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Yup'ik RavenOur Language Our Souls:

The Yup'ik bilingual curriculum of the
Lower Kuskokwim School District: A continuing success story.

Edited by Delena Norris-Tull, University of Alaska Fairbanks,
School of Education, Fairbanks, Alaska
copyright 1999

Chapter 1
The Yup'ik First Language Program:
Lower Kuskokwim School District
By Mary Lou Beaver and Evon Azean, Sr.
Kongiganak, Alaska
Copyright 1998

(This article combines contributions of both authors. Where first person comments are included, the specific speaker is noted).

This paper describes the Yup'ik First Language Program and a new third grade transition program provided by the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) to assist children of Yup'ik or Cup'ig heritage to develop proficiency in both Yup'ik (or Cup'ig) and English.

From the beginning of formal schooling in Alaska, Western culture has imposed compulsory education using the English language. The Yup'ik First Language (YFL) program started in our region of Alaska in the early 1970s, when most of the elementary schools were run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). By that time, high schools were state-operated schools. State schools were not very interested in this alternative program at first, although they had heard some of the BIA schools were having success with the new bilingual program. The YFL schools were teaching their students how to read and write in Yup'ik, in their own dialect.

Today fourteen village schools in LKSD have a Yup'ik First Language Program. It is important that students experience a smooth transition from the YFL program to classrooms in which the majority of instruction is in English. Transition is the process of changing from one form, state, activity or place to another. Students who come to school speaking Yup'ik need several years of careful instruction to make a successful transition to English.

Mary Lou Beaver: 'Growing up speaking Yup'ik Eskimo was very special. I remember what my grandmother told me. She said, "Your spoken language is God-given; use it with pride." She also said, "When you raise your children, speak to them in Yup'ik."

Yup'ik was the dominant language for me at home, with English "immersion" at the school. Our village elementary school went up to fifth grade. For sixth grade, we were sent away to a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Boarding school in Wrangell, Alaska. Wrangell is far from my village and people there do not speak Yup'ik. Our transition from Yup'ik to English began the moment we stepped off the plane. Everything was in English only. The only time we spoke Yup'ik was when we were with our cousins or friends who spoke Yup'ik. English was not spoken at home so we didn't know English very well. I remember, in particular, one day when my cousins and I were walking around the Wrangell Boarding School campus. It was on a weekend or after school when we were approached by three young boys. They said, "We'd like to meet you girls." We just stared at them and didn't say a word because we didn't understand what the word "meet" meant. So, we just walked on by and went back to our dorm. Later on, towards the end of the year, we realized what "meet" meant and made a joke about it within our group.'

LKSD has 27 schools with an enrollment of about 3500 students. Within the 27 schools, there are a variety of different bilingual models used. Yup'ik First Language Programs (transitional programs) are designed for students for whom Yup'ik is their first and primary language. Fourteen schools have a Yup'ik First Language Program (YFL) for the primary grades. Children in these schools come to school speaking mostly in Yup'ik. They are taught in Yup'ik for the first few years of their schooling and are gradually transitioned into classrooms taught in English.

In villages in which a significant number of children are not fluent in Yup'ik or Cup'ig, some form of a Yup'ik or Cup'ig Second Language or immersion program exists. Four schools have a Yup'ik two-way immersion (dual-immersion) program in which children are taught in both Yup'ik and English, with Yup'ik being used for the majority of the school day in the first three years. Third grade is the grade in which students experience an intensive transition into English.

Two schools have a one-way Yup'ik or Cup'ig immersion program. Students in these programs are proficient English speakers, most of whom have a background in Yup'ik or Cup'ig but are not Yup'ik/Cup'ig speakers. The first few years are taught in Yup'ik or Cup'ig.

In villages where students come to school mostly speaking in English the school may have only a Bilingual/Bicultural or Yup'ik Second Language Program. These students may not understand Yup'ik very well, even if their parents are fluent speakers. These students are taught predominantly in English, beginning in kindergarten, and are taught Yup'ik speaking, reading, and writing as a part of their daily instruction. In some high schools, Yup'ik language study is optional. Until recently, a number of village schools chose this model even though the village residents (including children) are predominantly Yup'ik speaking. However, research conducted by the school district, and the experience of the communities using YFL and two-way immersion programs, has convinced more villages that Yup'ik speaking students will have greater success in English if they are taught in Yup'ik in their early school years.

