The Guiding Principles and the Critical Third Pillar: Sociocultural Competence

By: Lisa Tabaku, Director Global Languages and Cultures Education

Center for Applied Linguistics


Most of us are familiar with the 3 pillars or goals of dual language (DL) education as expressed in the Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education, 3rd edition (Howard, et al., 2018): bilingualism and biliteracy, high academic achievement, and sociocultural competence. But do we also know that the earlier editions of the Guiding Principles referred to the third pillar as “cross-cultural understanding” rather than “sociocultural competence?” The change in terms in the 3rd edition was deliberate. It reflects a shift in thinking in two important ways:  first, “cross-cultural understanding” infers that developing cultural competence is viable only in two-way programs attended by fairly equal numbers of English home-language students and “partner” home-language students and, secondly, that cultural competence may be limited to positive attitudes and feelings of self-esteem.

Why the change from cross-cultural understanding to sociocultural competence?

Although, some studies bear out that students in DL programs do have more favorable attitudes and higher levels of self-esteem (Christian, 1996), the belief that understanding one’s own culture is critical to the development of cross-cultural competencies emerged later as another important consideration (Feinauer & Howard, 2014). The definition of cultural competence in DL education has continued to evolve to mean students understanding their identities and those of others “within particular histories of power, colonization, imperialism and difference” (Cervantes-Soon, Donner & Palmer, 2017, p. 419). The term “sociocultural competence” infers that cultural competence is more than favorable attitudes that happen when students from different language and cultural backgrounds sit side by side in two-way classrooms. Instead, cultural competence is deliberate and painstaking.  It is needed in all DL programs so that staff and students are led to accept, understand, value, embrace, notice inequalities, and work for equity.

Why not have a separate strand for sociocultural competence?

Those of us familiar with the Guiding Principles, 3rd edition, also know that the research focuses on seven areas, or strands, that are important for DL educational success. These seven strands are program structure, curriculum, instruction, assessment and accountability, staff quality and professional development, family and community, and support and resources.  Given the unequivocal importance of the third pillar, why not a separate pillar? The authors of the Guiding Principles believed that sociocultural competence was so integral and so indispensable to each and every strand, that it could not stand alone and, indeed, sociocultural competence is systematically addressed in each of the Guiding Principles strands. DL programs cannot be successful for all students unless sociocultural strategies, themes, and attitudes are embraced in every facet the program.

How is sociocultural competence included in the 3rd edition of the Guiding Principles, and how can we ensure the recommendations have teeth?

The 3rd edition of the Guiding Principles is helping to move us forward. The shift in terms from “cross-cultural understanding” to “sociocultural competence” is an indication that we are making progress. Let’s look at how the Guiding Principles focuses on sociocultural competence in each strand, and how we can put the recommendations into practice, so they have teeth.

Strand 1 Program Structure: Achieving Equity Through Voice, Design, and Enrollment

The Guiding Principles addresses sociocultural competence in the first strand, Program Structure. Key points address development of sociocultural competence as part of the program design; programs must “promote linguistic and cultural equity.” What does this mean? It means that DL program developers and sustainers include the dreams and aspirations of all communities in all efforts. The program ensures the voices of all community members in its planning and school-governance committees.  It means guaranteeing that program-structure policies and implementation cannot include discriminatory practices. For example, minoritized language students cannot be enrolled in a two-way program primarily as language models for the English home-language speakers; minoritized language groups are not bused into otherwise English-speaking neighborhoods for the same purpose; and language allocation plans cannot favor the learning needs of the majority language group over the minoritized group.

Strand 2 Curriculum: Beyond Contributions, Toward Social Action

Strand 2 Curriculum of the third edition states that the “curriculum is culturally responsive and representative of the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of all students” while “promoting appreciation of multiculturalism and linguistic diversity.” James A. Banks, the multicultural curriculum expert who takes a critical approach to culturally responsive education, once said, “Unity without diversity leads to hegemony and diversity without unity leads to chaos.” Bank’s speaks to four approaches to a multicultural curriculum: 1. Contributions, 2. Ethnic Additive, 3. Transformative, and 4. Decision-Making and Social Action. Without a laser-like focus on critical consciousness, a “culturally-responsive curriculum” could be interpreted as a curriculum that represents only Contributions and Ethnic Additive approaches without addressing the critical Transformative, and Decision-Making and Social Action approaches.  The DL program curriculum should include hard, honest, and multi-ethnic perspectives; provide depth of knowledge on issues of socio-political consequence; and invite students to participate in projects in which they engage in ethical reflection and social action.

