“Teacher! Here are 22,” says the cook at the Guachipelín School in San José when she hands Alexandra Wong Carbonell a bowl of 22 bananas. Teacher Ale has been the school’s only bilingual preschool teacher for four years. That’s why everyone in the school, including those who are not her students, calls her “teacher”—unlike the other teachers, who are addressed with the traditional “niña.”
It is past eight in the morning, and Teacher Ale class is receiving the breakfast that the Ministry of Public Education (MEP) gives to all public school students every morning.
“Do you want water, my love?” the teacher asks each child. She serves them as soon as she receives a “Yes, please.”
In 2019, Teacher Ale, a graduate of the Bilingual Preschool Education program at the Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, decided to take the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). According to the new hiring framework that was approved that year by the MEP, this exam is required to certify the English level of an applicant for a position as a teacher with an English speciality. Soon afterwards, she was hired for the Guachipelín School. Of the school’s eight class groups—four maternal (3 to 4 years old) and four transition (4 to 5 years old)—only the transition group that she now teaches is bilingual. The other seven groups do not receive English in any of the multiple forms of instruction that the MEP has implemented since 2019.
Today, Teacher Ale is working on numbers with her students, who are returning from a two-week vacation. The head count tops out at 22—well, 24, if we count the teacher and the visiting photojournalist.
Using songs, videos with movement prompts for different body parts, cardboard number boxes, and finger paints applied to plastic kitchen wrap, Teacher Ale reviews the numbers one through 30, forwards and backwards, and the concepts of amount, all in English. Her students already know how to count to 20 fluently.
But they also understand all the teacher’s instructions. “Yes, you can take your sweater off but put it in your backpack.” “Show me your magic fingers!” Every time kids ask if they can go to the bathroom, she replies: “Repeat after me: ´May I go to the toilet please?”
The MEP wants to implement this approach to second language acquisition in all its schools one day.
“It’s linguistic immersion,” says Manuel Rojas, advisor to the Academic Office and coordinator of the Alliance for Bilingualism (ABi) at the MEP. ”You learn the language as you go. Language is the vehicle that takes you to learning.”
Generally, immersion means teaching using the target language (in this case English) almost exclusively, rather than relying heavily on the mother tongue to explain concepts or manage the classroom. The MEP is seeking a huge change on its preschool level: immersion throughout the school day, rather than teaching English for one or two specific lessons a day. Its eventual goal is to certify all preschool teachers in a second language so that they can incorporate that language throughout daily activities.
“The results are much more effective when boys and girls learn as part of their daily lives, when they can really make use of the language,” explains Adriana Díaz Madriz from the MEP’s Early Childhood department. “If they use it [that way], they don’t even realize when they’re learning it, and it’s not so complicated… These are the new methodologies for learning a second language that are being recommended.”
What happened before 2018
In 2018, the Early Childhood department and the coordination of ABi MEP faced a big question mark. Why, if since 2002 there is a clear intention within the ministry to teach English at least at the transition level (that is, the level before first grade), in 2018 it had not been possible to advance more than12, 6% coverage of the student population? Why did only 1.6% of the country’s institutions have bilingual preschools?
What did you find? A hiring scenario that only allowed having an English teacher for one lesson a day for each group—approximately 40 minutes—which was isolated from all the activity that took place in the class. This, despite the fact that preschool classes in the public sector are organized in “experience of the day” and not lessons, which can be the moment of snack, the moment of rest, the moment of greeting good morning.
But the problem went beyond the children’s exposure to the language. Preschool teachers with a specialty in English had to complete their 30 weekly work lessons in many preschool groups, which generally involved transfers between educational centers, with a high economic and health cost.
The scenario was not the best for either party.
What did the MEP do? The first step was to change the hiring frameworks for teachers, and aim for the ideal scenario: that preschool classrooms live completely immersive English experiences, in which up to 80% of the “experiences of the day” are completely in English.
“It is a way of injecting [language] into the kids. It’s a vaccine against monolingualism,” says Manuel.
This is how the Department of Early Childhood has implemented a reform that kicks up a lot of dust, but that today is progressing at the steady pace, as quickly as the system and budget allow. According to MEP statistics, the reform has allowed Costa Rica’s schools to reach 17.7% coverage of English teaching at these levels by 2022, an increase of 5% in three years during a global pandemic.
How does the reform work? It breaks down into four realities.
Preschool English teachers who teach 1-2 English classes that integrate the group’s daily activities and routines.
The first scenario is a variation of what has existed since the first pilot in 1998, where a preschool English teacher teaches one lesson per day. But unlike what used to happen, the English teacher now integrates the group’s other daily activities—for example, eating, playing, and resting—into those sessions. In addition, three and four-year-olds (maternal) now receive two daily immersive English lessons for a total of approximately 80 minutes.
With this scenario, the English teacher works with each group and school for longer, which also allows her to cover fewer schools in a week. It exposes the students, and also the lead teacher, to the English language for longer and in everyday conditions, promoting more meaningful learning.
Elementary English teachers who visit preschool classes to teach two English lessons.
The second scenario assigns the same two daily lessons to a primary-school English teacher in places where there is no preschool English teacher. According to Ofelia Montoya from the MEP’s Early Childhood Department, who is a liaison with ABi, the elementary teacher can “expand or complete her English lessons with preschool groups. Before, we could only have a bilingual preschool teacher. So, we have the teacher who is a preschool specialist and the one who speaks to her in English, [working together] for 10 lessons during the week.”