In addition to the various Yup'ik language programs, each school has an English as a Second Language Program (primarily focusing on the primary grades) and an English language development program from kindergarten to twelfth grade. The combination of Yup'ik and English language programs assists students to continue to develop proficiency in standard English while maintaining the language, heritage and traditional practices of the local village throughout their schooling.


Language Assessment

When the bilingual program started in the LKSD, the Dauenhauer Language Assessment for language dominance was used in testing the students' fluency in English.

Another assessment used was the Stanford Early School Achievement Test-Yup'ik (SESAT). Today some of those have been replaced with assessments that are better aligned with the learning in the classroom. These tests should measure how much the student knows about the Yup'ik language, and the student's level of skill in reading, writing, and listening in Yup'ik as well as in English. When students enter a Yup'ik First Language Program school today, they are assessed for both English and Yup'ik proficiency. Currently used assessments include norm-referenced test scores in reading and language arts (to diagnose students who are not yet proficient in English). English language proficiency is assessed using the IPT (IDEA Language Proficiency Test) and the Comprehensive English Language Test (CELT) (for grades K-8) or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (Pre-TOEFL/TOEFL) for grades 9-12. Achievement tests used are the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) and California Achievement test, fifth edition (CAT/5) in grades 2-12 and the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) in grades 7-12.

Here is a quick overview of the Lau Language dominance categories: Lau category A= child speaks only Yup'ik; B= child speaks mostly in Yup'ik and a little English; C= child speaks some Yup'ik and some English; D= child speaks mostly in English and little Yup'ik; E= child speaks only English with background of Yup'ik and is able to understand family members speaking Yup'ik; and F= child speaks and understands only English. Children in the Yup'ik First Language Schools would generally fall into Lau categories A and B.

In the seventeen Yup'ik First Language village schools, the recommended daily time schedule for instruction in Yup'ik/Cup'ig and in English as a Second Language (ESL) is generally as follows:

  • Kindergarten= Instruction in Yup'ik about 3.5 hours; oral English instruction (ESL) fifteen minutes.
  • Grade 1= Instruction in Yup'ik about 4.5 hours; oral English instruction (ESL) about 45 minutes.
  • Grade 2= Instruction in Yup'ik about 4.5 hours; ESL instruction about one hour, with oral English in first semester, introduction of written English in second semester.
  • Grade 3= Instruction in Yup'ik about 4 hours; ESL instruction 1.5 hours.

Or, for students needing greater assistance in preparing for instruction in English,

  • Grade 3= Intensive transition into English as the language of instruction, with Yup'ik maintenance about 1.5 hours per day.
  • Grades 4-8 = Instruction in English; Yup'ik maintenance about one hour; English Language Development (ELD) program continues to assist students in developing proficiency in reading and writing in English.

In the primary grades, YFL Program students have virtually all instruction conducted in Yup'ik in the first two years. Gradually, they transition into more courses taught in English, and they need less and less ESL instruction.

Yup'ik Instructors must be fluent Yup'ik speakers and trained in Yup'ik orthography (spelling and phonetics) and language teaching methods. The Lower Kuskokwim School District has the highest percentage of certified Alaska Native teachers in the state. Despite the large number of Alaska Native teachers in the district (nearly 30 percent), the district has a shortage of certified teachers who can teach in Yup'ik. In addition to Yup'ik speaking certified teachers, the school district also uses Associate Teachers and Teacher Aides as bilingual instructors. Yup'ik bilingual instructors are selected based on their fluency in Yup'ik and proficiency in Yup'ik culture. They are tested on how much they know about Yup'ik language, animals, plants, parts of the body, computation skills in Yup'ik, other Alaska Native cultures, and so on. As with the certified teachers, non-certified Yup'ik instructors must be fluent in Yup'ik, and they receive training in Yup'ik orthography and bilingual teaching methods. For a number of years, the program directors have focused on hiring teachers who already speak Yup'ik, and have provided additional training in bilingual education for the teachers through the University of Alaska Fairbanks in special summer institutes. During these institutes, the bilingual teachers receive training in how to read and write in Yup'ik, and at the same time they also take courses in Yup'ik grammar and learn how to analyze words in Yup'ik. In addition, during the summer institutes, the teachers develop Yup'ik textbooks and story books for the Yup'ik language and culture programs.

