(Graphic by Wilson Liévano. Original photo by Dave Zajac/Record-Journal)

How Multilingual teachers bridge the language gap ​

Lau Guzmán

Lau Guzmán

Report for America corps member
The Record-Journal

May 25, 2023

WALLINGFORD, CONN  —  Magdali Cordova realized that her kids were learning English in school differently. She had moved from Ecuador in the spring of 2021 and enrolled her son Gabriel in third grade at Parker Farms Elementary School. However, Cordova noticed that her son was not doing as well as his sister Victoria, a seventh-grader at Moran Middle School. 

“Why you and not him? What happened?” she asked herself. “I started finding out and I realized that Victoria had bilingual teachers and Gabriel didn’t.”

While Gabriel had support from a multilingual teacher that used different strategies to help him learn English, Victoria had support from a bilingual program at her school with teachers that spoke Spanish. Bilingual teachers speak more than one language, while a multilingual teacher may not, but is certified to teach English to non-English speakers. 

Even though Córdova said Gabriel’s multilingual teacher was a “blessing” and helped him learn English, she still worried about whether her son could keep up with his other subject areas without speaking the language.

“As a mom, I don’t know English, so I was worried because he was in classes all day where they only spoke English,” she said in her native Spanish.

The differences between how Victoria and Gabriel learned English parallel the wider landscape for English learners in Connecticut. Most English learners are Latino, speak Spanish at home and are in elementary school, according to the latest report from the Connecticut State Department of Education.

Among English learners, about six in 10 attend programs that teach English as a second language and three in 10 attend a bilingual program. The rest use language transition support services or have parents who declined to accept language services. However, in practice, most English learners receive a mixture of English language services over the course of their education.

Marisol Garcia, bilingual paraeducator, assists first-grade student Andrea Guzman, 6, who reads in English at Cook Hill Elementary School in Wallingford, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Photo by Dave Zajac/ Record-Journal)

Facing the bilingual teacher shortage

Although language support systems offer huge benefits for students, they are often an additional expense for overburdened school districts and very difficult to staff. Connecticut is currently facing a shortage of bilingual teachers and teachers certified to teach English to learners of other languages in K-12. This shortage is compounded by post-pandemic teacher burnout, plus the toll from the additional services that multilingual teachers provide for families.

Nationwide, a third of schools said they do not have enough staff to teach English as a second language or run bilingual programs this school year, according to a survey from the National Education Association.

Even though finding educators has been a challenge in Wallingford because of the shortage, the school system is fully staffed, said Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Fran Thompson. There are seven certified bilingual teachers in Wallingford, 12 teachers certified to teach English to speakers of other languages and five bilingual paraeducators. In total, they provide language services to about 7% of the district, although it fluctuates from year to year.

“I think the need is significant no matter where you are, because regardless of the size of your population, you still want to service everybody,” Thompson said.

In recent years, the district has received additional funding to meet students’ needs. According to this year’s budget document, the district has received a total of about $158,000 in federal funds from 2019 to 2022 through a federal grant for immigrant and youth education and Title III, which provides additional funds for language instruction for limited English proficient and immigrant students. The district has also received about $17,000 over the same period from a statewide bilingual grant.

Making a difference: Dual-language programs

State law mandates that public schools with 20 or more students that speak any language other than English at home must provide bilingual instruction. In Wallingford, three elementary schools this year are mandated bilingual schools and each has a full-time bilingual teacher.

One of the largest bilingual programs in Wallingford is at Cook Hill Elementary School. The program has 32 students this year and uses a different approach than most schools in Connecticut, according to the State Department of Education.

School districts have historically taught transitional bilingual programs that are designed to promote English language proficiency and result in the decline of a student’s home language. However, the team at Cook Hill takes a dual language approach by encouraging parents to strengthen their children’s home language.

“The philosophy we have here is that we believe if we strengthen their native language, in this case, Spanish, the transition into the second language, which is English, is going to be faster and they’re going to have a better foundation,” said bilingual teacher Wilfred Velez. 

Velez teaches in Spanish, while his counterpart, Julia Evola focuses on teaching English. Even though research supports the effectiveness of a dual-language model, he said the team often fields concerns from parents who believe that learning two languages at the same time confuses students and keeps them from learning English.

“Our students that come with a very strong first language are always excelling in English,” Evola said. “It takes kids five to seven years, at least, to learn a new language.”

