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A theoretical framework for bilingual special education.

A Theoretical Framework for Bilingual Special Education

ABSTRACT: This article outlines a theoretical matrix for conceptualizing issues within the

emerging field of bilingual special education. Among current issues are the difficulty of

distinguishing genuine learning disabilities from second-language-acquisition problems,

nondiscriminatory assessment of language and intellectual skills, the effects of bilingual

interactions in home and school, and appropriate forms of pedagogy and intervention for at-risk

minority students and those with disabilities. These issues are discussed in relation to the

nature of language proficiency and intellectual development, the sociology of dominant-subordinate

group interaction, and models of teaching and learning. * This article presents a theoretical framework that involves both a causal analysis of minority students' academic difficulties and an intervention model designed to reverse these difficulties. The framework does not make any a priori distinction between "bilingual education" and "bilingual special education," nor does it assume the validity of categories such as "learning disability" or "mildly handicapped." Such categorical distinctions tend to assume a medical model of special education that locates the causes of academic difficulties within the individual child. Intervention then becomes focused on remediating the child; and the educational system within which the child is experiencing learning difficulties generally becomes immune from critical scrutiny.

The present theoretical framework takes the opposite starting point, namely, that the causes of minority students' academic difficulties are to be found in the ways schools have reinforced, both overtly and covertly, the discrimination that certain minority groups have historically experienced in the society at large. The causes of minority students' academic difficulties are thus analyzed initially in sociohistorical perspective.

When research results regarding minority student underachievement are examined internationally, a striking pattern emerges. The groups that currently perform very poorly at school have historically been discriminated against and regarded as inherently inferior by the dominant group. For example, in the United States, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students have all experienced subjugation by the dominant group (see Ogbu, 1978). Several investigators have argued that the educational underachievement of these groups is, in part, a function of the fact that schools have traditionally reinforced the ambivalence and insecurity that many minority students tend to feel with regard to their own cultural identity (Cummins, 1986; Ogbu & Matute-Bianchi, 1986). The implication of this analysis is that prevention of academic difficulties among minority students, and genuine remediation, requires that educators adopt role definitions that challenge rather than reflect the values of the wider society. If power relations between the dominant and dominated groups are fundamental contributors to minority students' underachievement, then bilingual special educators must decide whether they can remain neutral with respect to the ways in which these power relations are manifested in the interactions between educators and minority students in schools.

In short, the major unit of analysis within the framework is the role definition that educators adopt with respect to minority students' cultural identity and language. Collectively, these role definitions define the extent to which schools either disable minority students by inadvertantly reflecting broader patterns of societal discrimination or, alternatively, empower students by promoting their linguistic talents and confidence in their personal identity and ability to succeed academically.


The framework presented in Figure 1 is adapted from Cummins (1986). As previously outlined, power and status relations between minority and majority groups appear to exert a major influence on school performance (Cummins, 1984; Ogbu, 1978). Minority groups that tend to experience academic difficulty (e.g., Finns in Sweden; Hispanic, Black, and Native American groups in the United States; Franco-Ontarian, Black, and Native Canadian groups in Canada) appear to have developed an insecurity and ambivalence about the value of their own cultural identity as a result of their interactions with the dominant group (Ogbu & Matute-Bianchi, 1986).

Another example noted in the Swedish and U.S. contexts is the fact that minority students from dominated groups who immigrate relatively late (at about 10 years of age) often appear to have better academic prospects than do students of similar socioeconomic status born in the host country, despite much less exposure to the school language (Gonzalez, 1986; Skutnabb-Kangas & Toukomaa, 1976). These findings have been attributed in part to the fact that these students have not experienced devaluation of their identity in the social institutions (e.g., schools) of the host country, as has been the case for students born in that setting (see, e.g., Cummins, 1984, 1986; and discussions in Epstein, 1977).

