Education, International Journalism and PR, Interviews: Limburg, Limburg, My tips

‘’Schools should provide additional support to bilingual children’’

Leslie Sheriff is American and her husband Andrew is from Scotland. Their son is bilingual and attends a Dutch school.

Leslie is sharing with us her experiences about how to find the right school for bilingual children, what challenges bilingual children face at Dutch schools and what extra support they need, about CITO tests designed for monolingual children, problems with DMT tests and finally provides other parents and teachers of bilingual children with tips.

I am from the United States and my husband, Andrew, is from Scotland.  We moved to Maastricht in 2008 and currently live in the Scharn neighbourhood.  We speak English at home. I have been learning Dutch, but Andrew does not have time to focus on language, so we only speak English together.  (And, even if we were both learning Dutch, it’s unlikely that we would speak it together, realistically!)  We have one child who just turned 11.  He is fluent in Dutch, having been in the Dutch primary system since he was 4. 

Find the right school for your bilingual kids

It is very important to find a primary school where you feel comfortable and which is experienced in bilingualism, a critical consideration for any international family coming to Maastricht.  Many of Maastricht’s primary schools have non-Dutch kids attending now, but some are more experienced in supporting bilingual children than others. I believe that most bilingual children will need support in a Dutch language school environment, especially if they are new to the language and don’t have a fluent Dutch speaker at home.

When I was looking for primary schools for our son, I looked for a school where we felt welcomed as a non-Dutch speaking family and where I thought our son could get the support I knew he would need.  We knew we would be staying in Maastricht long term and wanted to give our son the gift of bilingualism.  Fortunately, I had a trusted friend who was already sending her girls to the Suringar School, a very small school located in Heer. (   Suringar seemed like a natural fit and is really quite close to our home in Scharn, especially by American standards.

When my husband and I visited Suringar, we were warmly welcomed, given a tour, and conversed with the Director in very good English.  We were assured that our son would be welcome and receive the support he needed.  I have always been grateful for this welcome and the continued support our son receives.

An unfortunate experience

That said, I did visit one other basisschool to see whether it might work for us.  It is even closer to us than Suringar and I knew the children in our neighbourhood would be attending it. Unfortunately, I did not have a warm welcome.  Seven years ago, when this visit occurred, my Dutch was very poor and the teacher I met with would not speak English with me.  I knew it would be important for me to be able to speak with teachers and others at school in English, at least for the first few years.  This was a “non-negotiable” at the time, so that school was definitely a “no.”

To this day, I’ll never understand why the first school was so unprepared to meet with me.  I’ve had many Dutch parents be surprised by my experience and other international families do send their kids there.  But, they clearly weren’t prepared, at least on that particular day, to understand our emerging bilingualism.

Find the teachers who are aware of how bilingualism impacts your child

All of the teachers at Suringar are very aware of the bilingual nature of the kids in their classrooms.  Our son is in a mixed Group 7/8 class, with a total of 27 children.  The Group 7 portion of the class, where our son now sits, is about 13 kids.  At least 5 of these children speak another language (English, Hungarian, Turkish, French, etc.) at home or have a parent from outside The Netherlands.  This is one of the larger ratios, but most year groups in the school have at least 2-3 bilingual kids. Thus, the teachers are VERY aware of how this impacts their work, the children, and, thus, the instruction needed.

As a result, our son received extra support with his Dutch from Day 1 at Suringar.  During the first couple of years (Groups 1-3 or so) he and several other non-Dutch native speakers worked with a special teacher on vocabulary.  When he was in Group 5, one of his teachers suggested that he might benefit from a bit of time after school with her to review the spelling and grammar he was learning in class. That time was hugely helpful.  Today, we are lucky to be able to afford a tutor for him once a week.  The tutor helps with the complicated grammar our son is now learning (in Group 7) and with writing the reports that I can’t really help with.

Understanding and support of teachers is crucial

I don’t believe that our son would have received the kind of support he received without understanding teachers who had the time to support him.  Also, cooperation with teachers is extremely important.  I need to be able to speak with our son’s teachers to explain the challenges I see and to discuss with them the support he might need.  I’ve always received this kind of access to teachers at Suringar.

Challenges bilingual kids face at school

Our son has been going to a school in a language other than his mother tongue since he began school, so I don’t think he would describe it as “difficult.” But, I do know that he struggles in ways he wouldn’t if he were in an English-language school.  For example, despite the fact that he receives support at school, his scores on tests do not always reflect his intelligence.  In fact, his reading comprehension scores were once so low that the teachers asked me to have him tested for some kind of delay.  When we visited the specialist, our son was asked to take intelligence tests in both English and Dutch.  He aced the English version of the intelligence test he was given, scoring in the 99th percentile.  He scored in the average range on the Dutch version.  Thus, we know that there is no real learning problem.  He just struggles because his vocabulary and every-day language is not Dutch.  As a result, our son needs to needs to study more, which is something of a “problem” for this particular 11-year-old boy.  He would rather be playing hockey or tennis!

