A filmstrip of “Cinderella” played to the small audience of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in Susan Lawrence’s Fairfax County classroom at Graham Road Elementary School one recent morning, and Rosa Garcia studiously ignored it.
Instead, she bent over a reading workbook, looking intently at a row of tiny line drawings: a picture of a can, a table followed by the letter “s,” a child with a spoon, a birthday cake.
“Can tables eat cake?” she read haltingly to the teacher. Then she answered her own question, giggling along with Lawrence. “No,” Rosa said. Tables, she knew, cannot eat cake.
For seven years, Lawrence and other Fairfax teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) have relied exclusively on such books of word-picture diagrams, filmstrips, flashcards, charts, charades — and patient, continual repetition — to teach children like Rosa. Her teachers will never speak to her in Spanish, nor will they talk to her classmates in their native Urdu, Farsi or Chinese.
About 3,800 students — 2 percent of the sprawling Fairfax County school population — are enrolled in ESL classes. Their predominant languages are Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese, although many speak Arabic, Khmer, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Laotian and Urdu. In all, they speak 75 different languages, and none of them is in a bilingual class.
“When working with a child in the native language is working against the child learning the English language, that’s what I object to,” said Esther Eisenhower, Fairfax County’s ESL program coordinator. “In the name of a child ‘feeling good’ about being a Turk, he’s graduating from high school with a fifth-grade competency in English.”
While bilingual education is an appealing notion in an ideal world, she said, there are few school systems with the funding, public support, native-language teaching materials and multilingual teachers to practice it effectively.
As proof the ESL program works, Fairfax educators point to test results — 1980 and 1981 tests showed ESL students meeting or exceeding local and national norms in most subjects — and to children like Rosa, illiterate in her own language but now able to print words and chatter fearlessly in English.
Critics have claimed that affluent Fairfax County, where many students come from diplomatic and well-educated families, is not a fair setting to prove the worth of ESL teaching.
“I don’t think that argument holds,” Eisenhower said. “I could hardly say these are children of commanders of the Japanese navy or attaches in the Swedish Embassy.” Sixty-two percent of ESL students, she pointed out, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Many of Fairfax’s ESL students would probably be in ESL classes no matter where they were; few teachers around the country are qualified to teach bilingual classes in Asian or Indochinese languages. And there is an active debate about whether Asian or Indochinese students, generally perceived as academically successful despite their language problems, need bilingual classes at all — particularly the Vietnamese, with their widely publicized climbs to school honor rolls.
Bilingual advocates have suggested that the newer waves of Indochinese immigrants will probably not do as well without bilingual education, since many of the success stories so far have involved children of the earlier well-educated Vietnamese immigrants who often spoke two or three languages before they left Vietnam. The more recent immigrants, they point out, include thousands whose backgrounds are more like those of many less educated and less literate Hispanic families.
But Eisenhower and Lawrence believe the Fairfax plan will successfully move those children into English too. “I encourage them to read in their native language, to communicate with each other in their native language,” Lawrence said. “But as far as the instruction goes, I feel English and only english is the best way.”