Code-Switching, Bilingualism, and Biliteracy:
A Case Study
Family Literacy Center
El Paso Community College
University of Minnesota, Duluth
The purpose of this study was to describe different aspects of code-
switching as they occurred in the teaching and learning process in a
classroom setting with young bilingual children and their parents. The
findings indicated that code-switching, in both oral and written form,
allowed for effective communication between the parents, the children
and the instructor in a way that was natural and comfortable for all
involved. The authors propose that code-switching be viewed as part of
a whole language approach in bilingual contexts.
Code-switching is a subject which has existed in the literature on
bilingualism since the early nineteen hundreds when Espinosa
(1917) wrote of a “speech mixture” in the speech of New Mexicans.
Since then the research in this area has focused on different aspects
of code-switching. Within the last two decades, studies have
evolved which focus on the role of code-switching in young
children developing their bilingualism (Fantini, 1985; Genishi,
1981; Huerta, 1980); on the social functions of code-switching
(McClure & Wentz, 1975; Poplack, 1981); on the patterns of code-
switching in the home among adults (Huerta, 1978); and among
third grade children at play and during interviews (Zentella, 1978).
More recently, educators explored code-switching in classrooms and
have found it to be effective as a teaching and communicative
strategy which can be used among bilingual students (Aguirre,
1988; Hudelson, 1983; Olmedo-Williams, 1983).
Bilingual Research Journal, 16:3&4, Summer/Fall 1992
The purpose of this study is to contribute to this research by
describing code-switching as it occurred within a social context that
combined school and family and that valued language switching as
part of the whole language approach to the acquisition of
literacy/biliteracy. Thus, this study fills a gap in the literature; it
reports on code-switching within the widespread, fast-growing,
relatively new instructional context of family literacy. Specifically,
code-switching is analyzed with respect to effective teaching,
learning, and communication strategies in a classroom context which
includes not only children and an instructor but parents as well.
A note about the definition of code-switching is in order before
proceeding to a description of the study. Although code-switching
may refer to different styles of speech within the same language, as
in the case of monolinguals using formal and informal speech, it is
most often used within the field of bilingualism or multilingualism to
refer to the alternate use of two or more languages in discourse. A
myriad of terms exist in the literature which describe specific
occurrences (often with different linguistic configurations) of this
type of linguistic behavior--code-mixing, code-alternation, language
switching, language mixing, language alternation, and code-
changing. Given that these terms have not been standardized in the
literature, and that our intent is to holistically describe the use of two
languages in the classroom, we will for our present purposes use the
term “code-switching” in a global fashion to describe any kind of
language alternation. The great majority of instances of oral code-
switching in the data occurred between utterances or conversational
turns, although the work samples revealed some instances of
intersentential (within a sentence) switching, as the reader will note.
The languages dealt with are English and Spanish.
Description of the Study
Project FIEL (Family Initiative for English Literacy) was an
intergenerational family literacy program for Limited English
Proficient families. The project was funded by Title VII Office of
Bilingual Education and Language Minority Affairs (OBEMLA) and
implemented from 1988-1991 in a large bilingual, bicultural city of
over 500,000 people. “At-risk” families with four, five, and six-
year old children (Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, First Grade)
were invited through seven different schools in the county to
participate in this project. The goals of the project were:
To enhance the literacy and biliteracy development of parents
and children through a series of participatory inter-
To provide information regarding the literacy development
process in children to parents and to provide a setting for the
parents to utilize the information;
To enhance the parents’ self-confidence in helping their
To empower the parents to connect literacy activities to their
own social/cultural situations (Quintero & Macías, 1991).
The whole language approach, which emphasizes that language
be taught naturally as it occurs within any social environment as
opposed to segmenting it into bits and pieces (Goodman, 1986),
was basic to the project. The use of code-switching, furthermore,
was considered a part of the whole language approach by the project
staff, and as such was accepted in the literacy classes. Goodman
(1986) states that “Whole language programs respect the learners:
who they are, where they come from, how they talk, what they read
and what experiences they already had...” (p. 10). Edelsky (1990)
confirms this position by saying, “Whole language values code-
switching as a sociolinguistic strength...”(p. 10) Thus, we felt that
by accepting the use of both languages in the classroom, in whatever
form seemed most natural to the families, we were validating the
past and present sociolinguistic experiences of the parents and
children, and enhancing the learning process for them by allowing
them to express themselves in a comfortable and precise way.
