Wendy Motoike was teaching her fourth- and fifth-graders about owls. The ideas were sophisticated but her words and phrases were as simple as a parent’s to a toddler.
As the teacher enunciated the words, she sometimes moved her body in pantomime.
“The owl eats the mouse whole,” she said.
She held up a picture of an owl gobbling a mouse. To show digestion, she made a churning gesture on her stomach.
“Twelve hours later the owl coughs up one of these,” Motoike said.
She displayed an egg-shaped bundle of undigested mouse fur, bones and other debris called an owl pellet. The children had been taught pellet earlier in the lesson and had seen it written on the overhead projector. They repeated it now as they sat with their eyes glued on the weird, wonderful object.
Then they were handed owl pellets of their own to pick apart with tools made from large paper clips. They clamored for attention as they discovered tiny mouse parts.
“Teacher, I don’t know what’s this — a teeth?” a 9-year-old girl asked excitedly.
At the end of 30 minutes all eight students obviously understood a great deal about owls and mice. They knew precisely which was the predator and which the prey.
The students, recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia, had mastered the lesson despite limited proficiency in English. Their language problem was obvious when Motoike asked them what more than one mouse is called. Eight small voices answered triumphantly: “Mouses!”
Motoike taught the science lesson using “sheltered English,” a new, rapidly spreading technique that allows English-speaking instructors to teach demanding subject matter, notably mathematics and science, to students who are not yet fluent in English.
As Motoike, who teaches at Encinita Elementary School in Rosemead, explained, sheltered English is not a language. It is a collection of teaching strategies that makes course material more comprehensible and also seems to help students learn English in the process of learning other things. These teaching strategies usually include simplification of the teacher’s speech and the lavish use of visual aids and other nonverbal clues to the meaning of a particular lesson.
Sheltered English is being used in more and more California schools as educators grope for ways to teach half a million children who speak little or no English using teachers who, by and large, speak nothing else. Such students now make up 14% of the total in the state. About 10% to 15% of those non-fluent children are now receiving some classroom instruction in sheltered English, a state Department of Education official said.
Use of the technique is expected to grow as a result of the endorsement of English-only Proposition 63 in November. Sheltered English is an unusual approach to bilingual education in having advocates on both sides of California’s emotional language debate.
Proponents of the English-only initiative such as state campaign chairman Stanley Diamond say that sheltered English appears to be an acceptable method for teaching immigrant students. “Our goal is to have children in an English-speaking environment as soon as possible,” Diamond said. “We do not necessarily approve of (English) immersion — sink or swim — and we totally disapprove of teaching the child in his native language.”
Some of the original supporters of sheltered English are made uneasy by the growing acceptance of the technique by the English-only camp. A major theoretician of the sheltered approach declines to comment on the subject for attribution because, he said, “sheltered English is being used as an excuse to dismantle bilingual education. It is being used by the dark side of the force.”
The dark side, he said, consists of linguistic extremists, whom he described as being of the “speak Spanish, go to jail” sort.
However widespread sheltered English becomes, it will not solve all the complex educational problems created by California’s multilingualism, according to state bilingual consultant Norman Gold.
But sheltered English is a valuable component within a good bilingual
education program, especially for children making the transition from classes in their native language to regular English-only classes, Gold said. And it is often the only alternative to sink-or-swim English-only classes when instruction is not available in the child’s native tongue.
As Gold pointed out, 75% of the state’s 567,564 linguistic minority children speak Spanish. But there are more than 85 other languages, from Afghan to Visayan (one of the languages of the Philippines), spoken in the homes of California schoolchildren.
In this educational environment, sheltered English is often the only practical common language, according to Alfredo Schifini, a reading and language arts consultant in the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The need is especially acute in Los Angeles County, which is home to half the non-English-speaking children in the state.
“A lesson can be linguistically simple but the content can be complex, age-appropriate good stuff,” Schifini said. “People think sheltered means remedial, but this is elevated content.”
When training teachers in the technique, Schifini often demonstrates its effectiveness by teaching a social studies lesson on the major cities of Brazil in sheltered Portuguese.
He speaks slowly and clearly, uses simple vocabulary, repeats key phrases, describes the vastness of the country in the air with his hands, checks frequently to see if the audience understands so far and makes liberal use of maps and other visual aids. Whenever possible, he uses cognates — Portuguese words that have similar-sounding equivalents in English — for example, when he talks about the many bancos that make Sao Paulo a financial center.
The listeners are usually amazed to find that they understand the lesson even though they don’t understand Portuguese, Schifini said.
