ABC COUNTDOWN: B is for bilingual

English Espanol

Most of the students I have worked with over the last 14 years have been classified as “bilingual.” These are children whose first language is not English and that are learning English along with their native language. In the metropolitan Chicago area, there are large populations of Spanish and Polish speaking immigrants, as well as significant populations of speakers of Russian, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, and different languages of India. I didn’t originally intend to be a bilingual teacher, but when I finished my student teaching and began working as a substitute, other teachers heard me speaking to students in Spanish in bilingual classrooms, and they urged me to get my bilingual certification.

I really didn’t think my Spanish was good enough to be considered “bilingual” but I followed their advice and took the required Spanish proficiency test, getting a score of 89%. (70% is passing). By that time, I was already being considered for a position at a school with a large population of Spanish-speaking students and once I passed the test, it was only a matter of time before I was given a contract to teach bilingual 3rd graders the following year. I went on to complete classes for an endorsement to teach ESL and Spanish bilingual students on my elementary teaching certificate.

bilingual girlsBeing a bilingual teacher carries with it certain added responsibility and less support in general than “regular” ed teachers. We are constantly trying to fit everything in as we increase students’ proficiency in English without losing their native language – it feels like we are always playing “catch up.” We have to teach the same curriculum yet do not always have sufficient materials to do so in Spanish. Many districts buy reading or math curricula in Spanish, but these consist mainly in a direct translation into Spanish of the English materials. Therefore, the reading level of a particular story or a particular set of books may be quite different in Spanish than it is in English.

Here’s an example:  In first grade, one of the first non-fiction texts in a particular reading curriculum that students read is about ants. The word “ant” is a simple one in English and appropriate as vocabulary in first grade.  However, the word “ant” translates into Spanish as “hormiga.” This word has three syllables and starts with a silent letter! This is a more difficult word for Spanish speaking children to decode.  So creating a curriculum that is appropriate for beginning readers is more than a simple matter of direct translation. Even many assessments – which school personnel relies on to decide who gets extra help and how much – are directly translated, so that a passage a student is called upon to read at a particular grade level isn’t necessarily appropriate for the same grade level in both languages.  Therefore, even when taking assessments in their native language, Spanish speakers tend to score lower – less words read correctly, for example – than their English speaking counterparts.

However, if they continue to study in both languages and are able to transfer skills learned from one language to the other, they can eventually catch up to their English speaking peers.

Many school administrators are still not well-versed in bilingual education or its best practices, particularly when the increase in the bilingual population in their school is a new phenomenon. There are still many classroom teachers who have no idea how to teach English language learners, and often they feel threatened by the newly hired bilingual teachers, thinking they will soon lose their jobs to us because they’re not bilingual. This can make developing good professional working relationships harder.

One way to get other staff members on board is to bring the students’ culture to the school: a piñata party on Cinco de Mayo,

Breaking a pinata on Cinco de Mayo
Breaking a pinata on Cinco de Mayo

or a Day of the Dead activity involving all the classrooms in a competition to create the best skeleton scene,

Cutting out skeleton templates.
Cutting out skeleton templates.
This restaurant scene created by a 3rd grade class, was the contest winner!
This restaurant scene created by a 3rd grade class, was the contest winner!
Skydiving skeletons (5th grade)
Skydiving skeletons (5th grade)
This class had their skeletons go to the beach!
This class had their skeletons go to the beach!
This 4th grade's class's theme was having fun at the cemetery!
This 4th grade’s class’s theme was having fun at the cemetery!

or a library activity in December where teachers and/or students each day explain how the holidays are celebrated in their culture. An international dinner, of course, is always welcome!!

students in cafeteriaBilingual classrooms in a mostly English speaking school are also rather isolated. Part of this is self-imposed, but not surprising. In the cafeteria, the Spanish speaking kids all sit together and rarely mix with their native English speaking peers. The native English speakers also don’t always feel comfortable with a bunch of kids who speak a language they don’t know and they sometimes think the Spanish speakers are making fun of them (and vice versa). Certain ethnic groups develop animosities (think West Side Story) that lead to misunderstandings and fights on the playground.west-side-story-image-1
How do bilingual teachers get their students to integrate more with their native English speaking peers? One way is having certain integrated classes, such as P.E., art, music and other “specials.” The teachers of these subjects are very often not bilingual so the kids learn quickly to understand what they are telling them. If a schedule can be worked out to have a mix of students from different classrooms, there is more likelihood that friendships will develop between the bilingual and the non-bilingual students. Usually this doesn’t happen, though, because it’s a scheduling nightmare to work it out.

Another way is for teachers to plan to do certain projects together. One year when I was teaching a second grade bilingual class, I teamed up with another teacher who was willing and eager to do joint projects. For our unit on Chicago, we had the students paired up between the two classes to do research on a Chicago landmark. Then they made a model of their landmark together, using boxes, tape, paint, etc. One half worked in my room, the other half worked in hers.

A group of students in my classroom works with various materials to create Chicago landmarks.
A group of students in my classroom works with various materials to create Chicago landmarks.
A group of boys works on the Sears (Willis) Tower in the hallway.
A group of boys works on the Sears (Willis) Tower in the hallway.

Some of my students were scared at first, thinking they wouldn’t be able to communicate with their partners. Some partnerships worked out better than others. But the one I always like to think about is a girl in my class who was a new arrival from Mexico that year, so she spoke less English than most of the other students. She was to be paired with a sweet and friendly girl from the other class. She was very worried the first day, but the second day, when the period for working on the project was over, she came bounding back into my classroom and excitedly told me how her partner was so cool, that they were teaching each other words in their respective languages, and that she now had a new friend!!

Bilingual education and its effectiveness have become my passion during my teaching career. There are moments that every teacher lives for – in spite of the grueling schedule, the heavy work load, and the daily exhaustion – when we are overcome by a feeling of exhilaration that shouts inside us, “I LOVE doing this work!” Sometimes it happens when we are working with one or a few students and suddenly they “get” it – the lightbulb goes on in their heads, they make a leap in their progress and we know we have made a difference in their lives. Sometimes, for me, it would happen when I was writing on the board before class in the morning – usually the schedule for the day or an objective – a feeling of happiness and pride would overcome me as I realized what I was doing: writing in Spanish, teaching in Spanish, the language I had been learning since I myself was in fifth grade – Spanish had been my favorite class from junior high until I finished high school.

A Halloween math lesson
A Halloween math lesson


Here I was, using the skill I had most loved learning and also making connections with English through cognates and Latin root words. Language in general has always been my “thing.” Being a bilingual teacher has been the highlight of my working life.

Bilingual=Life squaredNote: Pictures with captions and the one of me above are my own; the others were downloaded from Google Images.

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