Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Silenced Partners: Language Learning and the Role of Bilingual Peers in High School

by Avary Carhill-Poza - 2018

Background: In schools, a major obstacle to drawing on emergent bilingual students’ knowledge and skills in their first language is a widespread lack of awareness about language use among adolescent English learners, including how peer talk can connect knowledge and abilities in both languages to school-based learning. Although research often acknowledges the importance of engaging students’ home language and culture to bridge to academic literacies in English, few have explicitly examined bilingual peer talk as a resource for language learning during adolescence.

Purpose: This study explores how emergent bilinguals engaged multiple linguistic codes to scaffold their own academic language development with peer support.

Research Design: Ethnography and discourse analysis of student interactions were used to contextualize and analyze the academic language use of four Spanish-speaking adolescent immigrant students, taking into account the affordances of classroom discourse structures and peer talk.

Conclusions: The study describes the linguistic resources available to Spanish-speaking adolescent immigrant students through their peers and shows that emergent bilingual youth used academic language in both Spanish and English most frequently—and in more elaborated interactions—while off-task or in less supervised spaces. Classroom discourse structures often limited student participation, particularly when students used nonstandard linguistic codes.

One in 10 students in U.S. schools today face the immense challenge of acquiring English while simultaneously learning academic content in that language (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). As new academic standards are implemented and the attendant focus on academic English increases, understanding and leveraging the diverse experiences of students classified as English learners to support language and content learning has become critical (Kibler, Valdés, & Walqui, 2014). Although the necessity of engaging students home language to bridge to academic literacies in English is often acknowledged (e.g., Peregoy & Boyle, 2017), in practice, the home language is largely conceptualized as a hurdle that emergent bilingual students need to overcome in order to fully participate in education (Gándara et al., 2010). The situation is especially critical for adolescent newcomers who are learning academic English as gatekeeping assessments and four-year graduation policies loom.

Challenges to the additive teaching of academic English include a widespread lack of understanding of language use among linguistic minority students. Scholarship on linguistic repertoire (Rymes, 2010) and languaging practices (García & Wei, 2014), as well as the long tradition of classroom discourse analysis (Michaels, 1981; Philips, 1984), has described many aspects of classroom talk with linguistic minority students. And yet, the role of peer talk for adolescent English learners remains obscure. In the current context, as instructional foci narrow and academic language demands expand in response to new policy (Enright, 2010), research is needed to understand how emergent bilinguals scaffold their own academic language development with peer support through the use of multiple linguistic codes in classroom contexts.


Although many immigrant students successfully negotiate substantial linguistic and academic hurdles to catch up to monolingual peers on measures of achievement, the majority fall further behind on such measures as the academic and linguistic demands of schooling dramatically increase throughout adolescence (Collier, 1987; Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). This is hardly surprising given that full participation in schooling is predicated on the skillful deployment of specialized vocabulary, syntax, and discourse structures in both oral and written contexts (Bailey, 2007; Bunch, 2006) and that the daunting task of acquiring academic language is undertaken within a foreshortened period of time for adolescents who begin schooling in the United States during middle and high school, as more than half of immigrant students do (Batalova, Fix, & Murray, 2007).

Adding to the difficulty of learning academic English under such conditions, the experiences and knowledge of emergent bilinguals are often overlooked or stigmatized. Although schools have shifted away from explicitly labeling students who do not speak English at home as deficient, efforts to bridge the gap between home and school language have fallen short of the bidirectional sharing of resources envisioned by reformers (Nieto, 2010). The linguistic and cultural discontinuities described in classroom discourse analysis and education research over the last 30 years with poignant clarity have not been rejoined (Cazden, 2001; Gee, 1990; Michaels, 1981; Philips, 1984; Valenzuela, 1999); current policies and practices still maintain an inherent view of students home language as a barrier to accessing educational opportunity through academic English rather than seeing a valuable resource for learning (Fine, Jaffe-Walter, Pedraza, Futch, & Stoudt, 2007; Gándara et al., 2010).

A substantial body of research demonstrates that the knowledge and academic skills adolescents have in their first language can be drawn on to facilitate learning academic English (Cummins, 1979; Reese, Garnier, Gallimore, & Goldenberg, 2000). During adolescence, higher levels of proficiency in the native language have been positively related to the adept use of bilingual strategies in academic tasks, including phonological and analytic skills (Kieffer, Biancarosa, & Mancilla-Martinez, 2013; Kieffer & Lesaux, 2012; Ramirez, Chen, Geva, & Kiefer, 2010; Swanson, Orosco, Lussier, Gerber, & Gusman-Orth, 2011), selective translation and explicit identification of metalinguistic text features (Gottardo & Mueller, 2009; Nagy, McClure, & Mir, 1997), and oral language skills (Nakamoto, Lindsey, & Manis, 2008). Newcomer adolescents in particular, who have completed the majority of their schooling in their country of origin, are poised to take advantage of such knowledge and experience in their new schooling contexts.

Teachers have an important role to play in valorizing the resources that adolescent immigrant students bring to the classroom. Classroom discourse analysis has long documented the disadvantages of rigid or static teacher-fronted classrooms that limit opportunities for language-minority students to deeply engage in linguistically rich interactions with academic content (Cazden, 2001; Gutiérrez, 1992; Hasan, 2006; Lemke, 1990). In particular, the three-part pattern in which the teacher initiates an interaction, a student or students respond, and the teacher evaluates the response has been criticized for limiting legitimate student talk in classrooms (Mehan, 1979; Sinclaire & Coulthard, 1975). Teacher-talk, display questions, and rote activities, including oral presentations and choral repetitions, are also examples of classroom discourse structures that can minimize student use of academic language (Zwiers, 2008). By creating space for the contributions of emergent bilinguals in class discussion and modeling inclusive talk through collaborative activities and accountable talk, teachers can legitimize the multilingual resources of emergent bilingual students for learning (Cazden, 2001; Leki, 2001). Research also shows that classroom facilitation of interaction between students can help develop supportive peer groups (Gest & Rodkin, 2011; Kibler, Atteberry, Hardigree, & Salerno, 2015).

