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Blazing the Trail for Bilingual Education

TeachHUB Interview


width=225After nearly 40 years involved in education trying to improve and promote Spanish literacy instruction and biliteracy education, Dr. Jill Kerpa Mora recently received the Two-way California Association for Bilingual Education 2009 Promoting Biliteracy Award.


Dr. Mora shares her experience fighting to get bilingual education accepted across the map, as someone who’s been with the struggle from the beginning.


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How did you get so active in biliteracy education?


I grew up in Cody, Wyoming – a small town where there were no Spanish speakers, that I knew of anyway. My parents were really interested in internationalism and they had taken us to travel in Mexico quite a bit when I was a very little girl. I think I got an imprint of Spanish at that time.


When I was 12 years old, my family moved to Costa Rica. My parents were semi-retired. I attended a public Costa Rican school and became proficient in Spanish through an immersion approach, except that my parents had the wisdom to hire a Spanish/English-speaking tutor who taught me to read and write in Spanish using the textbooks they used in Costa Rican public schools – the Basal readers, little story books, legends and poems and thing, so I became really proficient in the language.


After studying Spanish in high school, college and graduate school, I became a Spanish teacher in secondary school in Houston. When bilingual education developed, I went back to get my elementary credential and became a bilingual teacher in Houston.


How has bilingual education changed since you first worked as a language teacher in the 70s?


I’ve lived the history of bilingual education, in many ways. When I first entered the field, it was during the days of Title 7 (Bilingual Education Act) and the Civil Rights movement and programs were first being established in the early 70s after the Lau vs. Nichols decision.


I started teaching in 1972, right about the time there was all that political activity. The first programs were being established and the first position I got in bilingual education was with the first pilot program in the Spring Branch district.


I lived the early struggles of the program, when we didn’t really have too much of a research base. We were basing a lot of our programs on just sound principles of foreign language instruction and second-language instruction. There had been some experimental programs in Florida (Coral Gables) and some really solid duel immersion programs, but there weren’t too many models for us to go by.


Being in that initial atmosphere of being innovative and creative was really an exciting time, but also very difficult because there were a lot of struggles involved…. I saw that early development of the programs and learned about the components that were really important.


Changes, my gosh. We ticked along in Texas, where there seemed to be an ease about implementation. There was some resistance, but there was also a strong Latino community that was really supportive of the program. Ralph Yarborough who was one of the original authors of Title 7 was there, so there was a lot of politic support for it. We just went to town with the new programs.


I thought this was the way it was going to be everywhere. I even thought that in California they would be more progressive because it was the “land of the hippies” and everything.


When I came to California, I discovered there was a very different political climate.


In 1998, we had the Proposition 227 Initiative that basically was an attempt to ban bilingual education.*


What do you think is the impetus to such resistance to bilingual programs?


I think it’s a normal part of majority/minority politics and the changing power structures, the large amount of immigration in the state. There’s no country in the world that has found the perfect solution for acculturating immigrant populations. Everywhere where there is immigration on a large scale and the creation of a minority language community, they struggle with these issues.


In California, there was sort of an anti-immigrant backlash that created opposition to bilingual education. There was a growing perception that bilingual education actually held children back and kept them from learning English, which is not the case. At the time, 10 years ago believe it or not, we had some good research, but not the body of research and the meta-analyses of research that we have today that could show the effectiveness of the program and support our rationale.


The public was filled with myths. Often times, people are well intentioned, but misinformed and misled, so the public became concerned about the programs. They really had the belief that you could pass a law that would make everybody learn English quickly – give them one year of intensive English and that should do the trick.


It was really a lot of public buy-in to myths and misconceptions about bilingual education and bilingualism in general, and the desire to keep English as the dominant language and not to give an equal status to a language other than English.

What's going on with bilingual education now?

It’s interesting because what we’re finding, in San Diego just a couple of weeks ago, the board of education passed a provisional policy advocating bilingual programs wherever they could be implemented as part of a world language program so that everyone is encouraged to develop two languages. Biliteracy is not the rage, the mo, the fashion.


With this research base, people who are seeing the need for and the positive features of bilingualism now have a voice. Even though it’s happening on the local rather than state or governmental level, people are now open to implementation of the programs. What’s happening is that there is a growth in dual immersion programs or two-way programs. That’s the positive trend that we see.