The literacy classes were conducted for twelve weeks in the fall
and twelve in the spring. Parents would come together with their
children to their neighborhood schools, once a week, after school
for the lessons. The lessons lasted approximately 75 minutes and
included a variety of learning activities such as conversing, reading,
writing and art projects. The classes, which consisted of small
groups of five to seven families, were conducted in English and/or
Spanish, depending on the linguistic abilities and desires of each of
the groups. The families participated in the selection of themes
(which varied weekly) for each lesson. The themes were open-
ended in order to allow the families to adopt them to their own
Bilingual Research Journal, 16:3&4, Summer/Fall 1992
needs, interests, and cultural situations. Some of the lessons, for
example, included music, celebrations, the family, and foods. The
design and implementation of the classes thus allowed for maximum
participation by the parents as well as by the children with respect to
the way in which the themes were developed in each class.
Research Methodology and Description of the Data
The focus of this study is on a single classroom. This selection
was made because there was more code-switching occurring in this
classroom than in comparable classrooms; consequently, it offered
more possibility for the study of this type of bilingual linguistic
Data for this investigation comes from approximately fourteen
hours of video-tapes taken in this classroom, observation notes by a
participant observer (teacher) and non~participant observers (project
coordinators), informal parent interviews, and work samples done
in the classes and at home. The videotapes were collected from
October to April (approximately half of the classes in the project
were alternately filmed). The dialogue on the videotapes was
transcribed during the summers, with a focus on specific families in
each class which had attended most regularly.
The analysis of the transcriptions was qualitative and open-
ended. Instances of code-switching were first identified. The
context was then analyzed as to the speaker(s), addressee(s),
content/topic, classroom organization, children/parents present. The
series of tapes also permitted us to see the students’ use of each
language from class to class. The observation notes by the staff
added more information as to the physical and social context not
captured by the camera lens. The informal interviews with the
parents provided information on, among other things, the
backgrounds of the families, the language(s) used at home by
different family members, and the language of any print (magazines,
newspapers, letters, etc.) in their home.
An additional source of data for the study came from the teacher
who, in a questionnaire and during conversations, described her
linguistic background and her perspectives on several questions
relating to the use of code-switching in the classroom. The
questionnaire asked, for example, about the amount of code-
switching done in her students’ speech and on whether her own
language use in the classroom was planned or spontaneous.
Work portfolios were kept on each child in the project. The
writing samples in these portfolios provided another opportunity to
examine the nature and frequency of English and/or Spanish as used
individually by the children in written form. The information from
all of the above data sources was combined in an effort to identify
patterns which occurred in the class as the participants alternated
This case study thus looks at code-switching in oral classroom
discourse between teachers, parents and children as well as in the
children’s work samples. While examples of code-switching in
writing occurred much less frequently than in conversation, we feel
it is an important area of study given that so little information exists
in the literature regarding this. We hope, then, that our work will
add in some way to research which has been done (Barrera, 1983;
Edelsky, 1986) in bilingual children’s writing. A brief
sociocontextual background of the case study follows.
The Setting: The Classroom
As mentioned above, the study focuses on a classroom in which
the participants were observed to exhibit a high degree of code-
switching. This classroom is part of a large elementary public
school with an enrollment of 1,148 students in pre-kindergarten
through eighth grades. The school is in an old, but well maintained
lower middle class, established neighborhood in the center of the
city with a population which is predominantly of Mexican origin.
The class, which consisted of five families, was directed by a
teacher with the help of an assistant who mainly took care of
logistics such as setting up tables and distributing materials and
The dialogues presented in this study are based on the
interactions between the teacher, the parents and their four children;
Alex, Celia, Dora, Hilario.
The teacher in this study was a middle-aged Anglo woman who
had twenty-one years teaching experience--eighteen of those with
first grade children--in “monolingual” classrooms. Her personality
was quite pleasant; she always appeared to be full of exuberance and
excitement, particularly when engaged in projects with her children.
She had a sincere interest in all of the families and was very much
loved by them.
Bilingual Research Journal, 16:3&4, Summer/Fall 1992
Even though she would not admit to knowing but “a little bit” of
Spanish, she was actually fluent enough to hold brief conversations
in Spanish with parents and children at the school. This ability was
acquired during her stays in Mexico and during the course of her
teaching in bilingual communities. This teacher did not hesitate to
use her Spanish as needed for teaching, for parent involvement or
simply for building rapport with others.