A central proposition of the theoretical framework is that minority students are disempowered educationally in much the same way that their communities are disempowered by interactions with societal institutions. The converse of this is that minority students will succeed educationally to the extent that the patterns of interaction in school reverse those that prevail in the society at large. In short, minority students are "empowered" or "disabled" as a direct result of their interactions with educators in the schools. These interactions are mediated by the implicit or explicit role definitions that educators assume in relation to four institutional characteristics of schools. These characteristics reflect the extent to which the following occur: 1. Minority students' language and culture are

incorporated into the school program. 2. Minority community participation is

encouraged as an integral component of children's

education. 3. The pedagogy promotes intrinsic motivation

on the part of students to use language

actively to generate their own knowledge. 4. Professionals involved in assessment

become advocates for minority students by

focusing primarily on the ways in which

students' academic difficulty is a function

of interactions within the school context

rather than legitimizing the location of the

"problem" within students.

Each dimension can be analyzed along a continuum, with one end reflecting an intercultural orientation (role definition) and the other reflecting the more traditional Anglo-conformity (assimilationist) orientation. The overall prediction is that this latter orientation will tend to result in the personal or academic disabling of minority students while intercultural orientations (as operationally defined with respect to the framework) will result in minority student empowerment, a concept that, in the present context, implies the development of the ability, confidence, and motivation to succeed academically.

Cultural and Linguistic Incorporation

Considerable research data suggest that for minority groups who experience disproportionate levels of academic failure, the extent to which students' language and culture are incorporated into the school program constitutes a significant predictor of academic success (see Campos & Keatinge, 1988; Cummins, 1984, 1989; Willig, 1985, for reviews of these data). In programs in which minority students' first-language (L1) skills are strongly reinforced, their school success appears to reflect both the more solid cognitive and academic foundation developed through intensive L1 instruction and also the reinforcement of their cultural identity. Students' English skills do not suffer as a result of less English instruction because there is considerable transfer of cognitive and academic skills across languages. Thus, students who have learned to read in Spanish in a bilingual program do not have to learn to read all over again when English reading instruction starts (see Ada, 1988a, for an excellent discussion of reading instruction for bilingual students).

With respect to the incorporation of minority students' language and culture, educators' role definitions can be characterized along an "additive-subtractive" dimension (Lambert, 1975). Educators who see their role as adding a second language and cultural affiliation to students' repertoires are likely to empower students more than those who see their role as replacing or subtracting students' primary language and culture in the process of assimilating them to the dominant culture. In addition to the personal and future employment advantages of proficiency in two or more languages, there is considerable evidence that subtle educational advantages result from continued development of both languages among bilingual students. Enhanced metalinguistic development, for example, is frequently found in association with additive bilingualism (e.g., Diaz, 1985).

It is important to emphasize that schools can play a significant role in encouraging children to develop their L1 proficiency even in situations where bilingual education is not possible. Some of the ways in which schools can create a climate that is welcoming to minority parents and, at the same time, promote children's pride in their linguistic talents have been noted by New Zealand educators (New Zealand Department of Education, 1988, p. 14), as follows: * Reflect the various cultural groups in the

school district by providing signs in the main

office and elsewhere that welcome people in

the different languages of the community. * Encourage students to use their L1 around

the school. * Provide opportunities for students from the

same ethnic group to communicate with one

another in their L1 where possible (e.g., in

cooperative learning groups on at least some

occasions). * Recruit people who can tutor students in their

L1. * Provide books written in the various

languages in both classrooms and the school

library. * Incorporate greetings and information in the

various languages in newsletters and other

official school communications. * Provide bilingual and multilingual signs. * Display pictures and objects of the various

cultures represented at the school. * Create units of work that incorporate other

languages in addition to the school language. * Encourage students to write contributions in

their L1 for school newspapers and

magazines. * Provide opportunities for students to study

their L1 in elective subjects and in

extracurricular clubs. * Encourage parents to help in the classroom,

library, playground, and in clubs. * Invite second-language learners to use their

L1 during assemblies, prizegivings, and

other official functions. * Invite people from ethnic minority

communities to act as resource people and to speak

to students in both formal and informal


Community Participation

It has been argued (Cummins, 1986) that minority students will be empowered in the school context to the extent that the communities themselves are empowered through their interactions with the school. When educators involve minority parents as partners in their children's education, parents appear to develop a sense of efficacy that communicates itself to children--with positive academic consequences.

