Sofia Martinez has been learning more than just third-grade math and writing in the past seven weeks. She also has been learning to converse with her teacher nd classmates.
Having moved to Fellsmere this summer from Mexico, Sofia can chatter away in Spanish. And since enrolling at Fellsmere Elementary, she’s been learning English as well.
She’s starting with the basics, said Emilia Jacobs, an English for Speakers of Other Languages teaching assistant. She can say “hello” and ask her teacher to use the restroom. She also can count to 100 in English, knows her colors, the days of the week and is working on learning the months,
Sofia is learning English by a method called immersion; students who don’t speak English are placed in a regular classroom and pick up English along the way.
“She’s doing fine,” said her teacher, Nicole Benson. “I try to ‘buddy’ her with someone who can translate.”
Students such as Sofia who don’t speak English also get help from a teaching assistant such as Jacobs. Jacobs works with a group of third-graders in reading and writing at the same time other third-graders also are learning those subjects. The non-English speaking children are grouped together with Jacobs while the regular classroom teacher works with the rest of the class on writing. They learn the same lesson, just with some extra assistance.
For reading, Jacobs usually takes her group of about six students to another room where it’s less noisy and she can give them more individualized attention.
The rest of the day, the students are back with their regular classrooms.
But the teaching assistant may go into their classrooms to give them help in reading math problems or other areas.
All teaching assistants for non-English speaking students are bilingual in Spanish, the No. 1 language spoken by non-English speaking students who come to the district, said Michael VanHouten, coordinator of the elementary English for Speakers of Other Languages program. The district has more than 1,000 students who don’t speak English as their first language, he said.
More than 27 different languages are spoken in the district, so often teachers hired to help non-English speaking students can’t converse with students in their native tongue, he said.
For every 15 students in a school who speak the same language, a teaching assistant for non-English speaking students is assigned.
VanHouten said immersion is the best way to teach a child English.
“Through immersion, it’s phenomenal at how they learn the language,” he said.
Students learn by following the example of their classmates, he said. For example, if the teacher tells the class to take out their math books, the non-English speaking student will follow suit.
“Modeling is a big key,” he said. Some students learn to communicate by drawing pictures if they don’t understand printed words. Hands-on activities and working with peer tutoring groups also helps them, he said.
“Students are like books on a shelf. All we have to do is open them up,” he said. Classmates help the non-English speaking student as well, he said.
Jacobs came to this area at the age of 7 from Cuba and learned English through immersion.
“I know how they feel,” she said. Jacobs said she learned to speak the language within a year, but her classmates always seemed to be ahead of her academically.
“It took me years to catch up to the other students,” she said.
Children pick up the language, she said.
“Some students catch on in a few months. Others don’t start speaking in sentences until the end of the year,” she said. Some students may be able to read very well, but not completely understand the words, she said.
Non-English speaking elementary students used to be sent to schools that offered comprehensive instruction in teaching children to speak English. In Indian River County, students attended either Highlands or Fellsmere elementary schools, considered “centers” for non-English speakers. But in 1990, a group of non-English speaking parents sued the state, saying their children were being discriminated against and bused only because of a language issue. The centers were phased out, VanHouten said.
“Now students go to the school that’s in their neighborhood,” he said. Every school has a program for non-English speaking children, he said.
In 1994, more than 2.1 million public school students – about 5 percent of all public school children – were considered to be limited in English,
according to information found on the National Center for Education Web site. A report on the U.S. Department of Education Web site showed that by 2000, that figure was expected to grow to 3.4 million children.
About 76 percent of public schools with children who had limited English proficiency had programs in which non-English students are grouped together and given special instruction in English, while 36 percent had bilingual education programs, in which students are taught in their native language and English, the National Center for Education Web site said.
About one-third of schools with children who had limited English proficiency had both type of programs, while 13 percent of the schools with these students had no such program. About 42 percent of all public school teachers have at least one student with limited English proficiency, the web site said.
The Fountain Valley School District in California designed a program in 1986 that provided a more structured version of immersion, said Marcia Brechtel,
director of training for Project GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design).
Classroom teachers are specifically trained in how to teach students with limited English proficiency, she said. Student tutors also are used, she said.
The program helps students learn the language at a more rapid rate, she said.
“It works,” she said. Students learn English within two or three years, she said.
The California school district previously used a system in which the students were placed in a regular classroom and were pulled out every so often for English instruction.
“These kids were receiving this five minutes here, five minutes there,”
Brechtel said. “It wasn’t working.”
In Indian River County, students have to be tested first so that teachers can gauge their English-speaking abilities, VanHouten said. They can stay in the program for three years, he said. At the end of the program, the student is tested again and tracked for two more years, he said.
Kindergarten students usually fare better than other students, he said.
That’s because their peers, even those who speak English, also are learning basic skills, such as letters and numbers.
“What they’re learning is no different from what others are learning,”
But older students learn quickly as well, he said.
“It’s pretty amazing what they pick up on a social level,” he said.
Usually within a couple of years, a student can become socially fluent,
which means they can speak the language. Academically, meaning writing and reading, may take a few more years before a student becomes fluent.