Students in the YFL schools are expected to learn basic listening, speaking, writing and reading skills in both languages: English and Yup'ik. The students are prepared for the Yup'ik alphabet sounds. In kindergarten they learn the basic sounds of the Yup'ik alphabet. In this grade level the students are taught Yup'ik ways and Yup'ik games that are simple enough for them to follow. Once they begin to learn the sounds of the Yup'ik alphabet, they are taught basic Yup'ik writing systems. As students advance through the grades, they are gradually introduced to more and more instruction in English.

The communities believe it is important to schedule transition to classes taught in English properly. Most sites find that third grade is a critical year for the transition into English. A carefully planned transition program at that stage is important to ensure students have adequate time to learn the second language, English. A newly developed intensive transition program occurs between grades three through four.

Students placed in the intensive transition program are those children who need more practice than others to meet the English performance standards. If a student leaving second grade fails to meet the English literacy performance standards, with or without an Individualized Education Program (IEP), he or she will be placed in an intensive transition program in third grade.

Prior to exiting the transition program, each student must be assessed by the English Language Leader (ELL) or Itinerant Language Leader (ILL) (not the Transition Program teacher). The ELL teacher is a certified teacher who also teaches ESL.

Before exiting the transition program and entering classrooms in which instruction is solely in English, students must:

  1. Score at least level D on his/her Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  2. Meet at least 90% of the LKSD ESL outcomes for 3rd grade.
  3. Read at 40 in the LKSD Benchmark books, and pronounce correctly at least 90% of the English words.

The criteria for students with speech and hearing difficulties are as follows:

  1. Read at least 40 in the LKSD Benchmark books, correctly pronouncing at least 90% of the English words.
  2. Score at least 35 or above (independent reading level) on DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) assessment.
  3. Score at least level D on the IPT (IDEA Language Proficiency Test).
  4. Have an IEP which includes one hour a day instruction in oral English by a Certified Special Education teacher.

Criteria for a student with reading difficulties are as follows:

  1. Score at Level D on IPT.
  2. Read at least 35 or above (independent reading level) on DRP.

Outside of school, the following factors help the student make the transition to English: reading English books at home with a family member; visiting with English speaking friends who also understand the Yup'ik language, talking to teachers outside school hours, listening to local radio station or television. Video games, family fun videos and community stores are all labeled in English. These all help students to use English in the context of their daily lives.


State support for Bilingual Education

The Alaska Department of Education provides support for bilingual education through Alaska statutes, Title 14. Section 14.30.400 states, "City or borough district school boards and regional educational attendance area boards shall provide a bilingual-bicultural education program for each school in a city or borough school district or regional educational attendance area that is attended by at least eight pupils of limited English-speaking ability and whose primary language is other than English. A bilingual-bicultural education program shall be provided under a plan of service that has been developed in accordance with regulations adopted by the department. Nothing in this section precludes a bilingual-bicultural education program from being provided for less than eight pupils in a school." Section 14.17.420 addresses funding for bilingual-bicultural programs.

The newly implemented "Cultural standards for Alaska students" now provide a statewide framework for including cultural education throughout the school day. The Lower Kuskokwim School District Yup'ik First Language Program Scope and Sequence is focused and aligned with the LKSD Curriculum Guide for Language Arts K-8. Students enrolled in Yup'ik First Language Programs are expected to learn the following skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing in their Yup'ik First Language studies from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Yup'ik First Language programs have full district support. The LKSD Bilingual/Bicultural Education Policy states:

" ...The Lower Kuskokwim School District Bilingual Program will assist children to develop the bilingual/bicultural skills necessary to participate in/and partake of the best of two worlds.

- Encourage literacy in both Yup'ik and English.

- Take pride in/and encourage the acquisition, retention and appreciation of Yup'ik culture.

- Adapt knowledge of Yup'ik culture and language to present day living

- Retain and/or acquire subsistence skills, as well as the technical skills necessary to adapt constructively to a changing world.