This week we published a Voices 506 column by primary school teacher Francinie Gómez, who works under this scenario at the Gavilán Indigenous School.
The challenges of being the first English teacher in a rural school
However, the ultimate goal of this reform is for all public preschools in the country to be fully bilingual and immersive, meaning that the more than 6,000 preschool teachers who work for the MEP are preschool teachers with a specialty in English. This change is not easy, especially because until 2019 the hiring profile of teachers did not ask for this type of specialty. This has led to the two other scenarios.
A voluntary decision by existing preschool teachers to become certified in English. This way they can incorporate English into all their daily activities.
The MEP changed its preschool hiring qualifications to create the position of a preschool teacher with a specialty in English, who must be certified with a C1 or B2 level of the Common European Framework. (Read about what means this certification in our report on linguistic proficiency tests.)
How Costa Rica transformed the way it assesses its English students
In order to find out if there were preschool teachers within the MEP who already qualified, 3,917 preschool teachers who work for the MEP—66% of the total—voluntarily took a language proficiency test in 2019. Of those teachers, 68% of teachers demonstrated A2 proficiency, and 24% B1. Only 1% reached B2, the minimum level necessary to become certified with an English specialty.
By 2022, five educators had qualified as bilingual preschool teachers. At the schools where they taught before, they now spend the whole day delivering English immersion. Many other teachers who scored at the B1 level are being trained through various MEP alliances with institutions such as the U.S. Embassy and the College of Graduates and Professors in Letters, Philosophy, Sciences and Arts (COLYPRO). Any preschool teacher who wants to be certified in English can do so and present the corresponding credentials to the MEP to change their specialty.
Any new preschool teacher hired by the MEP as of 2019 must have a certification in a second language, unless none is available.
The last scenario affects new hires: since 2019, priority for any preschool hire must be given to teachers certified in a second language. That’s how Teacher Ale got her position at the Guachipelín School.
However, Manuel explains if no teacher with a language certification is available, another teacher must be hired. In the end, the most important thing is to offer the preschool to the entire population, bilingual or not.
All certified teachers in the second language then teach 80% of the day in English and 20% in Spanish, according to those in charge of the Early Childhood office.
“[The teacher] takes the preschool education program that we have for the entire country, but uses English,” Ofelia explains. “The child is exposed to English all day—the songs, the explanations—so that the child has comprehension skills in English, and develops oral expression spontaneously.
“Everyone expects an English curriculum,” adds Ofelia. “There is no English curriculum [in preschool] because we are looking at it from the immersive model.”
The MEP statistics say that to date, in addition to the five teachers that have switched their specialty to English there are 65 new hires, like Teacher Ale, working in immersion; 98 preschool teachers with an English specialty are now working with lead teachers during students’ daily activities; and 113 primary school teachers are now working with preschool teachers. Although the numbers are encouraging, it is still a long way from achieving the coverage the MEP wants to achieve for students under the age of six.
What’s standing in the way of further growth?
Guiselle Alpizar, head of the MEP’s Early Childhood Department, explains that the main obstacle is university preparation of preschool teachers that’s not aligned with the MEP’s new requirements.
“We must call on universities. The staff they train must respond to the needs of the largest employer,” says Guiselle. “[The universities] can offer us trained personnel with linguistic skills so that they can offer bilingual preschool education in an immersive framework… We have a coverage goal, but we need the human resources to be able to achieve it.”
Manuel explains that his office has worked hard on this issue, and that public universities such as the Liberia Headquarters of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), the National University (UNA), and the Distance State University.(UNED) are developing and offering bilingual preschool majors. The private ULatina has also continued to ofer with this type of training, and other private universities such as the Latin American University of Science and Technology (ULACIT) are joining in.
“The budget issue is once again a problem for this,” adds Manuel, describing another obstacle. He explains that budget cuts have slowed progress by preventing new hires.
Giselle says that MEP should also “motivate teachers to want to change [to an English] specialty, highlighting the personal benefits of a second language. The country needs people who speak English.”
Extending bilingualism to other positions and levels
The 2021 State of Education Report, in its section “Baseline Research, Bilingualism in Costa Rican Preschool: Achievements and Challenges,” establishes a list of recommendations for the bilingual preschool project. One of them is the need for the same English specialization now requested from teachers, at the administrative level, with the MEP’s Early Childhood Advisors. These advisors work regionally to support classroom teachers.
Manuel explained to El Colectivo 506 that he agrees with this recommendation, and that “with the U.S. Embassy we have generated professional development processes where national and regional advisors are learning English.”
In the meantime, whenever a school begins bilingual education, the regional preschool advisor receives support from a regional English advisor.
Another challenge is to ensure the continuity of the immersion methodology beyond preschool.
The MEP’s most up-to-date percentage of bilingual preschool coverage shows that, thanks to the reform and including private preschools, 24% of the population under six in Costa Rica is learning a second language, mostly English.
However, it is clear that the transformation must continue at the other levels.
“We are climbing Mount Everest, because this cannot stay at the preschool level,” says Ofelia. She says that the immersive model must continue into elementary school as it does in many private schools, where some basic subjects, such as science, are taught in English. As students enter high school, they can increase the percentage of subjects taught in English.
“We have a country where tourism is one of the great economic resources,” says Guiselle. “We have 27 educational regions, many on the coasts, which is where the tourists are. We need our children and teachers to master English so that they can communicate from a cultural and linguistic framework.
“It is a way of being able to develop life skills in kids,” she concludes. “To transform for a new citizenry.”