Following the Letters of the Law

Zoe Garcia, who opposed Prop. 227, is making a concerted effort at immersion, with surprising results. But she sees hurdles for kids struggling to read a language they don't understand.

Editor’s note: In June, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, which bans most bilingual education. In theory, learning lessons mostly in English helps children master the language more quickly and succeed in school. Today, The Times begins tracking one first-grade class in Anaheim to see how English immersion works in practice.

* * *

This is how a group of first-graders is taught reading and phonics, in the words of their teacher: “I jump around and make a fool out of myself.”

Forget textbooks and teaching techniques from the past. In today’s post-bilingual classroom, flashcards and physical animation are Anaheim teacher Zoe Garcia’s tools. How else will the 6- and 7-year-olds learn the “sh” sound and words such as “shoes,” “fish” and “mush,” if 14 out of 20 children don’t understand much English?

Cuban-born Garcia taught her students at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School mostly in Spanish. Now, under California law, English is the rule in most classrooms.

Facing the circle of first-graders in Room 28, Garcia held up a laminated drawing of a woman’s pump. “Sssshhhhoe,” she repeated four times, with a chorus of first-graders mimicking her.

She is a bilingual believer who learned English herself in bilingual classrooms in Miami. She opposed Proposition 227. But when it passed, she put aside her Spanish-language teaching aids, even though the law said she could keep some of them. And after three months in an English-only classroom, Garcia is surprisingly upbeat. “It’s going better than I thought,” she said. Some students are picking up so much, “it just amazes me.”

Still, as the class wound up the first two-month cycle of its year-round schedule, she wouldn’t call herself a convert to the new instructional methods.

Students who learn to read in their primary language learn English more quickly, she said. The English-only system requires her to teach children language development and reading simultaneously, a more difficult task for low-achieving students. How do you teach them that a letter converts to a sound, and those sounds convert to words and meanings, when the words have no meaning to most of the children?

In the midst of new state education initiatives and old problems of crowding and lack of money is Garcia, an idealistic young teacher with dreams for her students that easily turn to tears as she sees them struggle to grasp new knowledge. How those dreams will work out this year, the first academic year under English-only instruction, is an open question that has her continually worried.

So the 29-year-old teacher prepares lessons on her home computer long after her husband and 5-year-old son go to bed. She lies awake at night concocting new ways to teach words.

Her eyes fill with tears as she describes a child she fears doesn’t understand.

“It’s really hard sometimes,” she said, while sitting in the school’s teachers lounge, writing word charts with the vowel “u.” She reads books, attends lectures and brainstorms with colleagues.

She studies the face of each child, looking for clues of recognition. When she doesn’t see any, she says, she wishes she could open their brains and dump in all the information they need to know.

Their abilities couldn’t be more wide-ranging.

Cassandra devours books during individual reading time, enunciating each word with gusto. Reading is not her only skill. She is the most advanced student, confident enough to point out Garcia’s illegible chalkboard drawings and to guide her classmates through art projects and math problems.

For that reason, she sits next to Leny, who knows so little English that she rarely speaks. When Leny volunteered to lead the class in the afternoon stretch, singing “Head, shoulders, knees and toes (knees and toes),” her teacher rejoiced, her eyes once again growing bright with tears as she heaped compliments on the child. Leny just smiled.

Despite their limited knowledge of English, Isaac and Rigo can write sentences. That is a sign to the teacher that their parents are involved in their schoolwork. Priscilia is behind in class because she is new, her parents switching her from the early session to the afternoon to fit the family schedule.

Although teachers may speak some foreign language, Garcia chooses not to most of the time.

“If I can jump and they get it, if I can make a face and they get it, then I don’t speak in Spanish,” she said. “I think it’s harder for them to go back and forth” between two languages.

A Spanish-speaking instructional aide works part-time in the classroom, helping some students with their English skills. And there are times when Garcia doesn’t hesitate to use her native tongue.

After the class read “City Books” by Ken Kreisler, Garcia wrote the word “Anaheim” on the blackboard and walked around the room, asking the first-graders what city they called home. After 15 responses of Anaheim, a few children still didn’t get it. The teacher crouched down, inches away from one little girl’s face, and said: “Where is your house? Donde? Donde esta su casa?”

Slowly and softly, the answer came: “An-a-heim.”

The system of repetition and visual aids to teach reading in English is common in Orange County and the rest of the state. Some teachers still use a little more native-language instruction. And about 3,000 students, mostly in Santa Ana and Placentia, are returning to bilingual education at their parents’ request. But many teachers, like Garcia, have taken workshops in communicating without speaking a foreign language.

What makes the changeover from Spanish to English daunting is the statewide goal to teach children to read by completion of first grade. Kindergartners learn the alphabet and some sounds. By second grade, students are supposed to be well on their way with vocabulary, comprehension, sentences and writing. But first-grade teachers are responsible for student mastery of the most basic skill of all.

Schoolwide, two-thirds of Jefferson students speak better Spanish than English. An estimated 94% of the 784 children enrolled are Latino, and 98% of them receive free or reduced lunches, said Linda Sheehan, the principal. Many of them live in the apartments surrounding the school in the Avon-Dakota-Eton neighborhood. Sheehan describes the area as stable, despite the school’s 34% transiency rate.

In most classrooms, language is taught in the morning when students are fresh and ready to go. But Garcia reserves reading, writing, vocabulary and phonics for 1:30 p.m. to the end of the day, close to 4 p.m. It is the quietest time.

The class arrives at 10:45 a.m. Until 1:15 p.m., the students share Room 28 with Maria Alcala’s first-grade class. But the room is empty right now, for the three-week break in the year-round schedule. During the break, the students are responsible for reading every day and recording it in their logs. They also must practice their flashcards of frequently used words.

Despite the obstacles they face, the push is on, because next year, in second grade, comes The Test.

Almost all students in grades two through 12–regardless of their English ability–must take the statewide Stanford 9 exam in reading, math and other basic skills. Last summer, when results from the first round of testing were released, the inevitable comparisons were made among districts and individual schools. Garcia taught second grade last year and remembers well her heart sinking as even her best students struggled because they didn’t understand the test questions.

“It’s in the back of my mind,” she said of the test. “I care for these kids. I want them to succeed.”

* * *

Room 28

Anaheim teacher Zoe Garcia must teach her first-grade pupils at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School to read before they reach second grade. She also must teach most of them English because 14 of the 20 children are native Spanish speakers. The curriculum includes new sounds, words and books each week.


Sounds: All consonants and short vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u).

Frequently Used Words: All, I, the, jump, run, time.

Book: “Moonbear’s Books,” by Frank Asch. The first page says: “Moonbear loves books.” The second page reads: “Big books.”


Sounds: -ag, -ug, sh, th.

Frequently Used Words: In, out, plant, put, then, six.

Book: “On Top of Spaghetti,” a traditional story and song illustrated by Katherine Tillotson. The first page says: “On Top of Spaghetti.” The second page reads: “All covered with cheese.”

Comments are closed.