Mix of Languages Taxes Teachers

To Read English, Many Kids First Must Speak It

KISSIMMEE — Brenda Santos knows what the Tower of Babel might have sounded like. None of the 28 third-graders in Miss Santos’ reading class speaks English at home. The Latin American children know Spanish. A boy from Morocco has spoken French all his life. One Pakistani girl talks in Urdu; a second uses a language with a name the teacher confesses she cannot pronounce.

The class does not always understand Santos. Trying to decipher strange words on a page is even harder. Nonetheless, these children — who barely read in their own languages — are expected to read fluently in English.

All of them are soon to turn 9, the age at which weak reading skills begin to hinder a child’s ability to learn other subjects, such as mathematics,
science and history.

None of them is prepared for this challenge.

“I have 12 or 13 kids at the kindergarten level,” Santos said. “The rest are working at first- or second-grade level. Only four are at the end of second grade.”

This is not a school for children of diplomats or a classroom in a foreign capital. It is Kissimmee Elementary. Nestled in a city long referred to as the cowboy capital of the south, this multilingual gathering is fast becoming typical of Florida schools.

Santos knows she has a daunting task. At stake is her students’ chance to receive the education that will enable them to prosper as adults. Without the ability to read and understand, they and thousands of other limited-English speakers in Florida stand to fall further and further behind in a land where their parents dreamed of success.


Throughout Central Florida, 8 percent of the student population — 34,000 children — arrive at school speaking little or no English. In Central Florida, Osceola County has the highest rate of students who speak little or no English, at 21 percent.

Statewide, the number is 261,400, or 10 percent of all school-age children.
Half of them were born in the United States.

There is no consensus on how best to teach them — no final verdict on which strategies work best, with which children and in which language. Teachers resort to trial and error. No matter how hard they work, the ability to learn ultimately rests with the child.

“They’re not going to do well unless they’re gifted,” said Tomasita Ortiz,
director of second-language learning for Orange County Public Schools.
“They’re going to show a lot of [academic] growth but not at the same rate as English speakers.”


For years, non-English speakers in Florida were put in with regular classes with no extra help. In 1990 a federal judge ordered Florida to provide programs for limited-English speakers at public schools, after a lawsuit against the Department of Education.

Since then, districts have used various approaches to teach these students.
Some bring translators to class. In other cases, homework and tests may be assigned in a student’s own language to ensure that he or she makes academic progress.

Many schools in Central Florida are resorting to separate classes, known as Welcome Centers, where each student’s level of English proficiency is individually assessed.

Teachers tailor reading programs to each child. Like Santos, they somehow must deal with several different levels of ability at once. After about two years, the children are slowly merged with the rest of the students.

Yet there is little indication that such programs, referred to as English for Speakers of Other Languages, have managed to bridge the gap between students who arrive at school speaking English and those who do not.

Statistics for the 1999-2000 school year — the latest available — show that more than 91 percent of fourth-graders who spoke limited English scored below satisfactory on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Most of these children were 9-year-olds.

Those who had had at least two years of remedial programs fared little better, with 82.4 percent scoring below satisfactory. In contrast, only 39.1 percent of English speakers scored in the same range.


Although Spanish is the most widely spoken native language among limited-English speakers in Central Florida, all corners of the world are represented. In Orange County, where 12 percent of schoolchildren lack proficiency in English, teachers encounter students using at least 147 languages — everything from French, Arabic and Chinese to Haitian-Creole,
Portuguese, Vietnamese and Native American dialects.

Under the 1990 court order, Florida schools are required to provide a teacher or assistant teacher proficient in a language spoken by 15 or more students. Finding teachers, aides or volunteers who are fluent in such languages as Fox — a Native American tongue — or Gujarati, from India, can be daunting, however, Ortiz said.

So schools resort to any contacts they can find — parents, community leaders, business people and churches — to find someone, anyone, who can speak the language.

At Cypress Elementary in Kissimmee, Zoraida Maldonado’s classes are filling with Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese children. But like most instructors in Central Florida, she can communicate only in English or Spanish.


“I’ll draw pictures; I will dramatize,” she said. “Eventually you will get the basics across like ‘come,’ ‘run’ or ‘bring the book.’ ”

It is hard work, and the results are rarely clear. On a recent morning, the 28 faces stared at Santos with expressions ranging from full understanding to almost total incomprehension. She spoke slowly, exaggerating the natural flexes of her mouth, her hands gesturing like a street mime.

Teachers in these programs must undergo 60 to 360 hours of training,
depending on how closely they work with such children. Santos’ methods of using her hands to communicate and using a child’s native language when she can are key aspects of the training.

She handed each child a felt bag with letters of the alphabet inside. In English, she directed her students to take the letters out of the bag and put them on their desks. One boy sat still. Santos walked up to his desk and took the letters out.

“Pon las letras aqui” — “Put the letters here” — she told him in Spanish.