An important conduit for engaging the multilingual resources of immigrant students in schooling is bilingual peer support (Carhill-Poza, 2015). During adolescence, peers are the most likely source of meaningful, multi-turn interactions among mainstream and immigrant youth (Carhill-Poza, 2015; Eckert, 2000; Fasold & Connor-Linton, 2006), and among adolescent immigrant students, language use in informal social settings, including with peers, has the largest effect on oral proficiency in English, taking into account language use in school, age, length of residence, and parental English skills (Carhill, Suárez-Orozco, & Páez, 2008). This is because interactions with peers can afford emergent bilinguals multiple turns to negotiate meaning, a necessity for second language acquisition (Gass, 2013; Swain, 1993). Peers also play a central role in socializing both mainstream and immigrant adolescents to academic skills and behaviors such as homework completion and the exchange of concrete pathway knowledge during adolescence (Berndt, 1999; Eckert, 2000; Gibson, Gándara, & Koyoma, 2004; Sadowski, 2008). For immigrant youth, peer support is often critical because parents may not be able to provide adolescents with the kinds of school support they need given limitations of language, formal education, and experience with U.S. schools (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008).

A major obstacle to developing peer social resources and drawing on emergent bilinguals prior knowledge and skills in the first language is a widespread lack of understanding of second language acquisition among adolescents. Educators and education policy makers need to develop awareness of language use among emergent bilinguals, including how peer talk can connect knowledge and abilities in both languages to school-based learning. For adolescent English learners, school often provides the primary setting for opportunities to learn and use academic English. Classrooms are an important site for developing the resources to learn academic English, but research is needed to understand how emergent bilinguals scaffold their own academic language development with peer support.


This study explores the ways adolescent emergent bilingual students engaged multiple linguistic codes for language and content learning at school. Ethnography and discourse analysis of student interactions were used to contextualize and analyze the academic language use of four Spanish-speaking adolescent immigrant studentsJavier, Kat, Jasmin, and Martíntaking into account the affordances of classroom discourse structures and peer talk. Despite a rich research tradition of analyzing classroom talk, few studies have explicitly examined how emergent bilingual students scaffold academic language development through the use of multiple linguistic codes with bilingual peers. The widespread lack of understanding of supportive peer language use among linguistic minority students poses a substantial challenge to teaching of academic language in an additive way. This study seeks to fill this gap in the literature. With this goal in mind, the following research aims were developed: (1) to describe contexts that afforded emergent bilingual students opportunities to use academic language at school, and (2) to better understand how adolescent emergent bilinguals use language with peers to support academic language development.



Sample Description

Participants were four Spanish-speaking immigrant students learning English as a second language in New York City public high schools. Data for this study were collected as part of a larger mixed-methods study documenting the relationship between the linguistic peer resources of newcomer adolescents and their academic English proficiency (Carhill-Poza, 2015). This article focuses on discourse analysis of student talk to contextualize patterns of academic language use and access to linguistic peer support. Four representative adolescents were selected from among 102 study participants using a stratified purposeful sampling procedure. Focal participants had immigrated to the United States three to five years before from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador and were 1618 years old. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of participants.

School Characteristics

Students were recruited from four public high schools in New York City, representing typical secondary school contexts for Spanish-speaking immigrant students. Schools exemplified average quality learning environments compared with New York City averages for graduation and typical ethnic compositions of Latino student majorities (58% on average) and a minority of White students (3% on average) (New York City Department of Education, 2005). The schools that immigrant youth attended (on average, 7.9% had immigrated within three years) served more poor students than average (70.8% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch). Secondary schools serving large numbers of English learners in New York City employed a mix of language instruction models, including English as a second language (ESL), bilingual, and sheltered content, the ratio set by individual students English proficiency level and school policies. All language-minority students annually took the New York State English as a Second Language Assessment Test (NYSESLAT) (Pearson, 2009) to determine their eligibility and placement for language support services.

Data Collection

Participating schools provided access to students, teachers, staff, and student records. Following several months of participant observation in their schools and classrooms, four focal students were shadowed for a week throughout their school day. Each participant was equipped with a digital audio recorder that stayed on all day to capture student talk similar to Zentella (1997). Data included 150 hours of audio recordings, field notes and artifacts, as well as ethnographic field notes spanning three years. The researcher was bilingual and bicultural.


Analysis of peer talk drew on interactional sociolinguistics (Goffman, 1981; Gumperz, 1982) and research in academic language (Bailey, 2007) to understand patterns of interaction through turn-by-turn analysis of talk in context. The importance of social context, particularly the role of interpretation by interlocutors and peripheral participants such as teachers in conversational exchange (Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 2006), was emphasized to locate affordances (van Lier, 2000) for academic language use within peer and teacherstudent interactions. Both verbal and nonverbal cues were included in analysis of interactions to interpret emergent bilingual students utterances in light of their full linguistic repertoire (Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 2006; Rymes, 2009), and participants were regularly consulted about the interpretation of interactions to ensure validity.

