Sheila Cullen '92

Sheila Cullen, '92

Sheila Cullen graduated with her masters from CDSS in 1992. During her time at CU she developed a strong interest in bilingual language development, “I made a request to take Spanish as my school-required elective. It was denied but I took the class anyway, which meant that I had to go back and do that one class the semester after graduation! I have no doubt to this day that the Spanish class was most useful and applicable." Since then, Sheila has wholeheartedly put her bilingual knowledge and passion to work as revealed in this update of her work and interests. Sheila is currently a Bilingual Preschool Specialist at Santa Barbara County Education Office in Santa Barbara, CA. “The County Ed office provides all the preschool special support services for the Santa Barbara district. Because I am the only bilingual therapist, my caseload consists entirely of emerging bilingual children from Spanish-speaking families.”


Sheila’s bilinugual education didn’t stop with one class, “While you could say that I began preparing myself for this job almost 20 years ago with that CU Boulder Spanish class, I didn't feel qualified to call myself a "bilingual SLP" by ASHA's definition until I returned from 2 years in Mexico, which I spent with my family from 2006-2008. My husband and I decided to move there for a few years so the kids could learn some Spanish, and so we all could immerse ourselves in the culture of our next-door neighbor. I fell in love with Mexico and still marvel at how little we all understood about the country and its people, despite its proximity to the US and the significant presence of recent immigrants from Mexico in California, the state in which I was born and have spent most of my life. I love being bilingual for the doors it opens for me, the connections I am able to make with people in my community accustomed to being unable to communicate with English speakers, and the joy of reading Spanish literature in the language it was written in. Needless to say, it has been invaluable in my job. Bilingual assessments have also been a major focus of my work. I do as many as I can fit into my schedule, and have provided three inservices in the last 3 years to my colleagues on Bilingual Language Development and Assessment and Spanish Language Sampling." Within Sheila’s bilingual pursuits, she relates that her passion “is primary language maintenance. I am a strong believer in primary language support, having combed the research on the subject and observed the effects of language loss among the children with whom I work. I am on a constant crusade to educate teachers and families about the importance of supporting primary language, and have developed a number of materials to this end. I think there is a huge misconception among some educators that supporting primary language indicates lack of interest or desire to learn English. I have yet to meet a Spanish speaking family who does not want their children to learn English and do well in school; however, they do often lament when their children can no longer communicate with their grandparents and sometimes, if the parents' English is not very strong, even the communication between child and parent is broken. Simply put, primary language loss is bad for families. Among foreign language immigrants and their offspring, the eventual outcome to monolingual-English is inevitable, but when this occurs in a single generation, this is too rapid a transition in my opinion, and it puts the family integrity at risk.


There's also the academic argument that children learn their second language better if the first is strongly supported during its developmental years. Unfortunately, sometimes even parents with only basic English skills are advised to speak that language to their children at home. The child's main interactive partners, then, are providing poor and often incorrect language models. I spend a considerable amount of time with parents, helping them to feel confident about using Spanish with their children and educating them about ways to support their child's language development in the home, through literacy and community experiences. My approach, then, is to involve families as much as possible, and help them understand these issues. The original article I wanted to write for the Leader was meant to encourage therapists who work with Spanish-speaking clients to learn even a little Spanish, so that they may form better bonds with family members. Even a small effort at bridging the cultural and linguistic gap can go a long way in building trust and communication with Spanish speaking families. One needn't achieve the levels described by ASHA as 'bilingual' in order to significantly improve the quality of interaction between the English-speaking therapist and Spanish-speaking family. There are many avenues for acquiring a beginning level of Spanish, from community college courses, online private Skype lessons, to self-teaching through books and audio tapes.” Sheila also mentioned that she read about former faculty member Sue McCord and her newest book on our website and wrote, “I have always been a fan of Storybook Journey, and believed it to be the best preschool curriculum. I searched for a similar model for my own children when they went to preschool. In my practice, I run a "Spanish language group" which is a mini-preschool experience, an hour and a half weekly, for children whose parents can't afford preschool. I based it on the Storybook Journey model, with the same book for two consecutive weeks, and activities based on concepts from the literature. I send home a written outline of suggested carryover activities that the parents can do with their children during the week, to further extend the concepts and vocabulary in the stories.” See Sheila’s article featured in the current ASHA Leader” publication at Thanks to Sheila for this most interesting update and news of her article. Her strengths in bilingual education have obviously soared and the many benefits provided to young children make us proud!