Seeking to Improve the Education of Young Bilingual Children

When 11-year-old Xigrid Soto moved to the continental United States from Puerto Rico with her family, her new community and the school lacked the support she needed.

“I was placed in a classroom for special needs by accident,” Soto said. “I had to teach myself English, and that was a hard experience. And so, from that, I was really determined to have it not happen to other people.”

Xigrid Soto

Now a postdoctoral fellow at the Juniper Gardens Children’s project, Soto is a passionate researcher on bilingualism, early literacy, and language development. Her research focuses on promoting the educational outcomes for young bilingual children in the U.S. 

In her nine years of experience as a bilingual pediatric speech-language-pathologist, or SLP, and as an early childhood researcher, Soto has seen a rise in the number of bilingual children in the U.S. At the same time, she has also noticed that other SLPs receive limited training and materials for assessing and treating bilingual children who have communication impairments.

“Although we have a really large bilingual population in the United States, most SLPs aren’t really trained on how to work with bilingual kids or adults,” Soto said. “So, what happens is that there’re a lot of misdiagnoses,” Soto said. 

There are several aspects that make bilingual children with communication impairments different from their monolingual counterparts. To have a communication impairment, bilingual children need to demonstrate difficulties communicating in both languages. However, assessments are often created with only monolingual children in mind. This makes it more challenging for speech-language pathologists who are typically only trained to work with monolingual children.

That led to a recent $15,000 2020 Multicultural Grant Award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), awarded by the national professional organization for speech-language pathologists.

The one-year study, conducted by Soto and her colleagues Anne Larson, a research associate at the University of Minnesota, and Meaghan McKenna, a postdoctoral research fellow at Juniper Gardens, aims to complete a national survey of SLPs to determine their training, confidence, and barriers when assessing and treating bilingual children. The second objective of the study is to apply the results of the survey to develop a professional development program. The program aims to train both monolingual and bilingual SLPs in working with bilingual children. Soto hopes the study will assist both practicing SLPs by helping them feel more competent and confident when working with bilingual children and their families.  

“I want the results of the study, specifically the survey, then to be distributed through our national organization and then to university programs for us to really evaluate the curriculum that we’re using right now to train SLPs,” Soto said.

Her passion is to get more students from diverse linguistic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to be interested in the field.

“I think traditionally, lots of people are applying a monolingual English lens to the world and we really need to move past that: to look at people as being multilingual, and really be culturally sensitive and responsive in the way that we work with them,” she said.

What important for SLPs is to find and use strategies that are supportive and specifically catered to bilingualism. That way, even if a practitioner doesn’t speak a child’s language, the SLP can still support the child.  

In addition to the current study, Soto is also in close partnership with the bilingual early childhood center located in Kansas City, El Centro. She has also developed Habla DLL, a website that offers free materials and resources to parents, teachers, and SLPs who work with young bilingual children. These activities are part of her mission to translate research into common practice, and to improve the support for academic and social needs of bilingual children. 

“To me, you shouldn’t do research that doesn’t have an impact in this world,” Soto said. “I’m very privileged for many reasons, and I want to use that privilege so that when important educational decisions are made, I can speak up on behalf of people who aren’t always heard.”