When our son was younger, some of the older kids were occasionally mean to the “English” kids.  But, the school has a very strict anti-bullying policy and there hasn’t been much of a problem since. 

Problems with self-esteem and self-confidence

The biggest challenge we face is the “hit” our son has taken to his self-esteem and self-confidence because he doesn’t score as well as some of his Dutch friends on tests.  He sometimes thinks he is “stupid,” and is thus very anxious about tests, especially the CITOs.  Helping our son manage his test anxiety has been difficult for us as parents.

CITO tests are designed for Dutch speakers. Bilingual kids need extra support and time.

I am not a test specialist, but I have done some reading on the subject and have created a few tests myself.  As a result, am not a supporter of standardized tests in general.  Any child, Dutch or non-Dutch, can potentially struggle with this sort of test.  Intelligence comes in many shapes and sizes and I believe standardized tests only measure one sort of intelligence – the ability to take a test.  The problems with these sorts of tests are magnified when non-native Dutch speakers attempt to achieve good scores.  Our son has always scored relatively well on the math CITO exam.  With practice, he is slowly, slowly improving with his scores in Dutch reading comprehension, spelling, and vocabulary. 

Some of our son’s problems with these exams have to do with his anxiety.  Some of them have to do with the fact that he is just not a good test-taker.  He speeds through the exams because he hates them and makes silly mistakes.  And yes, of course, some of his struggle has to do with the fact that Dutch is not his native language. 

I would definitely agree that the CITO exams are developed for Dutch children.  That actually seems logical to me.  We live in The Netherlands and the school curriculum is targeted toward Dutch children.  That said, I do think bilingual kids need extra preparation and support when taking CITO exams.  For example, Suringar has always given our son the option of taking more time to finish the exams.  He is also able to take them in a different room away from distractions.  And, once or twice, when the teachers have seen him really distressed, they will help him through his anxiety before returning to the test. 

Fortunately, the Suringar school maintains a much more holistic view of the children than these exams.  They realize that a child’s intelligence is not entirely based on a series of tests taken at a certain point in time. This was clearly explained to me earlier this school year when I attended a meeting about how the school provides “advice” to children and families about secondary schools.  “Advice” in this sense means the recommendation the school provides to secondary schools about the child and the level at which he or she should continue learning.  As I understand it, the advice kids receive from the Suringar school is based on a much broader set of criteria than simply the CITO exams.  It can be a very stressful time for families and kids and I was very happy to learn about Suringar’s philosophy.

Special teaching methods for bilingual children

I definitely think that bilingual kids can benefit from special teaching methods.  I’m not a teacher or a learning specialist, so I don’t know what those might be, however!  I do know that there is one aspect of learning to read in Dutch that has impacted Ian’s reading since the beginning.  In my experience, Dutch children are first taught word recognition rather than word comprehension.

DMT tests not a good idea

In group 3 and 4, children are asked to read words at speed (DMT tests).  They are given timed tests to see how many words they can read in a certain period of time.  Given our son’s relatively limited Dutch vocabulary at the time, he could read the words quickly, but didn’t understand them. In my opinion, this has not helped our son learn to enjoy reading.  Instead, it initially taught him that reading fast is better than really understanding what he reads.  I am certain that this teaching method negatively impacted his ability to read and thus, his achievement at school.  When he was younger, it was clear to me that he didn’t enjoy reading because he felt he needed to read quickly.  He wasn’t understanding what he was reading.  Fortunately, this is changing as he matures. 

Extra support for bilingual children at Dutch schools is necessary

I have been a member of the Suringar parent committee for years. I have also participated in strategic planning efforts the school has engaged in.  Thus, I understand the challenges Dutch schools are facing these days.  Resources are scarce.  However, Suringar has always made a conscious choice to spend some of its scarce resources on its bilingual children.  For this we will always be grateful.

My tips to parents and teachers of bilingual kids

  • Ask for regular access to the teachers so that you can ask them how your child is doing, what his/her challenges are, where you can help, etc.
  • Ask for special support for your children at school and be specific about what you think is needed.
  • Ask what special support outside of school is available. For example, our son was having trouble saying the Dutch “r” (I still can’t do it correctly).  The school recommended that he see a speech therapist, who had him saying it correctly within weeks. 
  • Ask for materials/books that you can bring home to work on with your child.  For example, our son works with his tutor using the same language book they use at school.
  • Ask whether the Maastricht dialect is spoken at school. If it is, that might not be the best place for a bilingual child trying to learn Dutch.  They would essentially be learning two languages instead of one, especially when trying to interact with children on the playground. From what I can tell, Suringar kids speak mostly Dutch at school.  There are a few instances when teachers speak Maastrichts, but only for particular occasions and everyone is aware.  It’s always a positive experience.

Photo: Leslie Sheriff

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Our new series of articles is devoted to the issue of bilingualism/multilingualism at Dutch schools. Parents of bilingual/multilingual children will share their stories and tips. Do you also want to share your story contact us via: and in the title of the mail write: My story.

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