At Rutgers-Newark, Pioneering ESL Programs for Multilingual Teaching Candidates


Multilingual teachers have skills that can make them great educators, supporting immigrant and first generation students in New Jersey’s largest cities in ways that no one else can.

Rutgers-Newark’s Urban Education Department cultivates those strengths with its newly created undergraduate English as a Second Language (ESL) certification program. It is the only school in the state, and one of a few nationwide, to offer an undergraduate major in ESL and Bilingual Urban Education.

The Rutgers-Newark ESL certification program recognizes that Urban Education teacher candidates, many of whom are from Greater Essex County and plan to teach here, are bilingual or multilingual, speaking languages that range from Spanish and Portuguese to Urdu. 

Their knowledge can make them more effective teachers, especially for children who are marginalized because they’re still learning English.

“We’re leveraging our students’ assets and addressing a very urgent need,’’ said Jhanae Wingfield, the department’s director of Field Experiences.

In New Jersey, which has a large and growing demographic of students who are bilingual or learning to speak English, teachers who can instruct in dual languages are in high demand, especially in urban schools. For instance, the Newark Board of Education offers a signing bonus for teachers with an ESL certification.

By offering the certificate to undergraduates, Rutgers-Newark makes it possible for Urban Education students to avoid the extra time and expense of obtaining the certificate in graduate school. 

“There are already so many hurdles that novice teachers have to negotiate, understanding culture should not be one of them,’’ said LaChan Hannon, director of Teacher Preparation and Innovation.  “We’re always exploring how to get the best out of our students with what we have and what we create.’’

For aspiring teachers who are bilingual or multilingual, the ability to speak more than one language often wasn’t considered a strength during their own K-12 education. In many school districts, not much has changed, say department faculty.

“They’ve had experiences that devalue their native languages and their home languages. This program helps affirm that it’s ok and valuable and your students would appreciate that you can say it four different ways if you need to. It’s empowering,’’ said Hannon.

“There has to be a different mindset,’’  she added. “It’s about helping students understand that their language is an asset, as meaningful and relevant. We want them to see their whole selves.’’’

Nationwide, a higher proportion of bilingual students and students learning English as a second language are classified as disabled, statistics the department wants to change. 

“That’s due to not having educators who are multilingual and understand language acquisition and cultural responsiveness,’’ said Lauren Shallish, associate professor of Critical Disability Studies.
A multilingual teacher can boost reading comprehension and critical thinking among students who might struggle to develop those skills while they’re still learning English. 

Many RU-N Department of Education students already have the ability to switch from one or more languages as they teach math or science and the program capitalizes on that. “It’s such a transferable skill and it makes our students more in tune with a landscape of linguistic diversity in terms of how they teach,’’ said Hannon.

Students have greeted the program with enthusiasm. “They’re excited that it’s there and they get to leverage their skills,’’ said Wingfield.  “They’re excited to have placements, internships where they can be bilingual.’’