Sheltered English, or comprehensible English, as some proponents prefer to call it, is not a difficult technique to learn, according to Schifini. “Somebody who’s bright enough can key into the concepts over one cup of coffee,” he said.
One of those central concepts is that non-fluent children learn best when the lesson includes hands-on activities that make them less dependent on the unfamiliar English words and grammatical structures of a lecture or textbook. In addition to telling students something, teachers of sheltered English try to show them as well. Ideally, they let the students discover answers for themselves, by doing.
Motoike believes her students readily learned the words predator and prey
because they had already learned the concepts in a visceral way by examining the mouse remains in their owl pellets.
“They knew what those words meant before they knew what they were,” Motoike said. “They became the discoverers. That’s a nice position for children to be in. It gives them power.”
Ideally, Schifini said, sheltered English techniques are used with students who already know some English.
“This is not for kids just off the boats,” Schifini said. The ideal candidate for a sheltered class, he said, already knows enough non-academic English to understand a teacher’s instructions.
Schifini said that sheltered English, with its emphasis on content, has special value for students who are competitive with their fluent peers in everything but English. Non-experts tend to think of linguistic minority students as an undifferentiated mass, but even within language groups, students’ needs and talents vary greatly.
Pamela Branch, who heads the English as a second language program at Artesia High School in Lakewood, noted that the academic backgrounds of Asian students tested for placement in the school’s language programs have ranged from advanced college prep to non-existent. The latter was the case with teen-age siblings from Vietnam who had never held a school pencil in their hands before.
“If the student doesn’t speak English, people automatically think he should be in a dodo-head math class,” said Marie Takagaki, who teaches sheltered mathematics courses at Artesia High School. Artesia serves as a magnet high school for linguistic minority students in the ABC Unified School District — 60% of the school’s students speak a home language other than English.
Artesia offers sheltered courses in a broad range of subjects, from relatively undemanding areas such as art and driver’s education, to mathematics and history. In fact, Takagaki noted, the high school now has so many first-rate students who speak limited English that it needs a gifted sheltered math class as well. Sheltering allows those students to get on with their education now, instead of deferring it until they master English.
Another major virtue of sheltering, according to Schifini, is that it allows teachers to teach their specialties, instead of forcing teachers trained in language instruction to carry the entire burden of educating non-fluent students. Theoretically, this gives the non-fluent student equal access to the teachers best prepared to teach science, math and other subjects. And it frees credentialed language teachers, in chronically short supply in California schools, to do what they do best.
Schifini and other advocates of sheltering believe the technique helps non-fluent children learn English at the same time they are learning physics or geography. Instead of studying the mechanics of English, the students acquire English the natural way, by unself-consciously using it to talk about things that interest them, such as the contents of owl pellets.
This theory of language acquisition is based on the work of USC linguist Stephen D. Krashen, Schifini explained. Krashen first applied the term sheltered to Canadian classrooms in which English-speaking children were taught in French. Instruction was not in the undiluted French of the academy, but in French the teachers augmented and modified so that the non-fluent students were sheltered from fluent peers, irrelevant information and new-language overload.
Canada has successfully used this approach to teach French as a second language since 1965.
In the Los Angeles area, sheltered English classes tend to be somewhat noisy as students use such favored strategies for learning as actually doing things and working in pairs or small groups.
The noise is music to their ears, teachers say. They try not to discourage the children’s budding fluency by pointing out their faulty grammar or other linguistic errors. One of the things teachers of sheltered English are taught is how to keep noisy, active classrooms from degenerating into chaos.
Proponents of sheltered English appear to believe that most language errors will self-correct over time, especially if the teacher speaks correctly. Motoike said she silently notes students’ mistakes so she can incorporate the correct usage into future lessons.
According to Schifini, whose office provides help to schools in the county wishing to start sheltered programs, metropolitan Los Angeles is pioneering the technique. It is being used in the ABC, Alhambra, Glendale, Lennox, Los Angeles, Paramount and Pomona unified school districts. Artesia High School has offered sheltered courses since 1979.
Under various names, the technique is also being used in the District of Columbia, Texas and other states. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Jo Ann Crandall, a division director at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, which is collecting information on sheltered programs throughout the country.
Training teachers is the key to implementing sheltered programs, Schifini said. He and Jose Galvan, director of foreign language programs at UCLA’s Center for Academic Interinstitutional Programs, are writing a handbook on the method for teachers. Galvan also heads a UCLA program to train teachers in the technique, with the understanding that they will go back to their schools and teach the method to others.
Some teachers say the sheltered approach requires extra preparation. Lessons must be carefully thought out in advance, down to specific words that will be used. As Ricardo Sosapavon, principal of Sharp Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima, observed as he watched teacher Joel Diaz bounce through a mildly aerobic sheltered lesson on Christopher Columbus, “You don’t just come in and try to bluff your way through the lesson.”
Teachers also report that they find themselves looking in such unlikely places as the refrigerator for objects to illustrate their lessons.
Glendale teacher Fran Schleicher, for example, recently ended a fourth-grade lesson on the prehistory of California by giving her polyglot class a mysterious boxful of bones and challenging them to find out what animal they belonged to. To prepare for the sheltered lesson, Schleicher had carefully dismantled, scrubbed and dried a holiday turkey skeleton.
So pervasive is the use of props that one teacher said her major problem is lack of storage space.
Although some teachers prefer traditional classrooms, others bring the enthusiasm of the convert to the sheltered enterprise. Artesia High’s Pamela Branch said she has no trouble recruiting teachers. “I have a waiting list of people who want to teach the sheltered classes,” she said. “They’ve seen the enthusiasm and eagerness of the students, their dedication to learning.”
Among the rewards cited by teachers of sheltered classrooms: the challenge of working with non-fluent students, the opportunity to be creative and the fact that children in sheltered classrooms usually do their homework.
Helps Others Too
Many educators feel that sheltered techniques would improve regular classrooms. “Someone once said that sheltered English is just good teaching,” Jose Galvan said. Many teachers agree. Bruce Osgood has been using the sheltered approach to make gravity and the laws of motion comprehensible to his fifth- and sixth-graders at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School in Glendale.
Osgood has given his students — a mixed group in terms of fluency and academic ability — a series of shamelessly fascinating activities. One day, the class took bathroom scales to the Glendale Galleria, where they weighed themselves in the elevators and discovered that their recorded weight rose as they ascended.
Osgood said that such activities allow him to teach his students much more sophisticated material than they could learn from a textbook. “No matter what their language and ability level,” he said, “they can all participate and succeed, as opposed to reading the book, taking the test, getting the F and hating science.”
Definitive research on the value of sheltered English has yet to be done. However, in a recent study of three elementary schools in the Paramount Unified School District, more students in sheltered classes showed an increase in English fluency than did non-sheltered students, according to Katie Barak, the district’s director of curriculum services. But even if sheltering aids in the acquisition of English, no one is sure what effect it has, if any, on the ultimate academic achievement of linguistic minority children.
Paramount is among the districts now being scrutinized in a nationwide study of various approaches to English-Spanish bilingual education, including sheltering, funded by the U.S. Office of Education. According to study director David Ramirez of Mountain View, Calif., no conclusions have yet been reached in the project, now in its second of four years, as to the relative merits of bilingual and immersion programs in equipping students for academic success.
Ramirez said, however, that a preliminary report on the first year’s data had been leaked to the press, apparently by proponents of bilingual education
programs who felt the data supported their cause. That preliminary report, never meant for publication, according to Ramirez, suggests that students taught first in their native language do better on academic achievement tests than limited speakers of English taught only in English.
Not terribly concerned about the politics of sheltered English, Wayne Sparks only knows what he sees. Sparks is the principal of Horace Mann Elementary School in Glendale. Horace Mann is one of three Glendale schools with a sheltered program in science, social studies and health, paid for with federal bilingual education money.
The school has two bilingual programs, one in Spanish, one in Armenian. But there are 27 different languages spoken by the 931 pupils on the Horace Mann playground and, until last year, when the sheltered program started, many of the children who were not fluent in English were silent most of the school day, Sparks recalled.
Powerful New Tool
“There have always been teachers who tried,” Sparks said of those on his faculty who improvised ways to include the non-fluent in the activities of the classroom. But, for the most part, he said, teachers avoided calling on the non-fluent so as not to embarrass them. The sheltered program, he said, has equipped his teachers with the tools to reach those children. It has also given students in the bilingual programs greater access to the meat of the school’s curriculum.
“Now every student is participating,” Sparks said happily. “They have a piece of the action for the first time.”
Horace Mann teacher Jan Knott agrees.
“It was frustrating not being able to communicate with those children,” she said. “This program has allowed us to break through those barriers. It’s allowed us to reach those children intellectually.”
Now, Knott said, she can teach social studies to an entire class, no matter what language the children speak at home.
More important, everyone can learn.
“That’s the exciting part,” Knott said. “When the children get it. When the little light goes on.”