Researcher Seeks to Improve the Education of Young Bilingual Children

Researcher Xigrid Soto-Boykin

When 11-year-old Xigrid Soto-Boykin 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-Boykin 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.”

Now a postdoctoral fellow at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, Soto-Boykin is a passionate researcher focusing on bilingualism, early literacy, and language development. Her research aims to promote the educational outcomes for young bilingual children.

In her nine years of experience as a bilingual pediatric speech-language-pathologist, or SLP, and as an early childhood researcher, Soto-Boykin 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-Boykin said. “So, what happens is that there’re a lot of misdiagnoses.” 

Beyond a “monolingual English lens”

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 Multicultural Grant Award for Soto-Boykin awarded by the national professional organization for speech-language pathologists, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

The one-year study is being conducted by Soto-Boykin and her colleagues, Anne Larson, research associate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; Meaghan McKenna, a postdoctoral research fellow at Juniper Gardens; and Diana Julbe Delgado, associate professor at Gannon University. The study includes 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 working with bilingual children. Soto-Boykin hopes the study will assist 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-Boykin 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 responsive and sustaining in the way that we work with them,” she said.

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

Teacher at El Centro learning virtually with Xigrid Soto-Boykin
Xigrid Soto-Boykin (on screen monitor) instructs a teacher virtually at El Centro Inc.


Future directions

In addition to the current study, 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. She recently launched a corresponding Instagram page

Soto is also in close partnership with a bilingual early childhood center located in Kansas City, El Centro Inc. There, she is collaborating on a project to provide El Centro teachers with virtual coaching to support their bilingual early literacy and language instruction. She also helps them implement Family Literacy Nights. These monthly events focus on Spanish and English picture books each month (a list of books with activities is available on Habla DLL). They share with parents ways to engage children in enriching storybook reading while also promoting conversations that make children aware of the importance of embracing and supporting diversity in terms of language, ethnicity, and disability, and about the value of bilingualism. 

Together with the administrators of El Centro, Amanda Bega-Mavec and Kelli Mather, and with colleague Meaghan McKenna, she recently applied for a grant to develop a strategic plan to ensure that they are using children's developmental data to guide teachers' professional development and family engagement. The goal of the grant is to continue striving toward improving children's kindergarten readiness and their bilingual development. 

“As you can see, working with El Centro is deeply enriching, as I get to partner with school administrators, parents and teachers to form sustainable and meaningful research-community partnerships,” Soto-Boykin said.

Together, 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-Boykin 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.” 

Top image credit: illustration by Elizabeth Newell

Middle image credit: Irene Caudillo, El Centro

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