Two months ago, 4-year-old Jose Luis Hernandez did not speak any

Today, he sings nursery rhymes such as Jack and Jill and Mary Had a
Little Lamb, then points to the characters to show that he knows what he’s
singing about.

He carries on a conversation with his Spanish-speaking mother on a play
telephone: “Hello. Hi, Mom. What are you doing, Mom?”

Teacher Ann Benson says Jose Luis’ performance shows how
Spanish-speaking preschool children can become better candidates for

Since January, Benson has been teaching English to 10 children who are
part of a Ballet East outreach program co-sponsored by Metz Recreation

The children are 3 to 5 years old. Half of them spoke only Spanish when
the program began. The other half speak English and give the others
English-speaking partners.

“I like how it’s going,” said Rodolfo Mendez, director of Ballet East
and an employee at Metz, where classes take place four mornings a week.

Benson’s method differs from traditional bilingual instruction in which
Spanish-speaking children are taught in their native language when they
start school, then are eased into English by the third or fourth grade.

Benson spoke Spanish when she first met the children to make them feel
comfortable, then quickly switched into English.

“They have no fear,” said Benson, who has taught for 12 years. “If they
are going to learn a new language, this is the time to do it.”

There is very little translation when the children learn something such
as the names of animals. A cat is a cat, not a cat and un gato.
“You wouldn’t believe how much English they have learned in two months,”
Benson said.

Mendez sought funding from the Friends of East Austin Golf Tournament
because he noticed that Spanish-speaking children from neighboring schools
were not doing as well as their English-speaking classmates.

Parents also noticed the difference and asked for help, he said.

One of those parents is Jose Luis’ mother, Renedios Mendez, who came
from Mexico seven years ago, but presides over a Spanish-speaking

Renedios Mendez said her son will be better prepared for kindergarten
if he speaks English. She said Jose Luis is learning faster than an older
brother who did not learn English before starting school.

Benson said her methods include a fun learning environment with lots
of hands-on activities, playing and singing.

”I don’t really teach English,” she said. “The kids just talk and sing
a lot. To them, it’s a game.”

The $5,000 program is funded through May. Mendez said he will seek
funding to start the classes in September.

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