In the Bilingual Trenches

EDUCATION: First-grade teachers at the same school differ in their approach, but not in their goal of making their pupils fluent in English.

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – One school. Two classrooms. Two ways of teaching English to first-graders.

In Bungalow 33, teacher Penny Cho speaks English to her 17 students,
using hand signals, pictures and props to help them learn in a foreign language.

Across campus in Room 3, Jennifer Cortez switches back and forth between English and Spanish as she teaches reading, writing and arithmetic to her class of 19.

Both teachers expect their students to learn English at about the same pace. By June, two or three from each class will be reclassified from limited-English to fluent.

Like the two teachers, experts disagree on the best approach to teach English fluency while also helping students advance in math, science and other subjects. The dispute is the crux of Proposition 227, the June ballot measure to end most bilingual education and require students to learn English by being taught in English.

Prop. 227 would place English learners in intensive English classes for a period not usually to exceed one year.

Proponents say the initiative will end the trend of students languishing in classes that don’t promote English fluency. Critics say it will mandate a one-size-fits-all approach, hurting more children than it helps.

Both sides cite research to support their positions. But a review of more than a dozen studies finds contradictory conclusions, sometimes among experts looking at the same data. The research, critics say, is often biased by the experiences and preconceptions of the people who conduct it.

The same could be said of the teachers at San Juan Elementary – and the people who will vote for or against Prop. 227 on June 2: What seems right or wrong is based on personal experience, not science.

At San Juan Elementary, 90 percent of students are limited-English speakers,
compared with 30 percent countywide. This year, 5.8 percent of San Juan’s limited-English students were reclassified as fluent in English, identical to the Orange County rate. At San Juan and most Orange County schools, most of the reclassified students are older than the first-graders targeted by Prop. 227.

Studies show that the process of learning spoken English occurs rapidly.
In playground conversations, children switch quickly from Spanish to English,
often in midsentence. A survey this spring of 288 San Juan students found 75 percent speak Spanish with their parents, but 82 percent watch TV in English.

Learning reading is harder.

A 1986 study for the California Legislature found children in bilingual programs transfer successfully to English-only programs after two or three years. But using a statistical method called survival analysis, Professor Douglas Mitchell of the University of California, Riverside, argued in a 1997 study of Santa Ana students that it takes five to seven years to become fully literate in English.

Although they use different teaching styles, Cho and Cortez agree it takes most children more than one year to reach the state’s definition of fluency: scoring at grade level on a battery of English oral, written and multiple-choice tests.

“Putting the burden on them to produce (in English) right away can sometimes be hurtful,” said Cho, a teacher for 14 years. “They go through a period of listening, of picking things up, when they’re not able to produce. For some kids, it takes a while.”

Cho’s classroom walls are papered with English words – walk, sleep, why,
could – vocabulary the students are learning to recognize on sight. Cortez’s blackboard has lists of Spanish adjectives – grande, feliz, blanco. On the bulletin board, a math problem asks: “Cuanto dinero?”

But while the visuals are in Spanish, the soundtrack includes a lot of English. Cortez plays a tape by folk singer Raffi. She reads a story called
“Iguana Brothers.” The students all have iguana stories, which tudents easily transfer their reading skills once they acquire an English vocabulary. But it’s hard to teach English vocabulary and reading simultaneously,
she said.

“How can I teach them to read ‘fat,’ ‘cat’ or ‘bed’ when they’re,

like, ‘What’s a bed?’ ” asked Cortez, 34.

San Juan Principal Aida Nunez said students in Cortez’s bilingual class will be better prepared to succeed in upper grades than some in Cho’s immersion class.

“Mrs. Cortez gets them literate and moves them to English,”
she said. “Ms. Cho has some students who are not literate in either language, and they’ll struggle.”

Experts disagree on this. A landmark study of more than 2,000 Spanish-speaking elementary students by David Ramirez, now at California State University,
Long Beach, found children who studied in bilingual classes outperformed English-immersion students by grade six. But a more recent study of a small group of Spanish-speaking high school students in El Paso, Texas, came to the opposite conclusion.

Experts agree on one point: Bilingual or sheltered English programs are better than no help at all.

The latter is what Nunez experienced when she came from Cuba to the United States at age 14, not knowing any English. She started school in Florida,
then moved with her parents to Louisiana, where there were no special programs for English learners.

“I learned the painful way,” she said. “I wouldn’t recommend it for my students. There’s a lot of humiliation.”

Tami York has a different frame of reference. Her son, Brian Adams, struggled at San Juan because he spoke only English. In kindergarten, he tuned out every time his teacher spoke Spanish.

This year, Brian is in Cho’s class and he’s catching up to first-grade-level work. York doesn’t mind if Spanish-speaking children tune out when the teacher speaks English. That’s their problem, not hers.

“I believe they should all be taught in English,” she said.
“After all, this is America.”

John Gittelsohn can be reached at

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