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Sociocultural Competence in Action

Beatriz Arias and José Medina highlight the priorities in dual-language bilingual education

Dual-language bilingual education (DLBE) programs, at the core, are about serving students who have been linguistically and culturally marginalized in U.S. schools (Izquierdo and Medina, in press). However, it is also important to understand that as DLBE has increased in popularity, the ideas of equity and social justice as focal points have been lost in translation for some who are guiding program implementation.

In our quest to ensure that students work toward bilingualism and biliteracy, some of us may have forgotten why we became DLBE program advocates in the first place. Ultimately, what good is it if our students are able to mobilize content understanding in two program languages if they are not ready to be critically self-reflective and engage in anti-bias and anti-racist (ABAR) work? Moreover, what does this say about us as facilitators of instruction if we are not lesson planning with this perspective in mind?

Being a dual-language educator and advocate is tough. We are working as part of a U.S. schooling system that has cradled English and protected its privilege as a way to view multilingualism and multiliteracy with disdain (Medina, 2020). Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education, third edition (GP3), as a resource for all practitioners, gives us a common framework that can guide our DLBE work. The three goals of DLBE are equally important: grade-level academic achievement, bilingualism and biliteracy, and sociocultural competence. GP3 delves deeper than previous editions into the components of cultural competence because the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) affirms that developing cultural competence is integral to language learning. In fact, language proficiency is enhanced when the culture it reflects is embedded in learning another language. A key factor is for students to appreciate the cultural context of language, the varieties of speech communities, and the diversity of speakers. For language teachers, this means situating language teaching within the culture of the speakers and providing students with examples of relevant cultural variation.

With the recent civil unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd, the continued oppression of Black and/or Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), the ongoing marginalization of specific student and family communities, and the needed decolonization of our curriculum, resources, and instructional practices, sociocultural competence must be fully leveraged as a way to ensure that our emergent bilingual students engage in ABAR and critical consciousness work.

Sociocultural competence, as a programmatic goal, is grounded in the idea that our emergent bilingual students will be willing and able to embrace ongoing and unending critical self-reflection. That is, they will be able to see the similarities and differences in each other but will embrace the differences as opportunities to connect rather than obstacles to overcome (Medina, 2018). Moreover, through the lessons we plan around sociocultural competence, pre-K–12 students will come to understand that participation in DLBE involves using whatever privilege we have access to as a means to create access to that privilege for others (Izquierdo and Medina, in press).

We must be transparent and acknowledge that this is not the reality in many DLBE programs. For many, sociocultural competence has become a performative part of dual language. Having a multicultural night once a year after state assessments, having students read an article about African American excellence during Black History Month, or dressing up for Cinco de Mayo are entry points into this important work, albeit superficial ones.

Please understand that for some DLBE schools and educators, critical consciousness and ABAR work are the foundation and the direct access to the three goals of dual language each and every day.

Through dual language, students, teachers, and administrators are doing the hard work of chipping away at systems of oppression. The following are just a handful of examples of this important sociocultural competence work in action:

  • Kerri Valencia facilitates biliteracy lessons focused on racism with her kindergarten students at Brown Station Elementary School in Maryland. When a student in Ms. Valencia’s classroom made a derogatory remark about Black people, the class unpacked the comment via the sociocultural competence goal and co-created a color-coded anchor chart about inclusion. This is just one example of how the ABAR work is embedded in all that happens in the classroom.
  • Mayra Cruz is principal at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Washington, DC. The school’s ABAR work is palpable as they utilize the sociocultural competence goal to dismantle systems of oppression in varied ways, including the use of culture learning targets as a means to amplify the voices of marginalized communities, as part of the lesson-planning process.
  • Jerusha Hunt is a teacher at Wiggs Middle School in Texas. The adolescent emergent-bilingual students she serves engage in testimonio work as part of the sociocultural competence goal of DLBE. They identify those things that make them unique and special as a way to learn about how best to serve others.

As we return to school in the midst of a global pandemic, we must continue to shout from the rooftops that DLBE, first and foremost, is about creating educational access for students who have been marginalized in U.S. schools. The biliteracy instruction we facilitate must overtly be defiant of maintaining systems that oppress certain communities. Finally, we must understand that the GP3, as a resource, is a living and breathing tool that continues to evolve as research and biliteracy instructional practices do the same. Should we modify the goals of DLBE to include ABAR and critical consciousness? Sure. But, in the interim, how are we using sociocultural competence to engage our students and ourselves in that important work?


Howard, E. R., Lindholm-Leary, K. J., Rogers, D., Olague, N., Medina, J., Kennedy, B., Sugarman, J., & Christian, D. (2018). Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

M. Beatriz Arias, PhD, is a senior research scientist with the Center for Applied Linguistics (, where she focuses on language policy. Her recent book, Perspectives in Dual Language for the 21st Century, provides case studies of dual-language programs in grades K–12.

Dr. José L. Medina is the founder and chief educational advocate at Dr. José Medina: Educational Solutions. José provides dual-language technical assistance, professional development, and job-embedded support to dual-language programs across the U.S. and globally. He is a former dual-language school principal and has served as an administrator and educator at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Dr. Medina co-authored the third edition of the widely used Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (

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