Multilingual teachers are helping bridge the language gap in Wallingford elementary schools. (Photo by Dave Zajac/ Record-Journal)

Changing attitudes

Despite the resources now available, Wallingford schools have not always been as supportive to speakers of other languages. Witnessing a language barrier was a formative memory for Susan Rhodes. She moved to Wallingford from Massachusetts in 1976 and enrolled in fourth grade where she met a classmate from India who was afraid to speak in class because of her heavy accent.

“I’d never seen a situation like that and I felt really bad for her because the teacher didn’t really make any effort to make her feel included or share her culture with us,” she said. “I felt bad that I was a new girl, but worse for her.”

Rhodes decided to become a teacher herself after becoming involved with JumpStart in college. She learned Spanish and eventually achieved a bilingual certification and one to teach English to speakers of other languages.

Rhodes has been working in the Wallingford district as needed during the past 20 years and has witnessed a demographic shift from a program that taught English to Polish students. She also remembered that the local Nucor Steel plant hired a lot of Mexican workers from a sister plant in Texas in the 1980s and she started to see the children of those families in her high school classes.

“It’s a great job that I have to have the honor to know these children and meet families around the world and really make a difference for them. It’s really powerful, really rewarding and very special,” she said.

Providing cultural support: building a sense of belonging

Teaching English in public schools has long been a stand-in for wider discussions surrounding immigration, culture and belonging. Beyond just providing language support, multilingual educators often also provide cultural support.

While Velez and Evola pull kids out of their classroom, paraeducator Marisol García works with classroom teachers to help support small groups of students. Garcia has a social work background and is from Mexico City. She has been working in the district for 19 years and said she is passionate about teaching students in Spanish.

“The sad thing about the new generation of parents is that they don’t want to teach their language to their kids, which also affects them,” Garcia said in her native Spanish. “I think that it’s important to make our kids proud of where they come from, of who they are, of their roots.”

Beyond teaching English, the team at Cook Hill said one of their priorities was to make their families feel comfortable in the school. When Velez started at Cook Hill 18 years ago, he noticed that the Latino community was not going into schools, so the team made a point of organizing events for parents to get to know the principal, staff and school.

Wilfred Velez, bilingual teacher, talks about the multilingual program at Cook Hill Elementary School in Wallingford, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Photo by Dave Zajac/ Record-Journal)

Communicating with parents

Since multilingual teachers specifically teach students who speak a different language at home, an additional barrier they face is communicating with parents. At Cook Hill, García and Vélez have their own direct line to communicate with parents in Spanish.

“We have our own line where parents speak with us for absences, appointments [and] questions. We translate for Parent-Teacher conferences, Planning and Placement teams, everything,” García said.

García used to also translate all of the report cards for every student and communications sent home. The district has since hired a full-time translator, which allows García to spend more time supporting students.

Support from the district like new curriculum, allocating staff, and providing resources is an important strategy to support teachers. Educator burnout is a very serious issue nationwide with 90% of members say feeling burned out is a serious problem, according to a study from the National Education Association.

“It’s so much extra,” Rhodes said. “The balance is that I don’t have to teach a full classroom. We do pull out. So if I had to teach a whole classroom of students and do all that extra work, I couldn’t do it. I would blow up. It just would be so hard, or I wouldn’t communicate with the parents. And then that wouldn’t serve me either.”

As a Spanish-speaker, Cordova said communicating with schools has been a challenge, so she has had to find workarounds. Last year, she gave her son a cell phone and asked him to talk to her directly if he felt sick. She also would write old-fashioned notes she had translated on Google and send them.

“Last year, I wanted to reach the school, but I didn’t have a way to do it,” she said. “As parents, we have to deal with a language we don’t know, we have to work, we have to be in charge of the house. With everything, sometimes everything collapses and we can’t dedicate ourselves to one thing, like learning English full-time.”

For schools without a dedicated bilingual team, the district implemented the ParentSquare app earlier this year, which allows teachers to text with parents in several languages through a translation. Córdova said that this was helpful and hasn’t had problems with it.

This year, Córdova’s youngest daughter, Valentina, is a shy kindergartener at Cook Hill. Even though she has only been in school for one year, Evola nominated her for a most improved award.

“She’s put herself out there and I’ve seen growth,” Evola said.

Parker Farms hired a new bilingual teacher who splits her time with another elementary school, based on caseloads. As a result, Córdova has seen a big improvement in her son’s ability to speak English. 

“Thank God my kids already overcame the language barrier,” she said. “They are not at 100%, but they at least understand and can defend themselves and continue to overcome.”

This story is part of “More than Words,” a Report for America initiative that brought together newsrooms covering Latino communities in eight states to examine the impact of language barriers on the social, economic, and educational advancement of Latinos and the local efforts to close this gap.

This project is made possible by