United for Bilingual Education – Language Magazine
As we move further into the millennium, many national and local educational systems are considering how best to meet the changing needs and demands they face, especially in developing countries. Arising from those reflections is an increased interest in teachers and teacher training because teachers are uniquely positioned to implement any changes with children and youth. In this context is the Dominican Republic (DR), a developing country situated in the Caribbean, sharing its island with Haiti. Rich in cultural diversity and natural resources, the DR has a population of just under eleven million. Santo Domingo is its capital and largest city, as well as the largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean by population, hosting more than 36% of the 3.5 million national public school student population. The official language is Spanish, and English is taught as a foreign language to more than 1.3 million public school students. Dominican Republic TESOL (DR-TESOL) is officially advocating for the approval of the Law of English as a Second Language and the continuity of the situated English teacher training strategy in over 500 public schools all around the country.
Understanding who teachers are and how they see themselves becomes increasingly important as educators, policymakers, and communities consider what they want their educational systems to accomplish. This seems especially important now, when many teacher training programs, such as those in the DR, are facing major reforms and restructuring. Educational research and literature often recognize that teacher identity is a key factor that influences teachers’ sense of purpose, self-efficacy, motivation, commitment, job satisfaction, and effectiveness (Cummins, 2021; Wernicke, Hansen, and Schroedler, 2021). Intertwined with teacher preparation are the students’ learning outcomes. In this case, history will begin to be made in the DR, because this will allow students to become bilingual citizens with skills to excel in the workplace and with greater capability to interact with a larger portion of the world’s people.
Current State of Bilingual Education
The educational system in the DR is regulated and administered by the Ministry of Education. Education is a right for all children and youth. However, bilingual education is limited. Even though teaching English in school has been mandatory since 1961, English language learning in school has never been a priority for the local authorities. English teachers complain that the subject is regarded as a façade and considered by many as merely a gesture in the school curriculum. Consequently, for the last 60 years, all Dominican public school students have been destined for monolingualism, in contrast to the small number of students from middle- and high-income families who are the only ones afforded an international, bilingual school.
This is considered by DR-TESOL as the biggest factor in educational injustice and inequality in the country. This is why, in 2014, DR-TESOL started the movement for a bilingual republic. English teachers in Dominican public schools have demonstrated for years their commitment to their professional development and their willingness to give all their time and knowledge to improve student learning outcomes.
If educators really want better learning results, the first thing they need is an objective and scientifically valid vision of a strong bilingual educational program, which they have recently adopted with the implementation of a situated professional development strategy for learning English as a foreign language, put in place for over 300,000 public school students nationwide.
This strategy involves over 1,000 English teachers in both primary and secondary school and is funded by the National Teacher Training Institute of the Dominican Ministry of Education (INAFOCAM). This strategy is defined as a situated, wholistic, and simultaneous approach that involves daily class observation and needs analysis, the implementation of a reflective teaching approach for public school English classes, the provision of learning and teaching materials, and continuing education programs on language teacher supervision, language skills development, and pedagogic training. Since this strategy was originally piloted, designed, and proposed by local educators, DR-TESOL argues that this proves that teachers and students are not the problem of Dominican education but the solution, contrary to what some local groups claim.
Benefits of Bilingual Education
Our world today presents global needs, changes, and interdependencies we have with one another. Information and communication technologies enable people from various cultures to communicate and connect with each other. Indirectly, digital technology may be used to translate text from one language to another, but errors in translation certainly occur. The most important skill in communicating with others is being able to do so in their native language. Promoting bilingualism in the 21st century is a responsibility of educational institutions.
Language continues to be the bridge that unites people from all walks of life. Music is often celebrated as an art for sharing, on a global platform, the sentiments of a culture, including the struggles of a community. Therefore, presenting our children with the love of language in their early developmental years is a gift to foster a society that is empathetic, intuitive, and full of critical thinkers.
Research states that bilingualism is positively linked to improved student performance. Bilingual students often pursue higher education and become much more comfortable integrating with multiple communities (Cummins, 2021; Rodríguez, Carrasquillo, and Lee, 2014). The benefits of bilingual education extend much further. Neuroscientists have also studied the implications of proficiency in bilingual education and have presented evidence to state that active use of two or more languages helps protect the brain against cognitive decline and age-related dementia.
The commitment of every educational institution is to prepare their students to become contributors to society. As advocates for children, we are to ensure that all schools provide the children with an equitable education. Bilingual education is equitable education, and highly beneficial to students.
Promoting Bilingual Education: Massive Communication Effort
For many people, the goal of becoming a bilingual country is not a new idea. Eight years ago, a group of educators in the Dominican Republic established DR-TESOL, a national association of professionals and aspiring professionals whose main goal is to develop quality teaching and learning of English in the Dominican public schools through professional development, research, and advocacy.
Since 2014, DR-TESOL has maintained a massive communication campaign through TV, radio, newspapers, and social media in an effort to raise public awareness about the need to guarantee the learning of English in public schools and to advocate for educational justice and improvement.
In a study conducted by Professional Training Systems, 90% of Dominican students are highly interested and motivated to learn English as a second language, 85% have positive attitudes toward learning English, and 95% believe that learning English is very important and a highly transferable academic skill (Valdez, 2013). Accordingly, DR-TESOL maintains that in order to deliver effective and equitable instruction in public school English programs, the educational system at all levels must address the curriculum, instructional methodology, teacher preparation and support systems, student proficiency levels, and school system policies and context.
For successful implementation, the government must also allocate financial resources to guarantee the continuity of efforts like this and the dissemination of research and information about bilingual education. Both advocacy and research are important to propel the learning of English as a foreign language to all school-age children and youth throughout the country.
The study by Professional Training Systems referenced above also reveals that the discontinuity of well-established programs like this and the absence of research to sustain the implementation of learning programs have traditionally been the main causes of stagnation in monolingualism, which Dominican public school students have suffered for the last six decades.
Laws and Policies Concerning Bilingual Education
For the last two years, DR-TESOL has demanded that Congress approve the proposed Law of English as a Second Language, which was submitted to the Congressional Commission of Education in 2020.
The Law of English as a Second Language is an effort to guarantee the implementation and continuity of a comprehensive and well-developed English language learning policy framework.
DR-TESOL maintains that a strong legal foundation to guarantee the right to learning English is essential in order to overcome the traditional political barriers faced by teachers and students in trying to improve English proficiency levels in public schools.
According to DR-TESOL, empirical research shows that having English as an official subject of the school curriculum has not proven sufficient in 60 years; rather, implementing a legally sustained, national strategy for the improvement of English language learning is required.
This law aspires to guarantee that more than 2.3 million children and youth have access to quality English language learning in all public schools, from fourth to twelfth grade, and that thousands of local teachers be internationally certified in teaching English as a second or foreign language.
Enhancing Bilingual Education: DR-TESOL Convention
The Eighth Annual International Convention of Dominican Republic TESOL was an event of great impact and inspiration for teachers of English in the country. Over 1,000 teachers of English as a foreign language from all over the country attended the convention. In the opening plenary, Dr. Socorro Herrera, professor and director of the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy (CIMA) of Kansas State University, discussed the theme of the development of bilingualism as an asset important for Dominican public education.
She addressed the tensions and boundaries that limit us, colleagues, and students in seeing bilingualism as an asset.
The DR-TESOL conference engaged the teachers in attendance with an abundance of topics:
- Playing with language: Bilingualism and social life;
- The qualities of an exceptional language teacher;
- Translanguaging: Tips to leverage students’ linguistic resources;
- Teaching English as a foreign language using universal design for learning principles;
- Critical thinking for bilingual classrooms;
- Language teacher supervision;
- Activating conversational competence;
- Engaging reluctant learners;
- The bilingual advantage;
- Academic success of English learners;
- The secret to encouraging beginning English learners; and
- You have more influence than you think.
Dr. Ayanna Cooper, consultant and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners, provided the closing plenary. Dr. Cooper focused on the need to know for making informed decisions within your own educational settings.
Education is presented as a multifaceted phenomenon of global scope, which follows very different trajectories in each national context. In this sense, the Dominican Republic is a case that distinguishes a movement of a very different nature, putting forth a new law to guarantee the learning of English as the second language in all public schools.
This work is a reflection upon a shared humanity, focusing on the role of critical innovation, which calls for stepping outside our habits of seeing and doing and moving toward transformation of perspectives and systems for all learners.
We propose that the Dominican Republic Ministry of Education continue to support the implementation of the national situated English teacher training strategy in schools all around the country, focusing on the development of educational programs to raise the level of language proficiency and pedagogical skills for all teachers; review the national English curriculum through a process of national consensus and consultation; maintain a system of support and follow-up to the development and performance of this English program, at a regional and district level; and establish new policies for language learning and teaching in the Dominican Republic.
We offer those proposals because, as a nation, we cannot afford any more inconsistency and discontinuity.
Teaching English as a foreign language in the Dominican Republic is poised to contribute knowledge to cross-cultural dynamics of classroom settings in K–12 public schools; development and implementation of appropriate curricula; and provision of effective teaching strategies for fostering literacy development and the acquisition of competence in two languages.
The proposed initiative offers new perspectives on challenges, strengths, and growth to educating and graduating bilingual public school students.
Cummins, J. (2021). Rethinking the Education of Multilingual Learners. Multilingual Matters.
Rodríguez, D., Carrasquillo, A., and Lee, S. (2014). The Bilingual Advantage: Promoting Academic Development and Biliteracy through Native Language in the Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Valdez, J. (2013). “Why English Is Not Learned in Dominican Public Schools.” Professional Training Systems.
Wernicke, H. S., Hansen, A., and Schroedler, T. (Eds.). (2021). Preparing Teachers to work with Multilingual Learners. Multilingual Matters.
Juan Valdez is director of Professional Development Systems, executive director of the Education Observatory, and president of Dominican Republic TESOL.
Diane Rodríguez is professor and associate dean at the Graduate School of Education, Fordham University.
Elisa Alvarez is New York State associate commissioner of the Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages.