In a hushed reading voice, Jean Melendez effortlessly switches languages to read books about an English-speaking crocodile and a spooky, Spanish “fantasma.”
The first-grader is expected to like stories about reptiles and ghosts. But he would not be reading in two languages in a traditional classroom. At Kissimmee Elementary School, he divides his day between two classrooms, where lessons are taught in different languages. Reading instruction begins “en Espanol” with teacher Denise Martinez and continues with vocabulary-intensive math and science lessons in Sally Jarvis’ English-only classroom.
The pilot language program aims to transform the class — where half the students speak English at home, and half talk with their parents in Spanish — into a fully bilingual group in which everyone reads, writes and speaks both languages around the age of 9. In doing so, dual-language instruction is intended to tear down a language barrier separating English-learners and English-speakers. It gives English-speakers a head start on learning a second language.
The approach is gaining popularity as a fast-track strategy to create better readers in Central Florida’s increasingly diverse schools.”If I learned just one at a time, I wouldn’t learn both languages,” said Jean, 6, who spoke almost no English and could not read in any language when he started kindergarten. “I want to learn to read hard books in both.”
Educators say it is vital that a child learn to read by age 9 — the third grade. After that, they must read to learn lessons in history, science and math.
But the challenge is even greater for children who don’t speak English — a rapidly growing percentage of Florida’s student population. About 10 percent of Florida students don’t speak English as their primary language, a figure that doubles to 21 percent in Osceola County.
In Orange County, there are at least 147 languages spoken, from Spanish and German to Urdu and Serbo-Croatian. Many teachers face the difficult task of teaching children to read English even before they can read in their own language.
Traditional bilingual education in Florida, referred to as English for Speakers of Other Languages, generally teaches non-English-speakers to read in English. The problem with this approach, though, is that children are expected to learn to read in English before they have been taught to recognize words in their own language — a frustratingly difficult task.
“If they learn to read in their first language, it is much easier for them to transfer it to the second language because they already have the base in their first language,” said Martinez, who teaches first-grade dual-language Spanish at Kissimmee Elementary. “It’s like learning to dance. If you know how to do it one way, it’s much easier to switch that to another dance.”
The linguistic tango can be more difficult for native English-speakers, whose exposure to Spanish is often limited to the classroom. These students often are less comfortable talking and speaking in the second language, but they have the advantage of picking up a foreign language just by being immersed in it.
“Sace la pagina de libro, por favor,” said Martinez, using hand gestures to instruct English-speaking students to take out a page in their workbooks.
“Already did,” the English-speakers replied in a chorus. “It’s already ripped out.”
Dual-language instruction is gaining popularity among both linguistic groups. The number of U.S. schools with dual classrooms has soared from 50 schools a decade ago to more than 260 last year, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. Experts say as many as 100 new programs are not yet on the national lists.
In Florida, the number of dual-language programs has increased nearly threefold in the past decade. More than 20 schools in the state offer dual-language immersion in Spanish, Japanese, Haitian Creole, German and Vietnamese.
The dual-language philosophy started nearly 40 years ago in Miami at the Coral Way Elementary School, when Cuban-born students arrived in the area accustomed to instruction in English and Spanish. Through the years, the school has experimented with various approaches to two-way language immersion, which can vary from 90 percent of time in the foreign language to the more common 50-50 split.
“We have learned that our children need to learn English from the very first day, but we have also learned that they can learn two languages. It’s doable,” said program leader Cecilia Martinez-Langley.
The experts on dual-language education reached the same consensus. They say dual-language classes are the best way to help English-learners close an achievement gap with native speakers — and sustain those gains for years.
“In each analysis that we have done with each school district around the country, we keep finding the same thing, that the dual-language instruction continues to outperform the traditional bilingual instruction for English learners,” said Virginia Collier, a professor at George Mason University, who has researched bilingual programs for nearly 15 years.
She said it takes native English-speakers more time to become bilingual — though foreign-language study actually improves their English skills.
Parent Monica Skeens signed up her two children for the dual-language classes at Kissimmee Elementary because she wanted to accelerate their study of Spanish skills needed in Central Florida.
“I’m hoping that if they get the Spanish out of the way that when they get to high school they can maybe do Latin or French,” she said.
But critics such as Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz — who headed the successful Proposition 227 campaign to end bilingual education in California — contend that dual-language programs do more for English-speakers than for students learning English.
“The notion of teaching children in Spanish in order to help them learn English is one of the most bizarre things you can come across,” he said, calling dual-language programs an expensive waste of time.
Principal Aliette Scharr of Hillcrest Elementary School in Orlando answers skeptics with the results from her school’s 5-year-old dual-language program in Spanish, French, Vietnamese and English.
On a typical day, Hillcrest students pursue individualized studies in small classes. Beginning readers soak up foreign phonics, while 9-year-olds reportedly are reading novels in their second languages.
Although Hillcrest earned a “D” rating after last year’s FCAT reading test, Scharr found that her non-English-speakers outperformed others in Orange County and across the state. So did native English-speakers immersed in foreign languages.
“Our children are surpassing everybody,” she said. “We’re definitely an ‘A’ school in what we do.”
Accountability tests are just one of many challenges facing the younger dual-language programs in Central Florida. Some educators worry that dual-language programs may not have time to be effective, given that non-English speakers tend to be more mobile — moving in and out of school districts during the year.
Though they face challenges, teachers at Kissimmee Elementary are pleased with what they see happening in dual-language classrooms. In a telling sign, all but one of the first-graders in the inaugural dual-language class can read in English at their grade level.
“We’re going to have a work force that is completely bilingual and biliterate, so they can work in our businesses here,” said Tere Rodriguez, who oversees the dual-language programs in Osceola. “We’re thinking of the global economy. That’s the way I approach parents when I recruit here.”