Driving Bilingual Education


I am a good driver. You’d never know it, given the theatrics of the backseat drivers in my vehicle, whose sudden gasps and quick grasps for the dashboard denote a lack of confidence in my skills.

This drama is alternately amusing, annoying and unnecessary. I'm proud to say that, for the most part, my instinctive go-to practice of "when in doubt, step on the gas" has never let me down.

The same adage can be used to describe the path of bilingual education in America. We push forward without regard to whether our knee-jerk reactions are the best choice.

Historically, English language learners (ELLs) have been thrown into English-speaking classrooms. The goal: to acquire our dominant language as quickly as possible. If institutions make accommodations by providing supportive programs in bilingual education, they often ignore the research that states it takes two or three years before children develop basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and five to seven years before cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) allows the language of learning to become fully realized. If you have ever learned a second language, you know that you can understand what someone is saying long before you can actually speak in that language with any aplomb.

Children learning English need time for this second language to swirl around in their brains before they are able to use it for academic achievement. A fast-paced regimen of quick assimilation has produced mixed results.

In America, negative views surrounding the bilingual education debate have influenced policy and practice. In California, Proposition 227 essentially outlawed bilingual education. This history is full of struggles with conflicting input from "experts" holding incompatible perspectives.

It recalls the influences and history of deaf education in America. The push toward integration has been forceful and unyielding. At one moment in this long history, the pendulum swung toward oralism and speech. Deaf children were made to sit on their hands to dissuade manual communication, and if they forgot the no-signing rule, punishment would be swift. At another time, the pendulum rested on the side of American Sign Language (ASL). Deaf children could express themselves more freely in a language that was natural and authentic. Both approaches brought more questions. What is the best way to teach deaf and hard-of-hearing students?

So it is with a great deal of pride that I find myself teaching at the only public dual-language (ASL and English) school in America with students who are deaf, hard of hearing and hearing. Here, the struggles in bilingual and deaf education come together, allowing us to lift up on the gas to give our students an education based on cultural and linguistic respect. We allow time for language to develop. 

We certainly do not have all the answers, but we are constantly questioning and learning. Our little school is adding to the history of both bilingual and deaf education. I look forward to seeing where it leads us.

Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.


Hi Gary - I just came across

Submitted by Raphael Martinez on 6 June 2012 - 8:31pm.

Hi Gary -

I just came across your article and wanted to let you know that in New Mexico we also have created a bilingual ASL-English public charter school which serves deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing children in Albuquerque. We are finishing up our second school year now and would love to connect with you and your program.

Please contact me at your convenience.

Rafe Martinez
(505) 507-3870 (voice/text)