Transcripts of focal students interactions (defined as at least two turns at talk, including one turn by the participant) were coded for the context in which they occurred (interaction setting, interlocutors, topic of talk, text references) and the language used. Interactions that involved both a teacher and peers (four interactions in total) were initially analyzed separately and subsequently included in peer interactions. Following Bailey and Butler (2003), academic language was operationalized as the expression of ideas using recognizable academic forms at three levels (lexical, syntactic, and discourse) and as generally academic, specific to an academic content area, or common. Appendix A defines and provides samples of coding.

Student discourse was coded for the topic of talk (social, academic, or metalinguistic), languages used (Spanish, English, or both), and academic language use (none, vocabulary, syntax, and/or discourse structures). Topic of talk was coded such that conversations about classes, school texts, or concepts originating in school settings were academic, talk that had personal or emotional relevance or that was about concepts originating outside school settings was social, and reflection on language use, meaning, or correctness was metalinguistic. When a topic shifted during a single interaction, it was coded as two separate interactions. This allowed coding to identify academic language used in the context of social and metalinguistic topics of talk as well as in discourse about academic topics. Interactions including less than 75% content words in English or Spanish were coded as both; only six interactions were initially coded as both and were recoded as Spanish, creating a dichotomous code for language.

An event map was then constructed for each student, detailing patterns of language use across settings (Erikson & Schultz, 1981). The event map enabled analysis of the differing types of language use for each participant over the week of observation and aided in selection of typical interactions for detailed analysis (see Appendix B). Altogether, nearly 650 interactions were transcribed and coded; the majority were social in topic and language used, and are not analyzed in depth here. In total, 86 interactions were analyzed in greater detail: 68 interactions were coded as containing academic language and 18 interactions were coded as academic topics, although no academic language was used. Interactions ranged in length from 2 to 14 turns. The number of interactions per student was unequally distributed, as frequently occurs in natural data collection; the total number of interactions per student analyzed ranged from 6 to 43.



Over five full school days each, focal participants engaged in 68214 interactions with peers and 014 interactions with teachers. Participants use of academic language ranged from 0% (Javier) to 35.6% (Martín) of peer interactions as described in Table 1 and comprised 0% of interactions with teachers. Emergent bilingual students also varied in how much of the time they used Spanish and English. For some students, the number of academic interactions mostly conducted in Spanish far outnumbered those conducted in English, whereas for others, the reverse was true. There were also several instances in which students spoke about academic topics but did not use any academic language.  

Table 1. Academic Language Use With Peers Over 5 School Days






Total Number of Interactions





Academic Interactions





  Mostly English





  Mostly Spanish





Nonacademic Interactions/ Academic Topic





Teacherstudent interactions that used academic language were rare to the point of nonexistence over 20 days of recorded observations with focal students. Of 46 total interactions that focal students had with teachers, only five were about an academic topic, and none of the interactions recorded as part of this study showed teachers successfully scaffolding participants use of academic language. During the week of observations, teachers both used academic language themselves and led whole-class discussions where academic language was at times used by other students, although not by the study participants. The scarcity of teacherstudent talk resulting in student use of academic language is therefore taken as background for understanding the importance of peer interaction for using academic language.  

Individually, the four participants had different patterns of interactions related to their peer social networks (Carhill-Poza, 2015). Javier did not talk about academic concepts or tasks during five days and more than 200 discrete spoken interactions with his friends, although there were several interactions in class about academic topics in which he participated but did not use academic language. Kats interactions with bilingual peers can be characterized as numerous (more than 180 in total) and often lengthy (including as many as 14 turns), but the majority focused on social topics, and she did not use academic language often (just 13 discrete academically focused interactions). During five days of shadowing, Jasmin engaged in 23 discrete academically focused interactions (out of nearly 70) with other emergent bilingual Spanish-speaking youth, the majority mostly in Spanish. Martín participated in 29 academically focused interactions with peers in English and 13 in Spanish out of more than a hundred discrete interactions.


In 13 interactions with peers and five interactions with teachers, students spoke about academic topics but did not use any academic language. Analysis shows that each of these interactions took place in the context of students on-task participation in a classroom activity. Javiers ESL class provided a good example of this type of interaction. Overall, the learning environment included classroom discourse structures and routinized activities that rigidly structured participation and language production. During a unit on Alice in Wonderland in April 2008, Javiers teacher, Ms. Marks, asked students to define vocabulary she had written on the board: "evidence, witness, trial, tarts." She asked students, Who can tell me what evidence is? Several students volunteered answers, including one student who told a story about a murder with a knife, finding the knife, and the knife being used in a trial. The teacher repeated the part about the knife being used in court:

Transcript 1


As the transcript concludes, Javier extracted earbuds from his shirt and listened to music while the teacher related the rest of the story.

In the interaction transcribed above, Javier initially showed enthusiasm to share his ideas with the class, but when he had no sanctioned opportunities to display his understanding of the concepts witness and trial, he chose to listen to music instead. The transcript showcases the limits to student participation within the question-response-evaluation format Ms. Marks employed for classroom discussion. Certainly, Javiers interactions with his teacher demonstrate a lack of flexibility for collaborative exploration of academic concepts and the teacher as the arbiter of knowledge (Gutiérrez, 1992; Hasan, 2006). Although Javier spoke several times about an academic topic in this interaction and clearly demonstrated his understanding of the concepts, the interaction did not afford him the opportunity to use academic language.

