a greater ability to identify grammatical and syntactical errors at an earlier age (Bailystok, et al., 2005)

  • Exhibit pre-reading related skills
  • Share information and ideas by clearly using the conventions of language


Bialystok E., & G. Luk, E. Kwan. “Bilingualism, Biliteracy, and Learning to Read: Interactions Among Languages and Writing Systems,” Scientific Studies of Reading (2005).

Cabrera, N.J. “Positive Development of Minority Children,” Social Policy Report (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Society for Research for Child Development, 2013).

Ianco-Worrall, A.D. “Bilingualism and cognitive development,” Child Development (1972).

Marian, V., & A. Shook. “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual,” Cerebrum (2012).

Office of Head Start. Head Start Program Facts, Fiscal Year 2014 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2014).

Robledo Montecel, M., & A. Gallagher, A. Montemayor, A. Villarreal, N. Adame-Reyna, J. Supik. Hispanic Families As Valued Partners: An Educator’s Guide (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1993).

Wiseheart, M., & M. Viswanathan, E. Bialystok. “Flexibility in Task Switching by Monolinguals and Bilinguals,” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (2014).

Zelasko, N., & B. Antunez. If Your Child Learns in Two Languages: A Parent’s Guide for Improving Educational Opportunities for Children Acquiring English as a Second Language (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1980).

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is chief of operations at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to them via email at abelardo.villarreal@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]