- Develop a respect and appreciation for the dignity and worth of other cultures and individuals.

- It is the intent of the LKSD Board of Education that this policy will be reflected in the District's curriculum." (Yup'ik First Language Course of Study: Grades K-8. 1987.)

In transition programs, strategies from the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) are used for instructional purposes and for instructional resources. The following resources are used:

Language Development Methods, Peabody Language Development Kit, songs, Jazz chants, story books, role playing activities, conversational structures, draw a diagram, Total Physical Response (TPR), extension activities, field trips, experience stories, Oxford picture dictionary, transition sight words, recipes for food, daily rhyme time, daily opposites/antonyms, word problem decoding, past tense verb and activities, vocabulary list, spelling, contraction words, Idea profile cards, SRA Distar III English, Houghton Mifflin English 3 & 4. All these teaching strategies and resources are used in the transition programs and are required by the school district's curriculum.

Mary Lou Beaver: 'The transition program has improved in our school district. Within my own family, my children use Yup'ik daily by conversing with family members and people from the community. Their English comes from listening to the radio, stereo and television. Both Yup'ik and English are understood because the children use both languages regularly.

I would like to recommend to each site to develop or adopt the newly revised transition program or develop a transition program for their site. English Language Teachers (ELL) would be useful in planning a transition program.

In conclusion, I fully believe that our district will continue to improve with the help of Alaska Native teachers and other dedicated teachers from inside and outside the state of Alaska that have made our education successful. I also believe that the Yup'ik First Language program in the future will continue to successfully help our children, and their children, maintain their first language and introduce English as a second language. I also believe that we will continue to work together and to make the bilingual programs work for all the sites in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.'


Questions to consider

The following questions need further consideration by the LKSD Bilingual Program planners:

1.What kinds of problems arise in bilingual programs that may result in taking students "off track," not in alignment with the school curriculum?

2. What is the evidence for success in the students and the schools since the programs started?

3. In what ways does each program benefit community and school?




Barnhardt, Ray, Tonsmeire, J. Kelly, Editors. Lessons Taught/Lessons Learned. "Some thoughts on Curriculum," pages 47 -50, by Marilyn Harmon. Alaska Staff Development Network.

Chamot, A.U., O'Malley, J.M. (1994). The CALLA Handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach. Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley.

MacDiarmid, J. A., Berlin Sr., J , & LKSD Curriculum/Bilingual Staff. (1987). Yup'ik First Language Course of Study. Bethel, Alaska. Lower Kuskokwim School District.

Schwabach, K. (1998) Chefornak Transition Program Curriculum, Bethel, Alaska: Lower Kuskokwim School District.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction to the Kuskokwim Delta - Delena Norris-Tull
  • Introduction to the Yup'ik Language and Culture Programs of the Lower Kuskokwim School District - Delena Norris-Tull & Beverly Williams
  • Chapter 1: The Yup'ik First Language Program: Lower Kuskokwim School District - Mary Lou Beaver & Evon Azean, Sr.
  • Chapter 2: The Balanced Literacy Program in Yup'ik - Pamela Yancey & Sophie Shield
  • Chapter 3: Creating Yup'ik Books, Translating, & Orthography - Pamela Yancey & Sophie Shield
  • Chapter 4: Ayaprun Immersion School - Loddie Ayaprun Jones
  • Chapter 5: Analysis of the Yup'ik Immersion Program In Bethel - Agatha Panigkaq John-Shields
  • Chapter 6: Yup'ik Language and Culture: A Description and Analytical View of the 4-6 Yup'ik Thematic Unit - Dora E. Strunk
  • Chapter 7: K-3 Thematic Units and the Alaska Cultural Standards - Nita Yurrliq Rearden
  • Chapter 8: Yup'ik Language and Culture: A Description of the 5th-12th Yup'ik Curriculum and its Revision - Rosalie Lincoln
  • Chapter 9: Yup'ik Discipline Practices Inerquutet and Alerquutet To Implement Into Yup'ik Schools - Theresa Arevgaq John
  • Chapter 10: Recommendations for Yup'ik Curriculum at Lower Kuskokwim School District - Sally Casey

email the editor, D. Norris-Tull


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Last modified August 18, 2006