Navigating bilingual education for Utah students


Story and photos by KAELI WILTBANK

The last decade has seen a large influx of Utah residents who speak a language other than English in the home. As of 2016, that number was over 400,000 people, ranking Utah as the third-fasting growing state for residents who speak a foreign language in the home. Much of that growth can be attributed to native-born children of immigrants

Paige Wightman teaches eighth- and ninth-grade English at West Jordan Middle School. Because of the demographics of the area, she was required to get an English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement, which has given her the opportunity to teach a language development class. The curriculum is designed for students who don’t speak English as their primary language at home. While the languages spoken in the class range from Portuguese to Arabic, the main language spoken by her students is Spanish.


Pictured here and at top, three books from a small Spanish selection of books at Sprague Branch Library in Salt Lake City.

When speaking of the challenges of teaching a class of bilingual children she explains, “I ran into some problems when I encouraged my students to read a book in English and a book in their native language one quarter and the kids didn’t have access to what they needed. It surprised me and it was very disheartening when I learned that we didn’t have any Spanish books in the library.”

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, native Spanish-speaking students who had an increased vocabulary in Spanish saw significant positive effects on their English fluency and reading speed. Their research helped prove a positive correlation of literacy skills being transferred between the first and second languages. 

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, former Utah State House Representative, is a third-generation American. She recounts her grandfather moving to the United States from Mexico in the early 1900s and making education in both Spanish and English a priority for his children. “My grandfather, my mom’s dad, knew how to read and write in Spanish. So what did he do? He taught his kids how to read and write Spanish before they were in kindergarten. This set the stage for my mom’s success as well as for subsequent generations,” she said.

The Gomez family has been living in Utah for over 15 years and has been navigating their own bilingual experience a bit differently in 2019. Both Monica and her husband Rafael grew up speaking Spanish as their native language. Monica was born in Mexico and picked up English from watching movies and television. When she moved to San Diego and married Rafael, who was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, they had to decide how they wanted their three children to learn both languages.

Gomez explained the education her oldest daughter received in San Diego. “It was a Spanish immersion program in San Diego where they had half of their classes in English and half of their classes in Spanish. By sixth grade, they would come out reading and writing in both languages. But she was only there for a couple of months because we moved.”

After coming to Utah the girl was put in the English courses. Monica’s daughter, now 18, said she can speak both Spanish and English like she’s a native to both, but has a difficult time writing in Spanish.

Monica’s youngest son, Nick, is 10 years old and can understand Spanish, but doesn’t feel confident speaking the language. “Nicholas is different [than my older children] because, church, school, and friends are in English. We speak Spanish at home but if it’s homework time it has to be in English.”

Monica described a system that she saw in Mexico growing up. Many of the schools have English classes offered to children from the time they are in preschool, similar to what is offered to high school students here in the United States. She said she would have liked the opportunity to have her son take Spanish classes in elementary school, believing that this could be an alternative route to the ESL program.

Wightman, the teacher at West Jordan Middle School, is eager to offer better resources to her bilingual students. She has asked her school librarian to be on the lookout for Spanish books. Like many teachers, she has spent much of her personal money filling her bookshelf with Spanish options but has found that most books are low level and not what her middle school students need. Wightman explained, “I think that sends the message to that community that they are children or like it’s some sort of disadvantage if you don’t speak English and the only other resource we offer them is something with very simple Spanish. We should be encouraging culture and language through a variety of different ways.”

While the resources for bilingual students in Utah may be limited, Wightman said she has deep respect for her diligent students. “I’m especially fond of the Latinx community because they are some of the hardest working students I have, keeping in mind they have to work double time. They have to translate what they hear into Spanish, then they have to translate their answer from Spanish to English. They have to have the courage to speak up, which is hard for any teenager, but especially hard if you’re afraid you’re going to sound dumb.”

Wightman concluded, “We need this generation to stay in school and we need them to have post-secondary education. They are going to be the change makers and if we want any change we need to invest in them, in the Latinx community.”

%d bloggers like this: