Understanding Bilingual Students in Education
Gigi Luk

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Harvard Graduate School of Education

Primary Discipline

Bilingual students’ English proficiency, rather than their home language background, has been the primary focus in education. While proficiency in one language is relevant to their overall bilingual experience, it does not explain these bilingual students’ language profile. To investigate how students’ language background is recorded in school systems, I conducted an analysis on students’ records and whether bilingual experience is related to academic outcomes in state exams. Results suggested that there is an interaction between students’ bilingual language background and free/reduced-lunch status in the Massachusetts population. Former English Language Learners (ELL) students who were eligible for free/reduced lunch had better English Language Arts and mathematics performance, while the ELL students had consistently lower performance. The implication is that students’ language background may complement English proficiency to identify students who are in need of extra support for learning.In the second study, I investigated the variations in language backgrounds among fourth grade students in a school district with a high concentration of multilingual students. Children were categorized based on a principal components extracted from parental reports of home language environment into monolingual (n = 25), unbalanced (reported using more English than non-English language at home, n = 34) and balanced bilingual (reported more non-English usage at home but primarily English at school, n = 35) groups. All the children were given assessments on English vocabulary, reading comprehension and executive function. The three language groups showed similar reading performances. However, differential relationships between reading outcomes, English vocabulary and executive function were observed across the three groups. While English vocabulary is associated with reading outcomes in all children, balanced bilingual children also showed a positive relationship between executive function and reading comprehension. Results suggested that home language environment moderates the relationship between English vocabulary, executive function and reading comprehension.Finally, I examined preschoolers’ language and cognition before they enter kindergarten. Preschoolers were categorized into English-dominant and Spanish-dominant groups and were given standardized language assessments and experimental measures on executive function in English and Spanish, respectively. The two groups showed dissociated performance in tasks with differential levels of language demand. Compared to English-dominant children, Spanish-dominant children had slightly inferior performance in tasks requiring oral language processing but had comparable or better performance in tasks that demanded minimal language processing. In this study, combining home language environment information and linguistic-sensitive assessment protocol provides a comprehensive assessment on children with diverse language backgrounds.Findings from these studies contribute to discovering what information about multilingual children’s language background should be collected and how to make use of this information to enrich the learning experience for these children. Furthermore, rather than focusing on multilingual students’ language proficiency limitations, these projects suggest that educators’ attention can also be placed on cognitive strength to harness these students’ learning potential.
About Gigi Luk
Gigi Luk is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education since 2011. After obtaining a Ph. D. in Cognitive Psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Rotman Research Institute at the Baycrest Center in Toronto. Her research on the cognitive consequences of bilingualism extends across the lifespan. These cognitive consequences include literacy acquisition in children and executive functions in young and older adults. The main research finding is that bilingualism, as a language experience, results in some cognitive advantages and linguistic limitations at different developmental stages. For children in particular, these bilingual consequences entail cognitive and educational implications. Gigi Luk’s current research has focused on how dimensions defining bilingualism is construed in education.

Pin It on Pinterest