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How to Become a Bilingual Teacher

A teacher and students work on math problems on a whiteboard.

More than a quarter of students in the United States are either immigrants or children of immigrants, according to census data. This has serious implications for creating educational strategies that meet the needs of all students. It also highlights the importance of and need for bilingual teachers.

The Importance of Bilingual Education

Today, a growing number of people in the US speak more than one language. Despite a history of movements against bilingual education, more people are recognizing its value, and school districts across the country have made huge investments in new bilingual education programs.

The rising need for multilingual classrooms and the benefits they offer account for this shift.

The Growing Need for Multilingual Classrooms

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that English language learners constitute the fastest-growing group of students in US schools. Today, they make up more than 10 percent of public school students. In urban public schools, English language learners represent, on average, almost 15 percent of the student population.

Additionally, the number of US residents who speak a language other than English at home has almost tripled since 1980, according to analysis from the Center for Immigration Studies.

Unfortunately, graduation rates and test scores among these students indicate a disparity. English language learners rank among the lowest-performing students in the country according to data from the US Department of Education. In 2017, a third of non-English language learners in the eighth grade earned proficient scores in mathematics on national exams, compared with just 6 percent of English language learners. Additionally, English language learners trail non-English language learners in graduation rate by 18 percent. As such, many educational leaders are pushing for more multilingual classrooms to help close the achievement gap.

The Benefits of Multilingual Education

English language learners often struggle to learn content in other subject areas because they lack the necessary literacy and background knowledge. Multilingual education provides English language learners with equal learning access to a range of subjects while they master English. This helps ensure that students working toward English language competency still have a chance to grow in other areas such as history, geography, and mathematics.

A bilingual teacher delivers content in English and another language, helping students develop and strengthen their skills in both. This can prove instrumental in preventing English language learners from falling behind in their general education. Studies have shown that language study improves mental flexibility, which can make it easier for students to learn across various subjects.

Multilingual skills not only give students academic advantages but also improve their career development as adults. Bilingual professionals often enjoy more job opportunities, higher salaries, and a greater capacity to bridge cultural gaps.

Roles and Responsibilities of Bilingual Teachers

Bilingual teachers have the same duties as other classroom teachers, but they carry them out in two languages, rather than only one. That can mean teaching native English speakers a second language or working with English language learners. The typical responsibilities include:

Curriculum Planning

Bilingual teachers develop curricula that teach language and content simultaneously. That might mean creating a science lesson that also develops language skills or designing an algebra assignment that also teaches reading competencies.

Like other teachers, bilingual teachers plan lessons to achieve specific learning objectives. This involves choosing which concepts to teach and selecting a variety of delivery methods best suited to student learning styles and interests.

When planning a curriculum, bilingual teachers give special attention to:

  • Constructing background knowledge
  • Connecting content to students’ existing background knowledge and cultures
  • Incorporating both languages into learning activities
  • Techniques that encourage students to engage with and learn material not in their native language

Instruction

Delivering instruction involves more than just following a lesson plan. Bilingual teachers employ a variety of strategies to assess student understanding as lessons unfold and make adjustments accordingly. Formative assessments might involve circling a classroom during group work to observe students or class polling, asking students to indicate comprehension with a thumbs-up/thumbs-down response.

Bilingual teachers also carefully scaffold lessons to build student learning incrementally and provide the necessary support, which might include study guides, vocabulary sheets, and graphic organizers. Based on student progress, bilingual teachers may slow down or speed up a lesson, translate new words, or review concepts several times.

The Creation of Culturally Inclusive Classrooms

Languages do not exist in vacuums. They come with cultures and histories. Bilingual teachers must thoughtfully integrate the teaching of cultures and contexts into their classrooms. For example, while teaching Mandarin to native English speakers, a bilingual teacher enriches student understanding of the language by incorporating lessons about Chinese history, food, festivals, and art.

Culturally inclusive classrooms in bilingual education also aim to help students learn idiomatic expressions in their non-native languages, as well as develop greater cultural sensitivity in general.

Bilingual teachers consider the social realities of their students’ lives and try to make connections between what they teach, current events, and popular culture. This provides students with a footing in the subject matter and gives them context for how it relates to the larger world.

Education and Skills Needed to Become a Bilingual Teacher

To become a bilingual teacher, educators need to cultivate specific skills and attain the necessary schooling.

Required Education

Aspiring bilingual teachers must first earn at least a bachelor’s degree. If possible, they should earn a minor or second major in a foreign language, or they may choose to study bilingual education. All states require teaching certification according to grade level and subject area.

Many states also require teachers to acquire master’s degrees in education. Future bilingual teachers should also pursue bilingual certification when available. Earning this credential usually requires taking specialized courses, gaining bilingual teaching experience, and passing an exam.

Language Fluency

Bilingual teachers need language fluency in English and a second language. Fulfilling this requirement involves more than verbal fluency; it means full command over the grammar, structure, mechanics, and syntax of two languages. Additionally, bilingual teachers need to have the knowledge and techniques to explain and teach these concepts to students.

Characteristics of an Effective Bilingual Teacher

In addition to having the necessary training and language skills, bilingual teachers also possess several key traits that make them effective.

Excellent Organization Skills

Coordinating lessons in two different languages calls for extensive planning. Bilingual teachers also closely track their students’ progress and maintain detailed files recording grades, assessments, and student projects, which requires strong organization skills.

Resourcefulness

Learning a new language can create confusion and frustration for students. Bilingual teachers must come up with innovative strategies to keep their students engaged and manage disciplinary issues that arise out of student frustration. Additionally, bilingual teachers often have to devise several approaches to teach a concept, which demands resourcefulness and patience.

Superior Communication Skills

To help students grasp ideas and concepts across more than one language, bilingual teachers must express themselves clearly, both orally and in writing. They also must know how to manipulate visual images to help support student understanding and break complex ideas down into simpler terms.

Cultural Sensitivity

Effective bilingual teachers do not merely teach two languages; they build bridges between distinctive and complex cultures, helping students make sense of unfamiliar customs and ways of thinking. This requires openness and cultural sensitivity.

Job Outlook and Salary for Bilingual Teachers

In general, bilingual teachers earn the same base salary as other teachers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2019, teachers made the following median annual salaries:

  • $59,670 for kindergarten and elementary school teachers
  • $59,660 for middle school teachers
  • $61,660 for high school teachers

However, many schools offer signing bonuses to bilingual teachers, as well as ongoing yearly bonuses that can amount to thousands of dollars.

The BLS projects the number of teaching positions to grow by 4 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is about average. However, as school districts across the country expand their bilingual programs, bilingual teachers will likely find themselves increasingly in demand, probably at a higher rate than general education teachers.

Cultivate the Skills to Become a Bilingual Teacher

Bilingual teachers have a key role to play in closing achievement gaps and responding to the growing need for multilingual education. Learn more about how American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching helps educators cultivate the expertise to deliver culturally sensitive and innovative instruction.

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Houston Chronicle, “Qualities for a Bilingual Teacher”

National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest for Education Statistics”

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US Bureau of Labor Statistics, High School Teachers

US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

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US Department of Education, “Academic Performance and Outcomes for English Learners”

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