Saliently, in the exchange about the trial (turns 1013), another student heard Javier relate trial to a popular Spanish-language court TV show, and built on that contribution with one of his own, showing familiarity with trials through the English-language court TV show Judge María Lopez. Javier, however, was focused on the teacher and did not engage with his peer to develop their understanding of the concept trial by comparing things that happen in the two television programs. Javiers peer then also shifted his attention back to the teacher (turn 11), asking if she was familiar with the program. Ms. Marks did not legitimize either contribution; she preferred to tie the answer in to the previous example of the knife being used as evidence. In discussion, Ms. Marks described wanting students to supply a dictionary definition or a clear example. Her focus on obtaining an answer in one of these forms made it difficult for her to hear the connections Javier and his peers made to the academic concepts she had brought to their attention, contributions that drew vividly on their experiences outside the classroom. Simultaneously, peer contributions to academic learning were devalued, particularly those connections to academic concepts that were in Spanish (the courtroom television shows).

Even when teachers spoke both Spanish and English in class, as was the case in Jasmins bilingual Global History class, classroom discourse structures often limited opportunities for students to produce academic language themselves. Global History had an English textbook, and the teacher, who was bilingual herself, lectured and wrote in both English and Spanish. In general, academic content was taught in ways that supported academic language development, including the use of visual models and explicit attempts to build on students existing knowledge. For example, Ms. Martinez began a class about the colonization and independence of India by asking students, Nosotros Latinos se llamaron Indios. Por que?  [They call us Latinos Indians. Why?]. Although Jasmin participated in the whole-class discussion that followed, she had few opportunities to interact with the teacher or peers or to use academic language productively. In a brief interaction with a friend, Jasmin commented on how spicy Indian food is, using no academic language, although the topic was academic.

In classrooms where academic English was used for collaborative or project-based work, emergent bilingual students were often reticent to productively use their academic English. Kats fifth-period Economics class exemplifies this dynamic. The week that I shadowed Kat, the class was working on a money management unit. In groups of three or four, students were completing a project guide in which they chose a local bank, opened a checking account, and budgeted for long- and short-term financial goals. Kat was the only emergent bilingual student in her group and filled in her handout on her own, communicating minimally with her partners. On the third day of the project, the teacher, Mr. Carter, checked in with the group at the start of class and, seeing that Kat was struggling to fill in the information about ATM fees and reasons for choosing the bank, offered help. Under the teachers supervision, Kat wrote in $2.00 in the blank next to ATM fee and $2.00 in another blank for bank transaction fee. The teacher offered an example of the impact of the fees: If you had $40 in the bank, in this instance, youre giving away 10% of your income. Although Kat nodded, said um-hmm at appropriate intervals and appeared to have understood, she later erased the numbers and spent the rest of the period inscribing the date on the backs of prom photos. Kat had spoken very little during the interactions with her peers and her teacher and used no academic language of her owna missed opportunity for language learning (Kibler, 2011).

When I asked Kat why she hadnt asked for help from her group or the teacher with the part she hadnt understood, she explained that she was embarrassed: Uno no está comfortable en la clase. Como yo a veces. Es como me lo explican, que a veces no les entiendo porque ellos no dansi hubiera más maestros en español sería mejor, yo encuentro, que hablaran los dos idiomas. [One doesnt feel comfortable in class. Like me sometimes. Its how they explain things to me that sometimes I dont understand them because they dont giveif there were more teachers who spoke Spanish it would be better, teachers who could speak both languages.]

Closely examining the context of interactions in which students participated in academic topics with peers and their teachers but did not use academic languagea total of 18 interactionsrevealed that all these interactions occurred when students were on-task in classroom settings. In most cases, whole-class discussions structured by an initiate-response-evaluate (IRE) cycle or overly routinized activities severely limited students opportunities to speak. In other cases, unstructured collaborative group projects provided little support for emergent bilingual students to actively participate, with much the same result.


Classrooms that relied heavily on teacher talk provided infrequent opportunities for emergent bilingual students to actively use academic language. Within such discourse structures, sanctioned peer talk was limited, and conversations between peers was frequently treated as disruptive by teachers. A typical example of this stance occurred during Kats ESL Writing class. Twelve students were seated in front of aged beige computers running the English Language Arts Regents prep program TeenBiz2000. The program, which provided sample texts and multiple-choice test questions, allowed students to complete work from home and to track their progress in achieving passing scores, and was also frequently used in test-taking skills preparation activities during class. Kat sat next to Claudia, a bilingual friend, as the teacher guided students through the first question, modeling scanning for a key word:

Transcript 2


The interaction again highlights the limited opportunities for peer interaction as Kat, with some enthusiasm, attempted to answer the teachers question about scanning the text for a particular vocabulary word (turn 2). Although Kat found the relevant paragraph, the line that contained the term transferable skills occurred further down the page. The teacher, Ms. Cameron, who later explained to me that she was looking for a specific or focused contribution, restated the activity (turns 3 and 5) and then, hearing the wrong answer, supplied the correct one and moved on to scan for a new word (turn 7). Legitimate talk in this case was narrowly defined as the right answer. Like Javier, Kat stayed focused on the teacher until it was clear that Ms. Cameron would not respond to her any more. Then, Kat attempted to take up the academic topic with her friend, checking her understanding of the academic vocabulary word scarce (turn 11). But once her question was no longer on task, Ms. Cameron shushed her, Kats talk firmly viewed as disruptive. In later discussion, Ms. Cameron characterized Kat as having trouble staying focused. At this point, Kat shifted her focus from academic to social topics and interacted with her peer, no longer attempting to engage in the ongoing scanning activity.

