Learning English in Washington Schools: What Families Should Know

Contact Information

Kristin Percy Calaff
Director of Multilingual Education

There are over 130,000 multilingual English learners in Washington state. Our goal is to support all multilingual learners to meet state standards and develop English language proficiency in an environment where linguistic and cultural assets are recognized as valuable resources for learning.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are districts required to help students learn English?

School districts must ensure that multilingual learners with limited English proficiency are able to participate meaningfully in school and are not denied access to equal educational opportunities. It is important that students who need additional help learning English get the support they need to be successful in school.

English language development programs are required to be:

  • Based on sound educational theory
  • Implemented effectively
  • Evaluated annually to ensure effectiveness
What are the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program and Title III?

The Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program is funded by the state of Washington, and the Title III program is funded by the federal government. The goal of both programs is for students to develop English language proficiency while developing academics at grade level.

Funding for the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program and Title III may pay for things like teacher salaries, professional development and training for teachers, materials to help students learn English, parent involvement and literacy activities, instruction outside of the typical school day, and translation and interpretation services specific to the program.

How do students qualify for a district's English language development program?

When students enroll in school, parents are asked:

  • "What language did your child first learn to speak?"
  • "What language does your child use the most at home?"

If the answer to either question is a language other than English, the student takes the WIDA English Language Proficiency Screener. Students who score below the proficient level on the WIDA Screener qualify for additional help to improve their English.

How long do students receive English language development services?

Students continue in the English language development program as long as they need help learning English. The WIDA annual assessment is given to measure students' growth in English language knowledge and skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking each spring. A student will continue to qualify for English language development services until they meet the exit criteria on the WIDA annual assessment and transition from the program.

After students transition out of English language development services, they are monitored for the next two to four years to make sure they are academically successful. If exited students are struggling, they may receive additional academic support.

What types of English language development programs are offered in Washington state?

Schools in Washington state offer either bilingual or sheltered English programs. Research shows that students learning English in a bilingual program are more academically successful in the long term than those in English-only programs. Districts that do not have the capacity to provide bilingual instruction can help students learn English through Sheltered Instruction by teaching in strategic ways to make academic concepts comprehensible while promoting students' English language development.

The following programs are approved models in Washington state:

  • Dual Language Programs: Dual language programs provide instruction in English and another language for at least 50% or more of the instructional time. Programs begin in kindergarten and continue through middle or high school to fully develop bilingual and biliterate proficiency.
  • Transitional Bilingual Programs: Transitional bilingual programs use the student’s first language as a foundation to support English language development with 90% of initial instruction in the first language, increasing English instruction systematically until all instruction is provided in English.
  • Content-based Instruction Programs: Content-Based Instruction (or Sheltered Instruction) is used in classes comprised predominantly of multilingual/English learners. Explicit English language development (ELD) and grade-level academic content is delivered by specially trained teachers.
  • Supportive Mainstream: Students in the Supportive Mainstream model access grade-level academic content and English language development through participation in their mainstream classrooms with support provided either individually or in small groups by specially trained educators.
  • Newcomer Programs: Newcomer Programs provide specialized instruction to beginning level multilingual/English learners who have newly immigrated to the United States and may have limited or interrupted formal education or low literacy in their primary language. Typical program length ranges from one semester to one year for most students.
Do parents have the right to decline services?

Yes, parents can choose to remove their children from the English language development program. However, parents should first discuss this decision with an administrator who can explain the benefits of participation in the program. Parents should also ask about the programs and methods of instruction available at the district. Parents have the right to choose another program or method of instruction, if available.

How can parents of multilingual learners be involved in their children’s education?

Family involvement is a key factor in a student's academic performance. When families are involved, research shows students benefit with better attendance, improved behavior, better social skills, higher grades, and enrollment in more challenging classes.

If you have limited English skills, ask the district to provide an interpreter at school meetings and translate important written documents. School districts have the responsibility to communicate with parents in a language they can understand.

You can also be involved in your child’s English language development program in these ways:

  • Districts are required to inform parents about how they can help their children learn English, be successful in school, and meet the same academic standards that all students are expected to meet.
  • Districts must ask for parent input on the program or method of instruction used in the English language development program and on the district's Title III plan.
  • Some districts use Title III or Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program funding to provide training to parents on topics such as computer use, leadership, English as a second language, homework help, or learning activities to do at home.

Attend district meetings and respond to requests for suggestions. Your ideas will improve services to your children and your family!

What are the benefits of learning two languages?

Your efforts to help your children learn their first language well are important. Continue speaking, telling and reading stories, listening to music, and learning new things with your children in your language.

Knowing more than one language is a skill to be valued and encouraged. Studies have shown that when children continue to learn their native language, this does not interfere with learning English - it makes the process easier!

Some of the benefits of bilingualism are:

  • Intellectual: The best way to ensure academic success and intellectual development is for parents and children to use the language they know best with each other. Also, bilingual children have greater mental flexibility and use those skills to their advantage in math and other subjects.
  • Educational: Students who learn English and continue to develop their native language do better in school than those who learn English at the expense of their first language. It is much easier to learn to read in a language you already know. Once you can read in one language, it is easier to learn to read in another.
  • Personal: A child's first language is critical to his or her identity. Continuing to develop this language helps the child value his or her culture and heritage.
  • Social: When the native language is maintained, important links to family and other community members are preserved and enhanced.
  • Economic: The demand for bilingual employees throughout the world is increasing. The ability to speak, read, and write two or more languages is a great advantage in the job market.

Source: If Your Child Learns in Two Languages by Nancy Zelasko and Beth Antunez (U.S. Department of Education's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, August 2000)

Did you know...?
  • Twelve percent of students in Washington State participate in programs to learn English. That is over 130,000 students, representing more than 230 languages.
  • Spanish is the primary language spoken by 55 percent of students learning English. Other common languages spoken include Russian, Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Arabic, Somali, Marshallese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Punjabi.
  • Most students served by the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program are enrolled in elementary school.
  • Even if students appear to be fluent, they may still need support in developing the language skills they need to be successful in school. Research has demonstrated that achievement of "academic" English, the level needed to participate in instruction in English without help, takes four to seven years or more to develop fully.