C&I faculty promote linguistic awareness in C-U schools

Professor Patrick Smith at a Champaign Unit 4 School District workshop

Professors’ research shows that linguistically and culturally diverse children and families are sophisticated users of language and literacy  

Associate professors Luz Murillo and Patrick Smith arrived in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the College of Education last year from universities at the opposite ends of the Texas-Mexico border, where Spanish-speaking students are the majority. Part of their mission at Illinois was to get involved with the Spanish-speaking community in Champaign-Urbana.

To accomplish this, they began meeting teachers in the C-U school districts, forming relationships with teachers and members of the community, and getting to know María Alanis, the director of ESL/bilingual education in the Champaign Unit 4 School District.

“We learned that the district, like others across central Illinois and the Midwest, is becoming much more linguistically diverse,” Smith said. “Many Spanish speakers are coming to communities like Rantoul and Arcola to work in corn detasseling and other agricultural jobs, including families from the U.S-Mexico border and Mexico. And the speakers of Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language from southwestern Guatemala, many of whom also speak Spanish, live in C-U and study in local schools.”

Joseph T. Wiemelt, Ed.M. '09 EPOL, Ed.D. '14 EPOL, director of Equity & Student Learning and Bilingual & Multicultural Programs at Urbana School District 116, said in 2011-2012 two PK-5 Urbana schools had five bilingual classrooms. Today there are 16 bilingual classrooms in three Urbana schools. 

Wiemelt attributes the rise to an increase in enrollment of bilingual students from Spanish-speaking backgrounds and because of the start of the Two Way Dual Language Immersion program in Urbana, which allows for the enrollment of English/monolingual students in bilingual classrooms.

Similarly, the Champaign school district has seen a rise in Spanish/English transitional bilingual education classrooms. In 2011-2012 there were seven such classrooms at Garden Hills Elementary School, according to Alanis. Today there are 12 Spanish-English 50/50 dual-language classrooms at the International Prep Academy and one transitional bilingual education classroom at the Champaign Early Childhood Center. 

Alanis added that part-time French/English, Vietnamese/English, Korean/English, and Spanish/English transitional bilingual education is available for grades K-12 in Champaign. 

Smith, who has become familiar with the varied population in C-U and the surrounding area, was impressed by the diversity of national backgrounds and languages reported by Champaign Unit 4 educators at a September workshop he held at the Mellon Administrative Center. The workshop was titled “Teaching Against Linguicism,” and it focused on how to support linguistically diverse learners. In all, the attendees counted students from 25 nations and 23 languages within their classrooms.

"Each school and community is unique, but five decades of research shows that the most effective bilingual programs involve close collaboration between university researchers, local schools, and families."
     - Dr. Patrick Smith

A second workshop for Spanish-speaking parents at the Spanish/English dual-language elementary school International Prep Academy in Champaign focused on how families can leverage everyday, household literacies in Spanish to support children’s biliteracy development.

Smith said he and Murillo have held public workshops as part of their community service and to promote understanding and appreciation for bilingualism. At the seminars they share examples from their research in educational anthropology and applied linguistics that demonstrate the importance of the literacies of linguistically and culturally diverse children and families.

The workshops also spread the news about a growing focus on bi/multilingualism in the College of Education.

“We have great courses in the College for teachers who want to earn an endorsement in bilingual education or ESL education,” Smith said. “We also are reaching out to the community and helping teachers who are already in the classroom and want to know how to serve bilingual learners effectively.

"I’ve been fortunate to work with bilingual learners and teachers in Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and now Illinois. Each school and community is unique, but five decades of research shows that the most effective bilingual programs involve close collaboration between university researchers, local schools, and families. For the public engagement component of our work, we need to share our knowledge as broadly as possible.”

Murillo’s current research project focuses on family literacies among Spanish-speaking immigrants and migrant families in a small community in central Illinois. She is studying how young migrant children and their families are faring in rural and small urban schools and communities that haven’t had a long history with (im)migrants and Spanish-speaking learners. What she has found so far is that linguistic and cultural minority children and their families are sophisticated users of language and literacy.

“Teachers and administrators who recognize the value of multilingualism and the potential value of incorporating local ways of using language and literacy, these are the educators who can make a difference in the educational lives of linguistically and culturally diverse learners,” Murillo said. “Schools that welcome migrant and immigrant families as they are, without trying to erase their language and culture and make them into white, middle-class, English monolinguals—those are the schools we need.”

"Teachers and administrators who recognize the value of multilingualism ... these are the educators who can make a difference."
     - Dr. Luz Murillo

Murillo and Smith have also volunteered at the Student Opportunities for After-School Resources (SOAR) program, an award-winning afterschool tutoring program at the International Prep Academy that is coordinated by the College’s Center for Education in Small Urban Communities. Since 2005, SOAR tutors have provided literacy support and homework assistance for Latina/o emergent bilingual/biliterate students. Every child is paired individually with a student from the University of Illinois, and approximately 100 dedicated UI students from a variety of academic majors volunteer their time weekly each semester to provide academic support to local bilingual children.

Some of Smith and Murillo’s bilingual education students volunteer at SOAR, where they read bilingual books with the children.

“Our students are learning things that you just can’t experience sitting in a college classroom,” said Smith. “We support SOAR because it helps Illinois student volunteers see bilingualism and biliteracy in a positive light. By working closely with a Spanish-speaking child, the tutors have an opportunity to question and unlearn the deficit perspectives about immigrant and Spanish-speaking children and their families that are too often practiced in U.S. schools.

"These kinds of collaborations can make a positive change in the ways future teachers work with bilingual learners.”

Language & Literacy programs at the College of Education at Illinois encourage students to explore the broad issues facing language and literacy education today. Students can focus on bilingual/ESL education, writing studies, children's literature, and receive endorsements in bilingual/ESL or reading. Discover much more.