When asked about her language use in the literacy classroom,
she estimated using Spanish about 40% and English about 60% of
the time. This instructor elaborated on her use of code-switching
with the families by saying that it was mostly spontaneous, “Very
often I would be talking in English. When I saw non-responsive
faces, I knew I had to switch.” She added that if she did not code-
switch there would be “...less rapport with teacher and students.”
She felt that switching was “a natural way to communicate,
especially for young learners.” The frequency and ease with which
she, herself, switched languages indicated that she was certainly not
new at this practice but was quite skilled in switching back and
The four families who participated in the class all resided within
blocks of the school. The parents of the children all had more than
the average years of schooling for most parents in the project. Mr.
and Ms. H. (Hilario's parents) both finished “secundaria” or high
school in Mexico as well as some college in the U.S. Mr. H. works
as a maintenance man while Ms. H. is a homemaker. The family,
consisting of both parents and Hilario, reported speaking
predominantly Spanish at home. They tried using English at home
once in a while for practice, however, it was mainly used outside the
home. Mr. and Ms. J. (Alex’s parents) completed two years of
college in the U.S. and six years of school in Mexico, respectively.
Mr. J. works as a driver while Ms. J. is a homemaker. Mr. J. is
bilingual while Ms. J. has learned some English through use outside
the home. The parents reported speaking only Spanish at home to
each other and to their two sons. Their sons, however, use both
languages with their parents and with each other. Ms. E. (Celia’s
mother) had six years of schooling in Mexico. She is a homemaker.
Ms. E., Celia and her other daughter live with Ms. E.’s parents.
The family speaks only Spanish at home. Ms. E. further stated that
newspapers, magazines and other reading material which she
received at home was also in Spanish. Ms. E. was the least
proficiently bilingual parent in the group; nonetheless, she
understood English and occasionally used a few words in English.
All four families, moreover, faithfully attended the literacy
classes throughout Year Two (academic year) of the project. Alex,
Dora, and Hilario were kindergartners at the time, Celia was four
years old and was still at home. Mr. and Ms. H. and Ms. E.
continued with the classes into Year Three of the program. All of
these families also had high educational aspirations for their
children. Furthermore, while they all wanted their children to learn
English, they also wanted them to further develop their Spanish.
That is, they all expressed concerns that the home language should
not be lost in the process of acquiring English. Thus, they were all
quite comfortable being in a classroom where both languages were
The findings from this study of code-switching follow. Each is
discussed in further detail below.
The conversational functions of code-switching (i.e., the
pragmatic information conveyed in conversation through
switching) in the classroom on the part of the instructor were
similar to those reported in the literature in a “regular”
classroom context (Olmedo-Williams, 1983), and in family
conversations among bilinguals at home (Huerta, 1978).
The teacher, despite having learned Spanish as a second
language, code-switched effectively and in a native-like
fashion in the classroom.
The parents maintained Spanish as the language used with
their children in the classroom even when the parents were
bilingual and when their children were speaking English.
The children used both languages freely in oral discourse as
they responded to the teacher and their parents, thus
communicating in a natural, effective way.
The children also communicated effectively and naturally in
written form through the use of English and/or Spanish.
Bilingual Research Journal, 16:3&4, Summer/Fall 1992
Discussion of Findings: Functions of Code-Switching
With respect to the first finding, the instructor used code-
switching to elaborate, to emphasize, to specify an addressee and to
clarify --- in short, for effective communication. This confirms
what has been reported in the literature. Some of the more often
cited functions of code-switching in conversation, for example, are
to give emphasis, to elaborate, to clarify, to shift the mode of
discourse, or to specify a certain addressee (Huerta, 1978; McClure,
1981; Silva-Corvalan, 1983). It is difficult to categorically type
such complex bilingual behavior as language alternation because it
may often serve more than one function on different levels. One
may, for example, find it an impossible if not futile task to try to
distinguish between clarification, emphasis and/or elaboration in any
one instance of code-switching, not to mention that there may be
other more subtle functions operating in response to the social
context and/or to psychological or attitudinal factors. Yet, this
perspective of looking at code-switching, which is holistic in that it
takes the entire conversational and social context into account, is
fruitful because it has the potential of providing more insight into the
roles which language plays in effective communication in bilingual
contexts. We have, therefore, looked at the functions which code-
switching served in conversations in our classroom and have found
that they are similar to what has been previously reported in the
literature. The data appears to indicate, for example, that the
instructor often switches languages to emphasize, clarify and/or
elaborate or to address a certain person or persons in the classroom.
