Development of Second-Language Proficiencies in Mother-Tongue-Based Bilingual Education: Assessment and Adaptation in the Mexican Indigenous-Language Contexts
Cynthia Groff

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Iztapalapa, Mexico City

Primary Discipline

Developing skills in multiple languages has become increasingly important in our multilingual world. Multilingual skills are particularly vital for linguistic minorities whose access to economic opportunities depends on mastery of the dominant language of their society. Besides communication skills, students need to build up literacy and analytical skills, which are most often developed in educational settings and most easily developed, it has been argued, in a learner’s first language. Others argue that it makes little difference in which language literacy skills are introduced. Meanwhile, societal factors often push for immediate mastery of academic skills in the dominant language of society. The education of linguistic minorities is at stake, hanging on the value of mother-tongue versus second-language instruction.What is the relationship between first and second language development, particularly the development of cognitive, academic language skills in a first and second language? My project addresses this question through analysis of reading and writing assessments in P’urhepecha and Spanish from bilingual primary schools in the Mexican indigenous-education context. An ethnographic component to my research addresses school policy and classroom practice relevant to this biliteracy development, with a particular focus on the perceptions and intentions of educators in planning and evaluating the development of second language skills. This provides context for my first question and supports a second question relevant to teacher engagement in the evaluation process: How are the development of second language skills planned, implemented and evaluated in the P’urhepecha bilingual education context?Two experimental bilingual schools in the Mexican state of Michoacán provide an exceptional location for this study. In a community where children come to school monolingual in the P’urhepecha language, a group of dedicated teachers have worked together with external experts to design a bilingual education program that provides mother tongue instruction throughout the primary school years (1-6), with gradual introduction of Spanish as a second language. Preliminary evaluation of students’ language development at these schools have shown promising evidence of the transfer of cognitive, academic language skills from the first to the second language. This project provides a fuller exploration of this connection, aiming to shed light on second-language development processes, with theoretical and pedagogical implications. The project also addresses the engagement of educators with the evaluation process being used to assess academic skills in the first and second language. Significant for this research are educators’ responses to this evaluation process and to the results of assessments – their interpretation of findings and the implications they draw for classroom practice.The broad aim of this research is to document cognitive, academic linguistic growth and the development of biliteracy among primary school students in a bilingual education program. The unique research context allows for analysis of the development of Spanish reading and writing skills as an outcome of a second-language program that relies on the initial development of first-language skills. Little research evidence exists in Latin America on the success of Spanish in a bilingual program based on first-language literacy. Besides theoretical implications, results will be of strategic relevance to developing a more appropriate curriculum and assessment system for bilingual education in Mexico and in other bilingual context.
About Cynthia Groff
Cynthia Groff completed her Ph.D. in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Her dissertation, titled “Language, Education, and Empowerment: Voices of Kumauni Young Women in Multilingual India,” is based on ethnographic field work conducted in North India. Since graduating in 2010, she has conducted post-doctoral research through Université Laval in Québec and through Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico. Her research interests include adequacy of education for linguistic minorities and the experiences and discourses of minority youth.

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