SERIES: LANGUAGE BARRIERS. WHEN LANGUAGE HINDERS EDUCATION.
In a Union City classroom, where 15 of 31 kindergarten students speak limited if any English, the teacher relies on props and pictures to show students what she’s talking about.
In a third-grade class in Emeryville, 16 of 20 students lack English skills. The teacher, with 27 years of experience, returned to school to learn how to teach an influx of children who speak limited English.
In an elementary school in East Palo Alto, students in kindergarten through fourth grade divide their time between “teacher teams,” learning subjects such as science, reading and math with a Spanish-speaking teacher, then working on oral English with an English-only teacher.
California public schools, with 1.3 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students who don’t speak English well enough to get by in class, are struggling to retrain teachers and find the best ways to teach.
School districts are delivering instruction in students’ native languages, immersing students in English or gradually shifting students from their native languages to English. But there is much debate over which approach works best, and there is little money to underwrite any of them.
State and federal education officials largely have favored instruction in the students’ primary languages.
“Research shows that there is benefit to children when teachers incorporate native language instruction as much as possible,” said Delia Pompa, director of bilingual education and minority languages affairs for the U.S. Department of Education.
The approach has its critics.
“We’re on the wrong track in slowly transitioning kids from their native language into English proficiency,” said Lance Izumi, senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank in San Francisco. “This method gives students a crutch to remain dependent on their native language. It’s a great disservice to students.”
California’s advocacy of native-language teaching, effective or not, suffers from a serious drawback: There aren’t enough teachers.
Faced with relentless growth in the number of students barely able to speak English, school districts have gone on hiring binges, and experienced educators are themselves learning to teach in multicultural and multilingual classrooms.
It’s nowhere near enough.
Of California’s 220,000 teachers, just 13,548 have the credentials to teach limited-English students. There was a shortage of nearly 21,000 qualified teachers last year.
The state is spending an estimated $ 3.4million a year to expand training and hiring through the “Recruitment Program of Bilingual Teachers” and the “Bilingual Teacher Training Program.” The programs aim to expand teacher training for bilingual students in community colleges and universities.
California’s colleges and universities turn out only 5,000 new teachers a year, according to the California School Boards Association.
“Finding qualified teachers is a huge problem for California,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. “It’s not as if we have people waiting to teach, and they happen to speak Hmong.”
From 1990 to 1996, the proportion of California’s public school students considered “limited English proficient” has jumped to nearly 25 percent from just over 18 percent, an Examiner study shows.
In many California school districts, 87 primary languages are spoken. In addition, there are innumerable dialects, more than 300 in Chinese, for example.
“Our teachers were molded and trained to teach one group of students, who speak English,” said Anthony Salamanca, a bilingual consultant with the state Department of Education. “Faced with this new challenge of so many limited-English proficient students, teachers have to retool their skills. The teachers who don’t will go by the wayside, and so will our students.”
Problem is deep, and wide
The great diversity of languages is the biggest challenge to Suzanne Carreira, a first-grade teacher at Pioneer Elementary School in Union City.
“When I started here, there were a lot of Hispanic children,” said Carreira, who has taught for 26 years. “Now, I have kids in my class who speak Punjabi, Urdu, Japanese, Spanish, Cantonese and Tagalog, to name a few.”
To communicate, she uses images the students can relate to , like zoo animals or Disney movie characters. As the children learn to count, for example, they might add spots to a dalmatian modeled after “101 Dalmatians.”
“If I didn’t adjust the way I teach,” Carreira said, “one-quarter of my kids would spend a lot of time just staring at me.”
Mina Teper, a first-grade teacher at Alamo Elementary School in San Francisco, speaks fluent Russian and English. With 17 years of experience, she is constantly developing ways to “draw kids in.”
Of her 20 students, 11 speak Russian. She discusses most of the material in English, but inevitably switches to Russian.
“I help my Russian kids in their primary language,” Teper said. “Sometimes I have to divide kids up into language clusters. Other times, I discover kids will benefit more from sitting next to kids who only speak English.”