These functions are exemplified below through excerpts of
classroom dialogue. They are, furthermore, presented here only for
the purpose of illustrating that code-switching conveys pragmatic
information which enhances communication within a classroom
context; the labels for these functions may be debatable and are not
seen as significant.
Elaboration occurred when additional information/details on a
topic were added in the alternate language.
[Teacher is sitting on a rug with children in a semi-circle and is
sharing a book which she made on her family]
Maybe you’d like to make a book. This is my mother with
grey hair, porque está poco vieja (because she’s a little old).
This is my sister, poco gorda, poquito, poquito. Ella no
vive aquí por eso no va a saber esto (a bit fat, a little bit, a
little bit. She doesn’t live here so she’s not going to know
about this), but she’s a little bit fat.
Emphasis occurred when the teacher stressed or underscored a
point in the alternate language, Spanish. This switch was also
accompanied by a change in voice intonation which exhibited a
higher pitch level.
[Class is getting ready to go to their tables to make monster faces
with candy corn, raisins, etc. on some Halloween cookies.]
Each of you will get a cup. Now, no se necesita poner todo
en esta cara, van a hacer dos, en alguno quiero poner éste y
éste o éste, pero no se necesita poner todo, es demasiado
(you don’t need to put everything on this face, you’re going
to make two, on one I want to put this and this or that on,
but you don’t need to put everything on, it’s too much), just
put enough for the monster face.
Addressee specification occurred when the teacher switched
languages as she addressed, or directed her speech, to a different
listener. In these cases she switched to Spanish as she turned, made
eye-contact and addressed the parents after speaking to the children.
[Teacher is sitting with class around her in a semicircle, explaining
the theme for the lesson to the class, and specifically directs some
questions to the parents.]
Today we re going to talk about jobs and
working... ¿Mamás, han tenido trabajo antes de casamiento?
(Mothers, did you have a job before you got married?)
¿...cuál trabajo recuerda? (what job do you remember?)
Ms.E: Yo en Juarez duré cinco años desde los trece hasta los diez y
ocho años hasta que me casé. (I lasted 5 years from the time
I was 13 until I was 18 when I got married).
Bilingual Research Journal, 16:3&4, Summer/Fall 1992
¿Cómo?... y ya más trabajo en casa? (how?.. .now more
work at home?).
Ms.E: Sí. Ahora ya no, desde que me vine (Yes, not anymore,
since I came...)
¿Y le gustó muchisimo o no? (Did you like it a lot or not?)
¿De qué clase...? (what kind?)
Ms.E: Hacíamos faldas de doctores para los hospitales (we made
doctors’ robes for the hospitals).
¿Y muchas horas cada día? (and many hours a day?)
Ms.E: Entraba a las seis y salía a las tres y media (I went in at 6
and left at 3:30).
Clarification occurred when the teacher switched to Spanish as
she repeated or paraphrased something she had just said in English.
[The parents and children are making surprise birthday gifts for each
other at their work tables.]
But let’s pretend, a imaginar (imagine), let’s pretend, vamos
a imaginar (let’s imagine) today is our birthday, vamos a
imaginar que hoy es cumpleaños (let’s imagine today’s a
birthday).. .We’re going to make a present vamos a hacer un
regalo para esa persona (we’re going to make a gift for that
The Teacher as Non-Native Code-Switcher
The second finding was that the instructor, despite having
learned Spanish as a second language (she was Anglo), code-
switched effectively and in the fashion of a native bilingual
(excluding a few performance errors in grammar which did not
detract from the message). Aguirre (1988) speaks of intuitive
knowledge as the basis for teacher’s capability of understanding
bilingual behavior in the classroom. This knowledge, he states, is
not merely the result of speaking two languages but also of the
speaker approaching a state of balance in language use through
participation in bilingual contexts. This intuitive knowledge (which
he implies is only found in native bilinguals) then expands and
allows the teacher to enhance teaching and learning activities for
bilingual children through the construction of a sociolinguistic
profile for each child which highlights global features of a child’s