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. Do you need a license 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.
License 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 reveal 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.
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.
What is an 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.
ESL is sometimes also called English as an Additional Language, English to Speakers of Other Languages, or Multilingual Learners, as English is often not a second language but a third or fourth for some some learners.
What is a bilingual license?
This license is similar to an ESL license but goes a step further in that it requires the teacher to show proficiency in a language other than English (usually Spanish). Ideally the curriculum would include classes for how to bridge teaching between two languages. Many districts that have large populations of speakers of a single language, like Spanish, are beginning to require a bilingual license, instead of and ESL license, so teachers can help students in their native language.
Dual Language Immersion License (K-8):
Because these teachers usually teach all subjects like language arts, math, and science, they 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
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 also be in the World Language group. 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. Sadly, most World Language teachers don’t have any training in teaching heritage speakers, and treat them just like World Language students.
If you’re a teacher teaching immersion or heritage speakers for the first time and feeling a little lost, check out my course that is designed to give you everything you wish you’d learned in ed school. If you don’t have time for a course, two books I would highly recommend for Spanish teachers are En Comunidad and El libro de estrategies de escritura. (These are affiliate links and if you make a purchase you’ll be helping to support this blog–thanks!)
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. California State University San Marcos 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!