In your opinion, what is the next step or goal in Bilingual Education?


What’s happening now is that we do have a solid research base that has changed the nature of the dialogue and the debate considerably.


One important event, research-wise, was the National Literacy Panel on Minority Language Children and Youth that came out in 2006…. They actually have quantified the “bilingual advantage” – among children who are taught literacy in their native language score anywhere from 12-15 percentile points more on achievements of English academic achievement.


People can’t say these programs don’t work or that bilingual education is bad for kids. All of those myths have been dispelled, maybe not in the general public, but in the research world, we know that those myths have been put to rest because this is a consistent, credible finding over time.


It confirms what we believed all along. If you develop bilingual children’s bilingual skills in both languages, they have a distinct academic advantage and not a deficit.


What does the most important thing for a classroom teacher need to know about teaching ESL/ELL (L2) students?


The relationship between language proficiency of the students and the types of structure, activities and text that she gives the students. This is something I am campaigning about constantly.


I think there’s a tendency now, because we’ve got a lot of literature and materials available for language learners, to lump them all together as if they were all alike. What that overlooks is the fact that teachers need to understand language proficiency – how it develops, how it increases, how it grows – but also what that means in terms of a child’s ability to work with written texts.


Listening and speaking skills tend to grow very rapidly, but that can be deceptive because reading and writing skills don’t grow at the same pace.


I think that’s a huge issue in terms of what happens to the students as they move up through the grades. There’s a tendency to want to exit children from ESL services at 3rd or 4th grade. That’s a critical point in their development, just at the point where their listening and speaking skills are beginning to converge with their reading and writing. They won’t be, even if they’re making normal progress, they won’t be reading on grade level. If you drop them off the radar screen, they don’t get the support they need in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade to keep developing their reading and writing skills and also to catch up on the content they’ve missed out on as they were learning English.


The result is that programs are often mistargeted. They’ll give 4th and 5th graders ELD (English Language Development) when they really need support in reading and writing. They need to continue to develop their oral skills, but that’s not the focus of their difficulty. In order to structure programs that are appropriate and effective, they need to be targeted at where the students are in their proficiency.


That’s why I’ve created my 4x4 model, which is basically a framework for understanding how language proficiency relates to the focus of instruction and the types of materials and activities engage in, in terms of increasing their learning.


How does this affect student and teacher performance?


When we’re looking at Race to the Top and the Obama administration’s policies, it’s a huge issue in terms of attempts to evaluate teachers based on test scores.


One of the things we know, and I hear this all the time from teachers, is that since those listening and speaking skills will grow very rapidly at first, on language proficiency tests for examples, students will show this spurt of growth at the beginning and then it slows because the types of skills they’re learning are more difficult and the test doesn’t tap into the development on those skills.


If teachers (4th, 5th & 6th grade) are going to be rated on how much their students’ language proficiency or proficiency scores are growing, they’re going to look they’re not as effective as the teachers in 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade, even thought they’re doing the Yeoman’s work. They’re doing the heavy lifting in terms of the students’ growth in academic skills.


I’ve recently spoken to a teacher who taught English in Honduras who said immersion is the ultimate way to understand the struggle of your ESL/ELL and bilingual students. Do you agree?


Any kind of language study, really, but a brief immersion experience is helpful.


Although, it’s different from an adult perspective than from a child’s perspective. Children have many more facilities in terms of learning a language because they’re natural risk-takers. They don’t mind making mistakes and sounding foolish and getting laughed and not being able to express themselves because they just throw themselves into the context.


It’s very helpful for teachers to study a language to realize that it’s not a one-to-one correspondence. Languages really have many features that are quite different.


Are you a supporter of bilingual education? Share your insights in the comments section!

* Dr. Mora recently published an article, From the Ballot Box to the Classroom, about Prop. 227 and its sister initiatives in Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts and Oregon and what happened with those which came out in Educational Leadership in April.Learn more about Dr. Mora and her work in bilingual education, read her publications or contact her with questions at the CLAD (Cross-Language and Academic Development) website 

Note: This interview was edited for length.


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