The Littlest Linguists

Spanish-speaking kids learn English in kindergarten

When their small arms shoot up, and a dozen different voices chime, ”Yo, teacher,” ”Yo, teacher,” ”Yo, teacher,” Doris Owen’s students aren’t trying to be hip.

For the 14 Spanish-speaking kindergartners, ”yo” means ”me,” and it’s a way for them to grab Owen’s attention. Waving their arms, the budding students are so eager to prove they know the English word she’s requested, they yell out their answers.

Beginning this year, Bonneville School District is offering pint-sized students, for whom English is a second language, a full day of kindergarten. ESL coordinator Lance Robertson called the program an ”intervention strategy.” By giving young students more exposure to English _ at an age when language acquisition is easiest for them _ the district hopes to avert future academic problems.

After attending regular morning classes, the pupils gather in a brightly decorated classroom at Lincoln Elementary School, where Owen and Linda Shurtliff, a migrant council tutor, encourage them to practice identifying numbers and shapes. They sing alphabet songs, and Spanish and English words mingle.

”Me parece como un tomate,” a little girl says of the circle on the board.

When some of the children first came to school, they didn’t know any English. ”At the beginning of the year, she couldn’t say, ‘My name is Lupita,”’ Shurtliff said, pointing to a pig-tailed youngster. Now, she says ”rectangle” when Olsen asks the students to name the shape of a figure.

The district also added two certified teachers with ESL endorsements to teach English as a second language and provide tutoring. The district previously only had three tutors from the Migrant Education Program.

For Superintendent Tom Campbell, the decision to hire the new teachers was easy. ”There was a crying need,” he said, referring to 248 students who need additional English instruction.

As a result of the new programs, the district hopes the number of Hispanic drop-outs, or ”push-outs” in Robertson’s words, will dwindle.

”Bilingual education is a necessity,” Robertson said. ”Rather than buying a more expensive prison to put the kids in after they drop out, we have to accommodate their learning needs.”

”The thing it does to solve the problem is that it allows us to communicate with the parents,” Campbell said.

This means Neva Romero, Bonneville’s ESL teacher, does more than teach. She acts as a liaison between the school and her students’ families and as their advocate. Often her room serves as a refuge, a place where students can listen to familiar music, slip into their native tongue, understand and be understood.

Romero said she arrives at school to find a gaggle of students, some of whom aren’t in her classes, waiting by her door. ”This is their home away from home.”

In many ways, she can empathize with their search for a familiar place. As a senior, Romero transferred to Skyline from a high school in Bolivia.

”The whole year I was completely lost,” she said. ”It was a horrible experience.”

But Romero persevered and, following family tradition, decided to become a teacher. Last fall, she graduated from Idaho State University with a degree in Spanish.

For two periods a day, her role is to teach students English _ and in some cases, to teach them to read and write in Spanish.

Because Romero is specifically trained to teach language acquisition, she provides her students with cues, rather than simply translating the language for them.

During the remaining class period, she helps them with their homework from other classes.

It’s hard sometimes, Romero said, because she may have 13 or 14 students working on six different subjects _ subjects she hasn’t studied since high school.

”I take it as a learning experience because I think I’m learning more than the students are,” she said.

To help them with their lessons, Romero will read an important passage once or twice in English and then she might translate it into Spanish. Sometimes, she steers the students toward a section that will answer their questions. Because some of her students can’t read or write, receiving this one-on-one instruction is crucial.

Even though bilingual education is controversial, Idaho is committed to it and monitors school districts to ensure their services are adequate. When they aren’t, it strongly encourages them to hire ESL teachers, said Anita Brunner, bilingual education consultant for the state.

ESL teachers, like Romero, are increasingly common in Idaho schools, Brunner said. Full-day kindergarten programs, however, are more rare.

Idaho has practical as well as philosophical reasons for advocating bilingual education. First, Brunner said, you’re asking student to perform ”mental gymnastics” if you expect them to learn English before they learn their own language. And second, the state believes these bilingual students ”will have an added strength in the job market.”

”Why not highlight it as a gift that the child has?” Brunner asked.

What Romero sees are bright students who are frustrated by the language barrier. ”There are some very smart kids that could be doing so much better if they could be doing it in their own language.”

All she can do is continue to teach them English verbs and pronunciation and guide them through algebra and earth science lessons.

And on the hard days, when her students need a pep talk, Romero is in the position to honestly remind them: ”When I came here I was just the same as you. If I did it, and I don’t think I’m as smart as you,

I think you can.”



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