Strand 3 Instruction: All Students Can Learn; All Students Deserve to Learn

In Strand 3 Instruction, the Guiding Principles recommends that “sociocultural competence is provided in both program languages in a coordinated way,” “instruction promotes awareness of language variation,” and “teacher uses a variety of strategies to promote the sociocultural competence of all students.” Doing this right necessitates a critical-consciousness lens. Instructional strategies are implemented to ensure access for all students to high-level concepts and cerebral engagement, and teachers’ actions do not reveal that more is expected of some students and less of others, or worse, that some students deserve to learn, while others don’t. How about committing to the belief that diverse opinions, even those that challenge the status quo, should be aired? Let’s consider evolving a critical consciousness in our DL programs in which all language varieties are valid, all “non-standard” varieties are acknowledged and respected, and teachers affirm translanguaging practices to honor and respect the language-variety identities of the students and their families.

Strand 4 Assessment and Accountability: What is Taught in a Language Should be Assessed in That Language

In respect to Strand 4 Assessment and Accountability, the Guiding Principles asks that “the program systematically collects demographic data to allow for disaggregated analysis to effectively monitor and serve student subgroups” and that “assessment is conducted in two languages.” This means that we must demand that assessment is conducted in both program languages and interpreted fairly, that accountability encompasses both program languages and that a light is shone on all student performance. Let us ask for assurances that what is taught in a language is assessed in that language, all assessments are authentic to each language and are not translations, accountability takes the bilingual trajectory (Escamilla, 2014) into consideration; and state Spanish language arts, and state math and science assessments in program languages other than English are developed and recognized for accountability purposes.

Strand 5 Staff Quality and Professional Development: The Attitudes and Belief Systems of Staff Make a Difference

“New staff selection includes demonstrated commitment to program goals” and “staff evaluations are performed by personnel who are knowledgeable about and committed to DL education.” These are two key points of the Guiding Principles Strand 5 Staff Quality and Professional Development. Examples include “new staff is hired with careful consideration of understanding and experience with program goals” and “professional development activities address the knowledge, dispositions, and skills needed to work with bilingual learners.” Ideally, prospective staff should, therefore, be screened for cultural competency, and ongoing professional development for all staff, not least of which leadership,  should include the development of cultural proficiency and understanding critical pedagogy.

Strand 6 Families and Communities: No Disenfranchised Communities

Assuring a “positive school climate and all families are valued and welcomed into the school community” under Strand 6 Families and Community is achieved, for example, “by providing a welcoming environment; giving parents guidance about how to navigate the school system; showing respect for families’ cultural and linguistic practices and customs; and translating materials and information.” Let’s demand that all members of the dual language school community engage in introspection about the whys of the program, representatives from all language and socioeconomic backgrounds are involved in program decision-making and school activities, and all families reflect on the advantages of having their children engaged in transformative education.

Strand 7 Support and Resources: It Takes a Village (as well as the School Board and Central Office)

Finally, Strand 7 Support and Resources reflects sociocultural competence in that there must be a commitment to equity and inclusion as dollars are allocated for DL programs, for example, to purchase bilingual materials and develop curricula, and to hire bilingual staff.  Barriers must be removed that prevent “partner” language speaking staff from becoming licensed because they cannot pass tests in English. Support and resources should be provided for “ethnic studies” and other classes and curriculum materials that openly encourage diverse perspectives.

Giving the Third Pillar Teeth

Pillar 3 Sociocultural Competence is addressed throughout the Guiding Principles. The question is: does it fully receive the attention it deserves in all our DL programs? Do all our programs nurture the kind of sociocultural, transformative practices that can lead to sociocultural change? If the Third Pillar were to receive the attention it should, what fertile ground that would be for our communities and our children to learn to question, and then act upon, the imbalances of power in our society.



Banks, J. (1988). Approaches to multicultural education reform. Multicultural Leader, Volume 1, Number 2.

Cervantes-Soon, C.G., Dorner, L., Palmer, D, et al; 2017. Combating Inequalities in Two-Way Language Immersion Programs: Toward Critical Consciousness in Bilingual Education Spaces. Review of research in Education Vol 41., pp. 403-427.

Christian, D. (1996). Two-way immersion education: Students learning through two languages. The Modern Language Journal, 80, 66-76.

Escamilla, K., Hopewell, S., Butvilofsky, S., Sparrow, W., Soltero-González, L., Ruiz-Figueroa, O., & Escamilla, M. (2014). Biliteracy from the start: Literacy squared in action. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

Feinauer, E., & Howard, E. R. (2014). Attending to the third goal: Cross cultural competence and identity development in two-way immersion programs. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 2(2), 257-272.

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



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