When Kat was unsuccessful in obtaining answers to her questions about academic concepts from her teacher in the above interaction, she reached out to a peer. This type of marginal space in classrooms was a frequent context for interactions containing academic language in this study and frequently drew on Spanish as well as English. For example, in Martíns Global History class, the teacher, Mr. Rodriguez, was lecturing on shared risk in stockholders portfolios in English when a student asked him about profits from playing the stock market. María, a student seated next to Martín, wondered if profits was chavos, a Puerto Rican term for money or profits.

Transcript 3


The teacher resumed discussion of investment portfolios following this interaction. The transcript shows Martín interacting with a peer to clarify the meaning of an academic concept; he confirmed that profit is equivalent to the Puerto Rican term for money and supplied the Dominican synonym (turn 2). In turn 4, Mr. Rodriguez asserted his authority by asking María if she has understood (turn 4). The loud tone of this query conveyed that the teacher was not primarily concerned with Marías understanding so much as suppressing peer talk. María acknowledged her teachers intent when she offered a sardonic facial expression, but she remained silent afterward, accepting the characterization of peer talk as illicit in this teacher-fronted classroom. In discussing this interaction later with Mr. Rodriguez, he confirmed that he wanted all questions to be addressed to him.

The pattern of emergent bilingual students drawing on their multilingual repertoires to support peers in understanding academic content at the margins of the classroom was common. In another example, Martín acted as a source of linguistic and academic support in Bilingual Global History for a bilingual peer who was unsure of the homework assignment. Roberto asked Martín for clarification in a low voice while the teacher was engaged in lecturing students and writing notes on the board.

Transcript 4


In this interaction, Martín explained to Roberto that the homework assignment had two partsa review followed by new material on the Opium Wars in Chinaand that it was due the following day. Martín used academic vocabulary in Spanish (es un repaso, la guerra del opio) and in English, including the discourse marker Its about, which authoritatively introduces a summary. Martíns interlocutor used the term short answer to indicate a genre of academic text common to homework and testing consisting of a few sentences.

Peer interactions in the margins of classrooms often focused on academic topics and used academic language but were viewed as off-task or disruptive by teachers. Although peers were not always able to answer the questions posed, in many instances, whispered or low-voiced dialogues clarified instructions and assignments, provided advice about how to complete tasks or find resources, and drew on linguistic and cultural experiences from diverse Latin American backgrounds to bridge home and school knowledge. Reflecting the teacher-centered structure of many classrooms, what Gutiérrez (1992) termed instructional scripts, bilingual peers were not conceptualized as resources for learning. Teachers frequently reacted by shushing or calling out emergent bilingual students for on-task, academically supportive interactions. Legitimate peer participation was restricted by topic, language, and interlocutor in classrooms (Heller, 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991). The broader context surrounding interactions using academic language in the margins highlights one of the challenges schools face in supporting emergent bilingual students without understanding peer language use.


The most numerous, elaborated, and linguistically rich uses of academic language among peers occurred in lunchrooms, hallways, backs of classrooms, and other less supervised spaces. Some interactions were as long as 14 turns, and most used academic language at the discourse and syntax levels as well as word-level features.  

Jasmin routinely engaged in interactions about academic topics that used academic language with other Spanish-speaking youth while they sat together at lunch talking, eating, texting, and doing homework. The following example occurred at lunch. After eating, Jasmin pulled out her binder and copied geometry problems from a handout onto a sheet of graph paper, leaving space to write in the answers. Below the heading, How do we find the surface area of Pyramids and Cones? she drew shapes with measurements. Jasmin was seated next to Omar, a peer she collaborated with frequently. After drawing a flattened pyramid for problem 1, Jasmin checked Omars progress on the homework.

Transcript 5


As this interaction illustrates, although mostly in Spanish, Jasmin and Omar referenced three English texts (their homework and the worksheet) and used some academic English words (triangles, half base times height) and some academic Spanish words (son iguales, cuadrados, el area de) to try to find the area of a pyramid. Jasmin tried to solve for the area of the pyramid by multiplying the area of two sets of triangles, but Omar contended that all four triangles are equal and that the area of the base rectangle is important for solving the problem. Their exchange ended well short of finding the surface area of the pyramid in question because the bell rang, but it illustrates a typical peer interaction using academic language in English and Spanish.

On another occasion, Jasmin and Claudia, a Spanish-speaking peer, reviewed and corrected their answers to a graded multiple-choice test on The Great Gatsby for extra credit:

Transcript 6


In this interaction, Jasmin and Claudia amended Jasmins original answer that Gatsby was not present for the party, with the correct answer that he was present but uninterested in the party. Both students referenced an academic text (the test), and, in addition to translating the answer text into Spanish, Jasmin used an academic discourse feature Pero dice que [But it says that] (turn 5) to introduce the text she was referencing, and Claudia made an intertextual reference when she compared the book to the movie as a justification for answer choice B (turn 4).

In less supervised spaces where they were able to bring their knowledge and experience in both languages to bear on academic tasks and content, emergent bilingual students frequently used academic language in ways that were both more deeply engaged with academic content and linguistically richer, as compared with their interactions in classrooms. Many teachers responded to these transcripts by wondering if bilingual students working together were not cheating or at least missing an opportunity to grapple with academic English individually. Not all focal students had the peer resources to be able to collaborate with peers in this way, but Jasmin, Martín, and, to a lesser degree, Kat, were afforded opportunities to use academic language through bilingual peer interaction in less supervised spaces that were not routinely available in their classrooms.    