No approach is foolproof.
“There are so many different languages needing to be served, and there are real problems finding teachers who are knowledgeable and can work with these kids,” said Pedro Noguera, associate professor of education at UC -Berkeley. “Besides, if you don’t have enough students within a language group, like Farsi, it’s not feasible to hire a teacher who speaks that language. So the system doesn’t work for a lot of kids. And how can it when there are so many languages?”
Consider the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, one of Northern California’s most diverse. Of 38,000 students, 7,232 lack English skills. Sixty-seven languages and dialects are spoken, among them Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Pilipino, Hindi, Punjabi, Russian, Mien, Cambodian, Romanian, Korean, Ilocano, Lao, Mandarin, and Ibo and Edo, both African dialects.
“Clearly, California, which has been a bellwether state in bilingual education, will have to continue to shift its focus to teach children who speak languages other than English,” said Pompa, the U.S. Department of Education bilingual expert. “These limited English kids bring a unique set of characteristics to school, for one, most of them are poor, and many of our teacher programs are not preparing teachers for what the real world looks like.”
A “silver lining’
Norm Gold, bilingual compliance manager with the state Department of Education, said he was hopeful that teacher training was beginning to make a difference.
“Our teachers are not adequately prepared for what our real classrooms look like,” he said. “But I see a little silver lining in the clouds. In 1990-91, we had an increase of 630 bilingual teachers. The year after, we had only 500, but in the last few years, we’ve seen increases of 1, 400 qualified bilingual teachers.”
Spanish is the primary language of nearly 80 percent of the students who do not speak English fluently in California, followed by Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Pilipino / Tagalog, Khmer (Cambodian), Korean and Armenian.
Only a small percentage of the state’s teachers members are certified as bilingual by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. For example:
With 1,051,125 Spanish-speaking limited English students, there are 13,027 certified Spanish bilingual teachers, or 81 students to every teacher.
For 47,663 Vietnamese-speaking students, there are 72 certified bilingual teachers, a 662-to-1 ratio.
With 31,156 Hmong students, there are 28 certified teachers, a 1,113 -to-1 ratio.
For the 24,674 Cantonese-speaking students, there are 228 Cantonese -certified bilingual teachers, a 108-to-1 ratio.
The state has 20,645 Khmer-speaking students, but five certified teachers, a 4,129-to-1 ratio.
There are 21 language groups, ranging from Assyrian to Urdu, for which there is not a single certified bilingual teacher.
Changes by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing are intended to give teachers-in-training the necessary skills for teaching math, science, reading and history in English. One technique is “sheltered English, ” in which teachers who don’t speak the child’s language act out ideas and use props to make ideas come alive.
“The new credentials definitely make a difference in teaching limited-English kids,” said Joanne Stanley, assistant principal at Union City’s Pioneer Elementary.
Last spring, there were 6,002 more teachers credentialed to work with students who speak limited English than in 1995, according to the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute.
Roughly 50 percent of California’s limited-English-proficient students receive instruction in their native language or in classes where there is a native language aide, the state Department of Education said. Close to 30 percent receive instruction using sheltered English, and 20 percent are not receiving any special language services.
Studies disagree on the value of different teaching methods.
In July 1993, the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, came out with a report, “A Chance to Succeed: Providing English Learners with Supportive Education.”
The commission decided that five different teaching programs could work, depending on the quality of the program and overall school climate.
Two new reports, however, tilt in favor of native language programs.
Research by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier of George Mason University in Virginia, published by the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education in April, concludes that programs that slowly shift students from native languages to English are preferable to English-only programs.
The other report, “Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children,” by the National Research Council and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, was released in January and found “slightly better results” with native-language teaching.
“The studies that have come out in recent years have been politicized by advocacy groups selectively promoting research findings to support their positions,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford education professor and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our conclusion is, instead of looking for one program that will work for the state, the key issue should be identifying those components, backed by solid research findings, that will work in a specific community.”
“There really is no silver bullet,” he said, “no one-size-fits-all program.”