To complete her doctorate in education in educational policy and leadership, American University School of Education (SOE) student Dr. Francesca Smith ’23 centered her dissertation around research that she cared deeply about: bilingual students from Latinx immigrant families and their experiences in dual-language English reading instruction. The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) awarded her the prestigious Dissertation in Practice of the Year Award which she accepted in a ceremony in Florida this month.
“It is such an honor to have my work validated, and this award motivated me to continue exploring the fields of bilingual and early literacy education,” said Smith. “I also hope the award highlights the power and necessity of teachers being involved in the production and dissemination of research and academic knowledge. I think that making concrete, practical connections between research and classrooms is essential in order to see sustained shifts in student outcomes.”
Her dissertation, titled Asset-Based Biliteracy: Recentering Emergent Bilingual Students In Dual Language English Reading Instruction, deeply examines gentrifying dual-language schools, “which increasingly attract students with racial and class privilege,” and how literacy intervention early in emerging bilingual students’ classrooms could recenter the students for success. Her research included an eleven-week early intervention which took place through both parent partnerships and small-group instruction, using a “funds of knowledge” framework. The dissertation found that “explicitly grounding early English reading instruction in the transfer and non-transfer of Spanish literacy skills helped students approach and meet grade-level expectations for English decoding and letter sound knowledge.” Through working with parents, it demonstrated “Spanish-speaking families’ unique capacities to support biliteracy learning that is grounded in key foundational skills.”
“Dr. Smith’s dissertation of practice is specifically framed around questions of equity, ethics, and social justice in her interrogation of the promise of a dual-language community school within an urban, gentrified community context” said Dr. Alida Anderson, SOE Professor and the chair of Smith’s dissertation committee (pictured on the right with Smith). “Her dissertation embodies the values of CPED as it provides a roadmap for scholar practitioners committed to addressing systems-level equity challenges facing schools and teachers serving emergent bilingual students and their families.”
The unrealized potential of dual-language schools inspired Smith to do this research. “The power of dual-language education is that students learn to read in two languages, which is a gift in and of itself, but is a particularly powerful gift for students from Latinx immigrant backgrounds and Spanish-speaking homes. These students can use this gift to sustain their cultural roots but also to gain a research-proven academic advantage through learning in their native language. Maintaining this promise of dual-language education for equity and empowerment was at the center of my work.”
Smith hopes her dissertation, “can add to the timely conversations around bilingual education and the Science of Reading. There are some misinterpretations and misapplications that paint the Science of Reading as a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach that excludes and does a disservice to emergent bilingual students and their particular assets and needs. I hope that my research can play a small part in aligning these bodies of research, in highlighting the assets that Spanish-dominant emergent bilinguals bring to learning to decode, and in emphasizing the need to continue actively considering language diversity in all areas of future reading research and practice.”
An adjunct faculty member in SOE post-graduation, Smith consults in English and Spanish literacy instruction and bilingual program implementation at DCPS dual language schools as well as collaborates to create Spanish-language dyslexia training for DC educators. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Harvard University and a dual master’s degree in elementary and special education at Lesley University.
Dr. Anderson said, “Dr. Smith’s dissertation of practice provides actionable steps for education leaders to collaborate with teachers, families, and students to address the unique needs and priorities of Latino/a/x community members, especially in the ways that families contribute to the scholarship and practice for dual language learners. Dr. Smith’s field-based problem of practice, as well as the proposed solutions and actionable directions, are grounded in practical and research knowledge, linking theory with systemic inquiry in interrogating Science of Reading practices. It is particularly noteworthy that Her Biliteracy Guide has generated Washington, DC-wide initiatives resulting in actions centered on transforming early literacy intervention through translanguaging principles and practices, which have formed the basis for professional development and practice in dual-language schools in the district.”
Smith (pictured left, as she accepted her award with Dr. Samantha Cohen) expressed gratitude to her dissertation committee, her “amazing Latinx emergent bilingual students for being learners alongside me throughout this process, and to their parents for being so trusting and generous with their time and ideas. And to my family, for raising me in a bilingual home and for their commitment to keeping our culture, language, and roots alive.”
This is the second consecutive year that a doctoral student won CPED’s Dissertation in Practice of the Year award, following Dr. Cheyenne Batista’s award in 2022. For students in doctorate programs deciding on their dissertation topic, Smith recommends, “Connect with and learn from your classmates and professors; find a topic that you're passionate about and committed to; be ready to bring in, reflect on, question, and reimagine your personal experiences in education.”