To support adolescent students who are still learning academic English, teachers and policy makers need to understand how emergent bilinguals scaffold their own language development with peer support through the use of multiple linguistic codes in school. Without this knowledge of the strengths that linguistically diverse adolescents bring to the task of learning academic language and content, a wealth of opportunities for learning are missed, and schooling contexts become more subtractive (Nieto, 2010). Analysis of adolescent emergent bilingual students language use in school settings offers several critical insights for theory, practice, and policy.  

From a theoretical perspective, the findings highlight the importance of understanding peer language use among adolescent emergent bilinguals. By combining lenses from interactional sociolinguistics (Goffman, 1981; Gumperz, 1982) and academic language (Bailey, 2007), discourse analysis makes a unique contribution to understanding patterns of peer interaction in context. Aligning with previous research, analysis shows that common classroom discourse structures frequently prevented the kinds of linguistically rich interactions that adolescent language learners need to acquire their new language (Cazden, 2001; Gutiérrez, 1992; Hasan, 2006; Lemke, 1990). Findings also show that even in more inclusive classrooms and classrooms where collaborative activities were used, emergent bilingual students struggled to find opportunities to use academic language productively. When students in this study participated in academic topics without using academic language, they were on-task in classrooms.

Analysis also provides evidence that academic language use (in Spanish and English) occurred in unsanctioned and less supervised spaces, creating the types of contexts that foster language learning. Although teachers frequently treated student talk as disruptive in classrooms, peers were often able to support each other academically and linguistically at the margins of the classroom. In less supervised spaces, adolescent emergent bilinguals were able to draw on supportive relationships with peers to solve academic problems together using academic language (both Spanish and English) in elaborated interactions. These findings highlight the role of bilingual peers as resources for language learning (Carhill-Poza, 2015; Kayi-Aydar, 2014; Orellana, Martínez, Lee, & Montaño, 2012). Findings also emphasize the role of teacher awareness of peer talk. Legitimate talk (Heller, 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991) was often constructed as using academic English or even limited to specific answers and was frequently also a matter of who was speaking; bilingual peers were rarely legitimized as participants in classroom discourse.

Findings underscore the pedagogical importance of recognizing and facilitating the development of supportive bilingual peer relationships for learning academic English. Ample time spent using Englishto the exclusion of home language useis often assumed to be the most expedient approach to reaching language and content objectives, but many students classified as English learnersparticularly those who completed many years of schooling in their home countrypossess academic and linguistic skills in their first language that can aid them in completing academic tasks and learning academic English (Baker, 2011; Cummins, 1979). Culturally and linguistically responsive teachers understand that the use of more than one language to perform complex tasks is a requirement for 21st-century lives within and beyond the classroom; in these classrooms, the native language is not solely a scaffold for instruction, but a necessary and valued part of students multilingual repertoire (Rymes, 2010).  

From a policy perspective, the current focus on how much time English learners spend in a particular type of classroom does not account for how language is used (Leung, 2005). Overwhelming evidence has shown that although immigrant youth value and prioritize learning English, many lack the opportunity to engage in the kinds of interactions with peers, teachers, and texts that facilitate the high levels of academic language learning needed (Carhill-Poza, 2016; Harklau, 1994; Valdés, 2001). In teacher-centered classrooms where discourse structures and routinized activities enforced instructional scripts (Gutiérrez, 1992), findings show that affordances for using academic language productively were scarce, and such opportunities were often limited in the types of knowledge that were sanctioned.

Teachers and policy makers urgently need to develop awareness of the power of discourse patterns in classrooms and thoughtfully determine how peer and teacher talk can facilitate learning for adolescent emergent bilinguals. Findings from this study show that emergent bilinguals encountered a formidable challenge in accessing and accruing opportunities to use academic English productively and meaningfully when classroom discourse structures were rigid or impeded peer talk. The way teachers conduct class discussions and model inclusivity (or exclusivity) in talk can shine a light on the multilingual resources for learning that emergent bilinguals bring to the classroom or can delegitimize these assets in the classroom context (Cazden, 2001; Leki, 2001). Linguistically and culturally responsive teaching strategies aim to create inclusive spaces where the contributions of emergent bilinguals in any language are valuable, and bilingual peers are seen as resources for learning (Gay, 2000).

Although every effort was made to draw participants from average school settings, the results of this New York Citybased study should nevertheless be interpreted with some caution because local policies and practices vary considerably. Similarly, because the in-depth description of the interactions of four Spanish-speaking emergent bilinguals provides strong evidence for the patterns of language use and access to peer linguistic resources reported here, additional research with a larger and more linguistically diverse group of participants is needed to continue to develop this line of inquiry. Finally, because the study focuses on active language use by emergent bilingual students in fairly traditional classrooms, evidence of the important role of studentteacher interaction for language learning is limited in these data.  


Discourse analysis provides a lens for understanding supportive academic language use among adolescent emergent bilinguals. Despite conscientious efforts to support the academic language development of students like Javier, Kat, Jasmin, and Martín, teachers and school policy makers underutilized and misinterpreted bilingual peer resources. In education research, policy, and practice, bilingual peers are rarely engaged as resources for learning despite the linguistic and academic skills they bring to the simultaneous tasks of learning academic English and learning academic content. To move beyond reductive attempts to bridge home-school language toward a more nuanced conceptualization of multiple linguistic codes as legitimate tools for communicating in the linguistically diverse settings of the 21st century, the affordances of classroom discourse structures and peer talk need to be taken into account. When bilingual peers collaborate, engaging their full linguistic toolbox to complete academic tasks, they are also afforded opportunities to use and learn academic English. Although most of these linguistically rich interactions occurred outside of on-task classroom activities, they suggest the potential for classroom learning that builds on peer linguistic resources and valorizes bilingual peers as resources for learning.


