Teacher learning

What teaching license do you need to teach language immersion classes or heritage speakers?

As education programs for language learners gain popularity, it can be a struggle to keep up on which program is which. Even more confusing is which teaching license is required for each program. What do you need to teach heritage speakers? Are you teaching 5th grade social studies in Spanish? That will be a different license than the 9th grade social studies teacher. The 5th grade ESL teacher? They have a different license, too. Oh, and if you want to transfer your license to another state then that is a whole different story.

So what teaching license do you actually need to teach immersion classes and heritage speakers? Well, the answer is it depends.

Read my post on heritage speaker v. native speaker v. world language learner for clarification on these terms.

Differences by state

First, in the United States education is completely state run, so teacher licensing is done at the state level, not the national level. This can be a huge pain, and show lots of inequities in teacher preparation programs. For example, after earning my initial licenses in Minnesota in French and Spanish (World Language) I did an additional K-12 license in ESL that consisted of nearly 30 credits of language acquisition, advocating for students, and teaching reading and writing. ESL was considered a stand alone license.

Classroom in Latin America

When I went to transfer my license to Wisconsin, I was almost unable to do so because in Wisconsin ESL is only an add-on license, meaning you needed to have a license in a content area like math, English, social studies or science to add it on to. I was pretty discouraged when I found out that in Wisconsin you can add on an ESL license by taking just two or three classes. It also makes me question if ESL certified teachers in Wisconsin are really prepared.

In any case, first and foremost is to check with the state that you are planning on getting licensed in. Even within your state there can be discrepancy between districts, so make sure to do your research.

ESL license:

This gives you the ability to work with English Language Learners. ESL teachers generally do not need to be fluent in another language. They may work with students who speak many different languages at home.

Bilingual license:

This license is similar to an ESL license but goes a step further in that it requires proficiency in a language other than English (usually Spanish) and ideally includes classes for how to bridge teaching between two languages.


Dual Language Immersion K-8:

Because these teachers usually teach all subjects like language arts, math, and science, they usually need an elementary education license AND a bilingual education license. Also common is to have a 50-50 split between languages and have one teacher teach the classes in Spanish and one teacher teach the classes in English and students see both teachers daily. In this case, the teacher teaching in English would need an elementary education license and an ESL license but would not need to be fluent in another language (although it would certainly be beneficial).

Secondary Immersion for Content Classes (6-12)

In middle and high school we have the continuation of immersion programs that started in elementary school. Many high schools have subjects like science or social studies that are taught in Spanish. In high school and sometimes in middle school teachers are subject specialists and usually only teach one or two subjects. This would require a content license (ie. biology) and a bilingual license.

Spanish, Spanish Language Arts and Heritage Speaker Classes

Teacher learning

Teaching Spanish classes, for example, Spanish 2, requires a World Language Spanish license. Usually, heritage speaker classes fall under this umbrella of World Language and do not require any additional license. Spanish Language Arts, or Spanish for immersion students may be the same. If many of the students in the immersion program are heritage speakers (Bilingual or Dual Language Immersion) then a bilingual license may be required. Nevertheless, teaching heritage speakers or Dual Language Immersion students should, in my opinion, require a bilingual license.

In addition, many places offer graduate certificates in immersion since the pedagogy can be quite different than World Language education or bilingual education where students already speak a different language at home. The University of Minnesota is one place that offers an online certification in Dual Language and Immersion.

It’s true that becoming a bilingual educator requires more work and classes than for monolingual educators. Fortunately, because bilingual teachers are in high demand, many of these licenses fall under official teacher shortage areas. This usually means that you can get certified under emergency certification and complete your license while you are teaching. Many universities also offer discounted tuition for classes towards these licenses. It’s a long process but worth it to better serve our students!

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