Although lip service is paid to community participation through Parent Advisory Committees (PACs) in many school programs, these committees are frequently manipulated through misinformation and intimidation (see Curtis, 1988). The result is that parents from dominated groups retain their powerless status, and their internalized inferiority is reinforced. Children's school failure can then be attributed to the combined effects of parental illiteracy and lack of interest in their children's education (for a recent example, see Dunn, 1987). In reality, most parents of minority children have high academic aspirations for their children and want to be involved in promoting their academic progress (Wong Fillmore, 1983). The parents, however, often do not know how to help their children academically; and they are excluded from participation by the school.

Dramatic changes in children's school progress can be realized when educators take the initiative to change this exclusionary pattern to one of collaboration. For example, a 2-year project carried out in an inner-city area of London (Haringey) showed major improvements in children's reading skills simply as a result of sending books home on a regular basis with the children for them to read to their parents. Many of these parents spoke little English and were illiterate in both English and their L1 (predominantly Bengali and Greek) (Tizard, Schofield, & Hewison, 1982). The children in this "shared literacy" program made significantly greater progress in reading than did a control group who received additional small-group reading instruction from a highly competent reading specialist. Of particular relevance to special education is the fact that differences in favor of the shared literacy program were most apparent among children who were initially having difficulty in learning to read. Teachers involved in the home collaboration also reported that children showed an increased interest in school learning and were better behaved.

The teacher role definitions associated with community participation can be characterized along a collaborative-exclusionary dimension. Teachers operating at the collaborative end of the continuum actively encourage minority parents to participate in promoting their children's academic progress both in the home and through involvement in classroom activities. A collaborative orientation may require a willingness on the part of the teacher to work closely with mother-tongue teachers or aides to communicate effectively and in a noncondescending way with minority parents (see Ada, 1988b, and Westby, 1985, for examples of home-school collaboration in bilingual contexts).

Teachers with an exclusionary orientation, on the other hand, tend to regard teaching as their job and are likely to view collaboration with minority parents as either irrelevant or actually detrimental to children's progress. Often parents are viewed as part of the problem, because they interact through L1 with their children at home. From the perspective of many teachers, parents' demands to have their languages taught within the school system further illustrate how misguided parents are with respect to what is educationally advisable for their children.


Several investigators have suggested that the learning difficulties of minority students are often pedagogically induced in that children designated "at-risk" frequently receive intensive instruction that confines them to a passive role and induces a form of "learned helplessness" (e.g., Beers & Beers, 1980; Coles, 1978; Cummins, 1984). Instruction that empowers students, on the other hand, will aim to liberate students from dependence on instruction in the sense of encouraging them to become active generators of their own knowledge.

Two major pedagogic orientations can be distinguished. These differ in the extent to which the teacher retains exclusive control over classroom interaction as opposed to sharing some of this control with students. The dominant instructional model in most Western industrial societies has been termed a transmission (Barnes, 1976; Wells, 1986) or banking (Freire, 1973, 1983) model; this can be contrasted with an interactive or experiential model of pedagogy.

Transmission Model. The basic premise of the transmission model is that the teacher's task is to impart knowledge or skills that he or she possesses to students who do not yet have these skills. This implies that the teacher initiates and controls the interaction, constantly orienting it towards the achievement of instructional objectives.

It has been argued that a transmission model of teaching contravenes central principles of language and literacy acquisition and that a model allowing for reciprocal interaction between teachers and students represents a more appropriate alternative (Cummins, 1984; Wells, 1986). This interactive or experiential model incorporates proposals about the relation between language and learning made by a variety of investigators, most notably, in recent years, in the Bullock Report (1975), and by Freire (1973), Barnes (1976), Lindfors (1980), and Wells (1986). Its applications with respect to the promotion of literacy conform closely to psycholinguistic approaches to reading (e.g., Goodman & Goodman, 1977; Smith, 1978) and to the recent emphasis on encouraging expressive writing from the earliest grades (e.g., Chomsky, 1981; Graves, 1983).

Interactive or Experiential Model. A central tenet of the interactive or experiential model is that "talking and writing are means to learning" (Bullock Report, 1975). Its major characteristics in comparison with a transmission model are as follows: * Genuine dialogue between student and

teacher in both oral and written modalities. * Guidance and facilitation, rather than control

of student learning by the teacher. * Encouragement of student-to-student talk in

a collaborative learning context. * Encouragement of meaningful language use

by students, rather than correctness of

surface forms. * Conscious integration of language use and

development with all curricular content,

rather than teaching language and other

content as isolated subjects. * A focus on developing higher level cognitive

skills, rather than factual recall. * Task presentation that generates intrinsic,

rather than extrinsic, motivation.

In short, pedagogical approaches that empower students encourage them to assume greater control over setting their own learning goals and to collaborate actively with each other in achieving these goals. The instruction is automatically "culture fair" in that all students are actively involved in expressing, sharing, and amplifying their experience within the classroom. The approaches reflect what cognitive psychologists such as Piaget and Vygotsky have emphasized about children's learning for more than half a century. Learning is viewed as an active process that is enhanced through interaction. The stress on action (Piaget) and interaction (Vygotsky) contrasts with behavioristic pedagogical models that focus on passive and isolated reception of knowledge.

Recent research on effective teaching strategies for bilingual students with disabilities supports the adoption of interactive or experiential models of pedagogy (Swedo, 1987; Willig, Swedo, & Ortiz, 1987). The goal of the study was to identify instructional strategies that address both language status and learning problems, result in high task engagement, and lead to improved academic performance. Data from videotaping four special education classes serving Hispanic students in grades 4-6 were analyzed with extent of task engagement the dependent variable. Swedo (1987) summarized the results as follows:

Academic activities associated with the most

intensive and prolonged levels of task

engagement drew heavily upon, and encouraged

expression of, students' experiences, language

background and interests. They also fostered

feelings of success and pride in

accomplishment, gave children a sense of control over

their own learning, and included peer

collaboration or peer approval. Furthermore they were

holistic in nature in that they did not involve

learning or drilling of isolated,

decontextualized segments of information.... On the other

hand, activities that presented

decontextualized information in drill format were among

those producing the lowest rates of task

engagement and low success rates.


Historically, in many Western countries, psychological assessment has served to legitimize the educational disabling of minority students by locating the academic "problem" within the students themselves. This had the effect of screening from critical scrutiny the subtractive nature of the school program, the exclusionary orientation of teachers toward minority communities, and transmission models of teaching that suppress students' experience and inhibit them from active participation in learning.

This process is virtually inevitable when the conceptual base for the assessment process is purely psychoeducational. If the psychologist's task (or role definition) is to discover the causes of a minority student's academic difficulties and the only tools at his or her disposal are psychological tests (in either L1 or the second language, L2), then it is hardly surprising that the child's difficulties are attributed to psychological dysfunctions. The myth of bilingual handicaps that still influences educational policy and practice was generated in exactly this way during the 1920s and 1930s.

Recent studies suggest that despite the appearance of change brought about by legislation such as Public Law 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the underlying structure of the assessment process has remained essentially intact. Mehan, Hertweck, and Meihls (1986), for example, reported that psychologists continued to test children until they "found" the disability that could be invoked to "explain" the student's apparent academic difficulties. Rueda and Mercer (1985) have also shown that designation of minority students as learning disabled, compared with language impaired, was strongly influenced by whether a psychologist or a speech pathologist was on the placement committee. Cummins (1984) also reported that although no diagnostic conclusions were logically possible in the majority of assessments, psychologists were most reluctant to admit this fact to teachers and parents. In short, despite P.L. 94-142, the disabling structure appears to have preserved itself in that few fundamental changes have occurred either in the overall functions that assessment serves or in the role definitions of many assessment specialists.