But Santos does not speak a word of Urdu — let alone that language with a name she cannot pronounce. She can only wonder how much her Pakistani girls are learning.

“What worries me is that sometimes in a story, I can’t explain the story in the Pakistani girls’ language,” she said. “I’m working at a kindergarten level with them, using a picture and a sentence. When the sun is up, I point to the sun and ask, ‘Do you understand?’ If they nod their heads, I know.”


Experts agree it can take from five to 10 years for a non-English speaker to acquire enough language skills to read and fully understand academic subjects.

When Moises Bacco, 8, moved with his parents to Kissimmee from Venezuela in November, the words please and thank you were about all he could manage in English.

Ten months later, he has become the family’s translator at grocery stores,
its representative in dealing with repairmen and its interpreter of street directions. Yet his reading skills are still far behind. Moises learned more-advanced mathematics in Venezuela than here. All of a sudden, math homework has become difficult.

“Sometimes I don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t understand the instructions.”

Many children such as Moises quickly learn to speak the language, but experts note that reading requires a higher level of knowledge. And even when a child can pronounce words or phrases on paper — once a Chinese student, for example, recognizes the characters and the need to read from left to right — the ability to comprehend them is yet another step up in the ladder of difficulty.

“Most [native] English speakers spend years learning English before they learn to read and write,” said Kathy Gibbs, the reading-resource teacher at Kissimmee Elementary. “Non-native English-speaking students are expected to read and write almost immediately.”


Some experts assert that children who enter kindergarten without speaking English may never close the reading gap on their English-speaking schoolmates, even with special programs such as Florida’s.

Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, researchers from George Mason University in Virginia, found that these children appeared to catch up some in first and second grades with their English-speaking peers, only to fall further behind by middle school.

“Initially, they look great,” Collier said. “They exit from the programs after second or third grade, and they say they’re doing fine, and what they don’t realize is what they’ve done in second or third grade has caused a cognitive slowdown that will lead to problems in sixth or seventh grade.”

Data compiled by the Florida Department of Education show dropout rates are higher for non-English speakers than others, although this rate declines slightly the more time a non-English speaker spends in the state-mandated programs.


Teachers and experts agree that a key indicator for success among these children lies in their background and in how well they are educated at home.

“If they were literate in their first language but not proficient in English, they could comprehend better than those who were proficient in English but not literate in their own language,” said Mary Avalos, a professor of education at the University of Miami, who has studied the reading progress of 9- and 10-year-olds.

This finding is confirmed nationwide by other leading researchers, and by teachers and principals throughout Florida. They say a non-English-speaking child whose parents expose him to books and reading will learn more quickly — regardless of the language spoken.

Most education experts call for teaching non-English speakers in their native language as much as possible, at least until they become proficient reading in their home language.

The skill of reading, they say, is far easier to transfer from one language to another than it is to teach from scratch in a language the child has not yet mastered. They cite the work of Thomas and Collier as evidence that the more education a child receives in his native language — as well as English — the greater his chances of meeting or exceeding average student performance.


This strategy, implemented in 1963 at Coral Way Elementary in Miami-Dade County, is still hailed by officials there as a success. Although few districts around Florida have imitated the model, California, Massachusetts and other states have used it widely.

“We have excellent evidence that [this system] works,” said Stephen Krashen,
an education professor at the University of Southern California.

According to Krashen, non-English-speaking young children are best served by learning all subjects in their home languages in all subjects, and only gradually transferring to English after two or more years. The last subject to transfer would be reading.

This approach irritates opponents of bilingual education in general, who consider the dual-language approach an experiment that has been tried and failed.


Such critics have galvanized widespread support among the public. The political fallout threatens to spill over into the debate on how to educate limited-English speakers.

In the past three years, voters have outlawed bilingual education in California and Arizona through initiatives masterminded by Ronald Unz, a theoretical physicist who is now a Silicon Valley businessman.

Unz has been pushing for similar votes in Massachusetts and Colorado.

The anti-bilingual movement is putting Thomas, Collier, Krashen and most other top reading researchers on the defensive. They have emerged from their world of academic journals and conferences to challenge Unz and his supporters on radio talk shows, newspapers and any other forum they can.


This debate is far removed from the reality facing Lilian and Alvaro Betancur, whose plane landed from Colombia just two months ago. They are slowly becoming aware of the grim statistics facing their Spanish-speaking children.

At Kissimmee Elementary, first-grader Ana Maria does not understand her new American teacher. Laura Tatiana, a fourth-grader, is concerned about the quality of her composition.

The parents — a teacher and a banker — view these difficulties as the sacrifice that comes with trading the violence and unrest in their country for peace in Florida. Opportunity knocks, but only with great difficulty.

“We expect the first-grader to speak English and read by [age] 9. But things will be difficult for the fourth-grader,” Alvaro Betancur said. “We know it’s not easy.”

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