The author would like to thank Ben Rampton and anonymous reviewers for their kind and insightful feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript, including a working paper in Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies.


Bailey, A. (2007). The language demands of school: Putting academic English to the test. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bailey, A., & Butler, F. (2003). An evidentiary framework for operationalizing academic language for broad application to K-12 education: A design document. Los Angeles, CA: National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST).

Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (5th ed.). Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Batalova, J., Fix, M., & Murray, J. (2007). Measures of change: The demography and literacy of adolescent English learnersA report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Berndt, T. (1999). Friends influence on students adjustment to school. Educational Psychologist, 34, 1528.

Bunch, G. (2006). Academic English in the 7th grade: Broadening the lens, expanding access. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5, 284301.

Carhill-Poza, A. (2015). Opportunities and outcomes: The role of peers in developing the academic English proficiency of adolescent English learners. Modern Language Journal, 99(4), 678695.

Carhill-Poza, A. (2016). If you dont find a friend in here, its gonna be hard for you: Structuring bilingual peer support in urban high schools. Linguistics & Education, 37, 6372.

Carhill, A., Suárez-Orozco, C., & Páez, M. (2008). Explaining English language proficiency among adolescent immigrant students. American Educational Research Journal, 45, 11551179.

Cazden, C. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning (2nd ed.) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Collier, V. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 21, 617641.

Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49, 221225.

Eckert, P. (2000). Linguistic variation as social practice. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Enright, C. (2010). Academic literacies and adolescent learners: English for subject-matter secondary classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 44, 804811.

Erikson, F., & Schultz, J. (1981). When is a context? Some issues and methods in the analysis of social competence. In J. Green & C. Wallat (Eds.), Ethnography and language in educational settings (pp. 147150). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Fasold, R., & Connor-Linton, J. (2006). Introduction. In R. Fasold & J. ConnorLinton (Eds.), An introduction to language and linguistics (pp. 112). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Fine, M., Jaffe-Walter, R., Pedraza, P., Futch, V., & Stoudt, B. (2007). Swimming on oxygen: Resistance and possibility for immigrant youth under siege. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 38, 7696.

Gándara, P., Losen, D., August, D., Uriarte, M., Gómez, M., & Hopkins, M. (2010). Forbidden language: A brief history of U.S. language policy. In P. Gándara & M. Hopkins (Eds.), English learners and restrictive language policies (pp. 2033). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gass, S. (2013). Second language acquisition: An introductory course (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, practice, & research. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Gee, J. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.

Gest, S., & Rodkin, P. (2011). Teaching practices and elementary classroom peer ecologies. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 32, 257265.

Gibson, M., Gándara, P., & Koyama, J. (2004). The role of peers in the schooling of U.S. Mexican youth. In M. Gibson, P. Gándara, & J. Koyama (Eds.), School connections: U.S. Mexican youth and school achievement (pp. 117). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gottardo, A., & Mueller, J. (2009). Are first- and second-language factors related in predicting second-language reading comprehension? A study of Spanish-speaking children acquiring English as a second language from first to second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 330344.

Gumperz, J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, J., & Cook-Gumperz, J. (2006). Interactional sociolinguistics in the study of schooling. In J. Cook-Gumperz (Ed.), The social construction of literacy (pp. 5075). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Gutiérrez, K. (1992). A comparison of instructional contexts in writing process classrooms with Latino children. Education in Urban Society, 24, 244252.

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? (Policy Report 20001). Santa Barbara: University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

Harklau, L. (1994). ESL and mainstream classes: Contrasting second language learning contexts. Linguistics and Education, 6, 217244.

Hasan, A. (2006). Analysing bilingual classroom discourse. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9(1), 718.

Heller, M. (1996). Legitimate language in a multilingual school. Linguistics & Education, 8, 139157.

Kayi-Aydar, H. (2014). Social positioning, participation, and second language learning: Talkative students in an academic ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 48(4), 686714.

Kibler, A. (2011). Understanding the mmhm: Dilemmas in talk between teachers and adolescent emergent bilingual students. Linguistics and Education, 22, 213232.

Kibler, A., Atteberry, A., Hardigree, C., & Salerno, A. (2015). Language across borders: Social network development in an adolescent two-way language program. Teachers College Record, 117, 148.

Kibler, A., Valdés, G., & Walqui, A. (2014). What does standards-based educational reform mean for English language learner populations in primary and secondary schools? TESOL Quarterly, 48(3), 433453.

Kieffer, M., Biancarosa, G., & Mancilla-Martinez, J. (2013). Roles of morphological awareness in the reading comprehension of Spanish-speaking language minority learners: Exploring partial mediation by vocabulary and reading fluency. Applied Psycholinguistics, 34, 697725.

Kieffer, M., & Lesaux, N. (2012). Direct and indirect roles of morphological awareness in the English reading comprehension of native Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese, and English speakers. Language Learning, 62, 11701204.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: University of Cambridge Press.

Leki, I. (2001). A narrow thinking system: Nonnative-English-speaking students in group projects across the curriculum. TESOL Quarterly, 35(1), 3967.

Lemke, J. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning and values.  New York, NY: Ablex.  

Leung, C. (2005). Language and content in bilingual education. Linguistics and Education, 16, 238252.

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Michaels, S. (1981). Sharing time: Childrens narrative styles and differential access to literacy. Language in Society, 10, 423442.

