Spanish is my second language and one that I started learning in eighth grade through college when I majored in Spanish. Because of that, I don’t have native proficiency in Spanish, but I am fluent. I never participated in bilingual education as a child, but in graduate school I learned about special education as well as bilingual education. However, where I have really learned a lot about bilingual education has been as a school-based speech pathologist immersed in the school environment.
1) Children “test out” of ESL/Bilingual Classrooms
Did you ever wonder about how kids move out of a bilingual classroom into a monolingual English classroom? They have to pass a proficiency test in English. In the state of Illinois it’s called the ACCESS. The ACCESS is given to kids as young as kindergarten to determine language dominance. In general, the ACCESS seems pretty good about identifying the dominant language of a student except…
2) Bilingual Children with Speech Problems Struggle to Pass the ACCESS
I have found that the ACCESS has trouble distinguishing between a student who has started dominating in English, but has trouble expressing himself/herself in general. If the student has an identified speech impairment, they struggle to pass the ACCESS. I’ve seen low ACCESS scores on students with apraxia and receptive/expressive language delays who definitively would benefit from English only instruction.
3) Parents Can Choose to Keep Children in Bilingual Education or to Remove Them
Parents are in control of their child’s education. They can decide whether they want their child to be in a bilingual Spanish education or if they want to move into an English only classroom. So if a student passes the ACCESS test but a parent would like their child to learn how to read and write in Spanish, the parent can elect to keep them in the bilingual setting. Parents who keep an English-dominant student in a Spanish room have told me they did it because they want their child to read and write in Spanish and they want to be able to communicate with their child and help with homework. Alternately, if a parent wants their child, whose dominant language is Spanish, to be in an English classroom, the parent can “sign them out” of bilingual education. The reason a parent may elect to do that is because they have strong English skills, but have not passed the ACCESS. It is purely a parent’s choice, which leads to…
4) Children Learn to Read Their Native Language
That students learn to read in their native language seems like the biggest no-brainer here, but keep in mind that in kindergarten they are learning to say the letter names and letter sounds in Spanish. Letter names and letter sounds in Spanish are different than those in English. Additionally, learning to read in Spanish, which is a phonetically transparent language, may be considered to be easier than learning to read in English. For example, Spanish has five vowels that never change their pronunciation. While English has five vowels, their pronunciation changes so frequently that English has 14 different vowel sounds! At some point, the have to make the jump to English only instruction. I’ve seen transitional bilingual education end in third or fourth grade typically.
5) Transitional Bilingual Education Ends around Third Grade
Although I’ve seen a transitional bilingual classroom for fourth graders, usually bilingual education ends in third grade. Most models have a third grade classroom staffed with a teacher who speaks Spanish. The teacher instructs in English, but can explain information in Spanish to the students who still need that assistance. Third grade is a tough year for many students. It’s the first year that students have to take national testing (now called the PARCC). Additionally, third grade is a year in which students are making a transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Some kids struggle with this huge shift in their learning. Add on top of all that — students experiencing their first year of English instruction.
6) Bilingual Education is Not the Same as Dual Language
If there’s a dual language program in your area, that’s something you are going to want to investigate and potentially enroll your child. Dual language is when two languages are taught 50%/50% of the day. Usually the program enrolls kids that speak one language to expose them to instruction in two languages. Dual language is open to all students within the attendance boundaries of the school. Bilingual education as I have described is also known as “transitional bilingual education.” That means that the goal is transition the student from one language to another. The first year will contain more of the students’ native language and each subsequent year the student will get more English until they are being instructed in only one language. Dual language will be 50/50 perpetually.
What do you know about bilingual education? Do you have anything to share with me? Please feel free to comment below or email me. Thanks!