The alternative role definition that is required to reverse the legitimizing function of assessment can be termed an advocacy orientation. The psychologist's or special educator's task must be to dismantle the traditional function of psychological assessment in the educational disabling of minority students; in other words, educators must be prepared to become advocates for the child in scrutinizing critically the social and educational context within which the child has developed. This implies that the conceptual basis for assessment should be broadened so that it goes beyond psychoeducational considerations to take account of the child's entire learning environment. To challenge the disabling of minority students, the assessment must focus on the extent to which children's language and culture are incorporated within the school program, the extent to which educators collaborate with parents in a shared enterprise, and the extent to which children are encouraged to use language (both L1 and L2) actively within the classroom to amplify their experiences in interaction with other children and adults.

In summary, an advocacy approach to assessment of minority children will involve locating the pathology within the societal power relations between dominant and dominated groups, in the reflection of these power relations between school and communities, and in the mental and cultural disabling of minority students that takes place in classrooms. These conditions are a more probable cause of the 300% overrepresentation of Texas Hispanic students in the learning-disabled category than any intrinsic processing deficit unique to Hispanic children.


This article has outlined a causal analysis of why minority students experience school failure and an intervention model that specifies directions for reversing this pattern of school failure. I have suggested that a pedagogy for empowerment requires educators to adopt the following approaches: * An additive orientation to student's culture

and language such that students' L1

experiences can be shared rather than suppressed

in the classroom. * An openness to collaborate with community

resource persons who can provide insight to

students and educators about different

cultural, religious, and linguistic traditions. * A willingness to encourage active use of

written and oral language so that students can

develop their language and literacy skills in

the process of sharing their experiences and

insights with peers and adults. * An orientation to assessment in which the

primary focus is on the interactions that

students have experienced within the school

system and on ways of remediating these

interactions, where necessary.

These changes are compatible with many of those highlighted in the effective schools research when this research is interpreted appropriately. Like Cuban (1984) and other scholars (e.g., Cummins, 1989; Lauderdale, 1987), Stedman (1987) has argued that the educational reform movement has narrowed the curriculum in the quest for higher test scores and has neglected higher order thinking skills. Stedman analyzed case studies of schools that achieved and maintained grade-level success with low-income students and, on this basis, highlighted the following components of effective schooling: (a) cultural pluralism, (b) parent participation, (c) shared governance, (d) academically and experientially rich programs, (e) skilled use and training of teachers, (f) personal attention to students, and (g) student responsbility for student affairs. In short, the empowerment framework outlined here is highly compatible with appropriate interpretations of the effective schools research.

The major goal of the intervention model discussed here is to prevent academic casualties among minority students, or, expressed differently, to reduce the incidence of educational handicap and premature dropout. The same principles of empowerment pedagogy are equally applicable to all programs for minority students, whether these are designated bilingual education, bilingual special education, or some other form of program. In fact, minority students who are experiencing learning difficulties and have been referred for special education have a particular need for empowerment pedagogy and appear to benefit considerably from such approaches, as Swedo's (1987) results suggest.

When special education programs are viewed in light of the theoretical framework, many would still be located squarely within the Anglo-conformity orientation. In many special education programs, there is little emphasis either on L1 promotion or on developing students' sense of cultural pride. Parent involvement is negligible, transmission approaches to pedagogy predominate with an emphasis on drilling of low-level skills, and assessment processes focus on the nature of the child's cognitive deficits. The empowerment framework entails significant implications for change in the way much special education provision for minority students is organized.

JIM CUMMINS is Professor, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Canada.
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Author:Cummins, Jim
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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