Nagy, W., McClure, E., & Mir, M. (1997). Linguistic transfer and the use of context by Spanish-English bilinguals. Applied Psycholinguistics, 18, 431452.

Nakamoto, J., Lindsey, K., & Manis, F. (2008). A cross-linguistic investigation of English language learners reading comprehension in English and Spanish. Scientific Studies of Reading, 12, 351371.

New York City Department of Education. (2005). Annual school reports. New York, NY: Division of Assessment and Accountability, New York City Department of Education.

Nieto, S. (2010). The light in their eyes: Creating multicultural learning communities (10th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Orellana, M., Martínez, D., Lee, C., & Montaño, E. (2012). Language as a tool in diverse forms of learning. Linguistics and Education, 23, 373387.

Pearson. (2009). New York State testing program: English as a second language achievement test (NYSESLAT) 2008 administration. Technical manual. New York, NY: Author.

Peregoy, S., & Boyle, O. (2017). Reading, writing and learning in ESL: A resource book for teaching K-12 English learners (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Philips, S. (1984). The invisible culture. New York, NY: Longman.

Ramirez, G., Chen, X., Geva, E., & Kiefer, H. (2010). Morphological awareness in Spanish-speaking English language learners: Within and cross-language effects on word reading. Reading and Writing, 23, 337358.

Reese, L., Garnier, H., Gallimore, R., & Goldenberg, C. (2000). Longitudinal analysis of the antecedents of emergent Spanish literacy and middle-school English reading achievement of Spanish-speaking students. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 633662.

Rymes, B. (2009). Classroom discourse analysis: A tool for critical reflection. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Rymes, B. (2010). Classroom discourse analysis: A focus on communicative repertoires. In N. Hornberger & S. McKay (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language education (pp. 528546). Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Sadowski, M. (Ed.). (2008). Adolescents at school: Perspectives on youth, identity and education (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Sinclaire, J., & Coulthard, M. (1975). Towards an analysis of discourse: The English used by teachers and pupils. London, England: Oxford University Press.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Educational pathways of immigrant youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Swain, M. (1993). The output hypothesis: Just speaking and writing arent enough. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 50, 158180.

Swanson, H., Orosco, M., Lussier, C., Gerber, M., & Gusman-Orth, D. (2011). The influence of working memory and phonological processing on English language learner childrens bilingual reading and language acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 838856.

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). English language learners in public schools. In The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016-144). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Van Lier, L. (2000). From input to affordance: Social-interactive learning from an ecological perspective. In J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 245260). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Zentella, A. (1997). Growing up bilingual: Puerto Rican children in New York. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5-12. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.


Linguistic Coding Manual

Language Coding for Student Interactions





Interaction Setting

1. On-task classroom

Sanctioned participation in a structured academic activity

Whole-class discussion

2. Off-task classroom

In class, but not engaged in sanctioned academic activity

Talking with peer while whole-class discussion occurs

3. Less-supervised school space

No sanctioned academic activity is taking place

Halls, lunchroom, counselors outer office, beginning of class


1. Peer/s only

Same grade, class or ±5 years of age


2. Peer and Adult

Both peer and adult produce at least 1 turn at talk

Kats participation in classroom discussion with teacher and peer

3. Adult/s only

Teacher, aide, principal, researcher


Topic of Talk

1. Social

Talk has personal or emotional relevance

Discussion of plans to visit Six Flags.

2. Academic

Conversations about academic classes, texts, concepts, etc.

Jasmin and peer talk about geometry homework

3. Metalinguistic

Conversations explicitly about language, the meaning of words, or reflecting on language learning

Were looking for scarce? Like different?

Languages Used

1. Spanish

25% or less English


2. Both

Ratio between ¼ and ¾ English words to total words used.


3. English

75% or more English


Academic Language Used

1. None

Conversational language used, contrasted with academic language.


2. Vocabulary

Academic words may be generally academic or specific to a discipline. Common words may be used to express academic meaning.

Unidades cuadrados [units squared]

3. Syntax

Specialized grammatical features derived from academic discourse may be used to package academic or nonacademic content, including passivization, relativization, grammaticalization, and formal definitions.

27 millimeters of average rainfall

then theyre averaged

4. Discourse Structures

Markers of academic genre and devices, including intertextual references and genre markers.

When you say average, its&

The purpose is to show&

Textual Reference

1. None


2. School Text

Any writing produced or given by teachers in school setting

The geometry worksheet used by Jasmin

3. Student-generated text

Writing produced by student

Jasmins geometry homework created by Jasmin

Interaction Duration

1. Unelaborated

12 turns (at least one turn is focal student)

Greeting, brief response to direct question, imperative to a peer (i.e., Bajale! [Turn it down!])

2. Elaborated

3 or more turns (at least one turn is focal student)

Jasmin and peer talk about geometry homework for 9 turns


Example of Linguistic Coding Applied, Event Map for Jasmin


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 11, 2018, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22487, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:20:26 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools

Related Media

Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Avary Carhill-Poza
    University of Massachusetts Boston
    E-mail Author
    AVARY CARHILL-POZA is an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her research examines the ways peer groups and classroom contexts shape the language learning experiences and outcomes of emergent bilinguals in urban schools. Her current projects also look at how innovative policies and practices afford linguistically diverse adolescents opportunities to use their multilingual repertoires in learning academic English and academic content. Dr. Carhill-Poza has published on these topics in the American Educational Research Journal, The Modern Language Journal, and Linguistics and Education, among others.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue