Alternatives Offered For Teaching English To Immigrant Children

Teacher Kathy Allard pointed to the 5-year-old boy’s shoulders. “Identify,” she said, in English.

The boy tapped his shoulders with his hands and said, “Shoes!”

The child, whose parents are from Iran, was learning English by “immersion,” looking at pictures and watching his teachers, who spoke nothing but English in class. It was the boy’s only mistake that day.

The class at College Park School in Irvine has 26 children, ranging from kindergarten to third-grade age levels. They are from Germany, Japan, mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Colombia and Mexico.

Allard says her students, speaking English, move on to regular classes in a year or less.

A few rooms away, another class of 32 children, almost all from Mexico, was being conducted mostly in Spanish.

Debate About Method

This way of teaching English also works, said teacher Sandy Ruiz Carpenter. “We get our students to speak English and then move them out in two or three years,” she said.

As Southern California becomes the Ellis Island of the 1980s, debate rages about the best way to teach English to the children of the new immigrants. On one side are proponents of bilingual education: the teaching of students in their native language until they learn English sufficiently to study in regular classes.

The major alternative to bilingual education is called ESL, English as a Second Language. ESL involves teaching predominantly in English, and in some cases, exclusively in English.

College Park School in Irvine has both and provides a look in miniature at the two sides.

In the bilingual class, a teacher’s aide was showing a picture to kindergarten students. “What things in this picture start with the letter ‘O?’ ” she asked in Spanish.

A little boy pointed to a drawing of an eye. “Ojo,” he said. The teacher’s aide agreed that it was a correct choice. Eye equals ojo equals letter O.

The child was being taught to be literate in his native language, Spanish. In this lesson, Spanish letters only were being taught.

But a few feet away, a teacher’s aide was helping a little boy be bilingual with numbers. “What is that?” she said, pointing to the numeral 4. “Quatro,” replied the child.

“Now, in English,” said the teacher.

“Four,” said the little boy, with a big smile.”

A mother who was visiting the bilingual classroom was Margarita Montero, of Irvine. She said she speaks English only pocito — a little bit. She also said that she wants her children to attend bilingual classes rather than English-only ESL classes at College Park School. “I don’t want my children to lose their Spanish,” she said.

‘Here to Learn English’

By contrast, in the English-only class down the hall, a teacher’s aide, Kojoan Kao, said that learning of English quickly is the goal she has for her own children. Kao, a native of Taiwan, said she is not worried that her children will lose their culture in the process.

“They are here to learn English,” she said. “They can keep their culture at home, still.”

Yolanda Battle, a native of El Salvador, is another teacher’s aide in the English-only class. Although some of her students are from Spanish-speaking countries, Battle said she speaks Spanish to them only in emergencies. Battle said she thinks it wise to have more than one type of English language program.

“I look on this type of (English-only) class as an alternative,” she said. “You can choose. Children who take bilingual education usually don’t know their own (native) language well. They learn their own language, then they can learn another language.”

Battle said that children enrolled in the English-only class are generally those who come from homes where the parents are well-educated, and the native language is very well honed. Bilingual education, she said, is the wise choice for children not so well versed in their native language.

Choices Called Necessary

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig also believes choices in English language classes are necessary. He said in an interview last week that he supports bilingual education but thinks it wise to have alternatives, such as the English immersion program offered at College Park School.

Moreover, said Honig, he believes state law requires such alternatives. “We (in the state Department of Education) are sending out letters to school districts telling them that they have to have options for parents,” said Honig. “The law gives parents the choice of whether they want to put their children in bilingual classes. If they don’t want to, the school district should have alternatives.”

Honig added, “That’s why (U.S. Education Secretary William) Bennett’s idea makes sense. There should be a variety of ways for teaching (English to non-English speakers).” Honig referred to Bennett’s urging in September that Congress allow more flexibility on how federal funds for bilingual education can be spent.

Many Latino supporters of bilingual education bristled at Bennett’s suggestion. They said that it was a backdoor way for the Reagan Administration to dismantle bilingual education.

Honig, however, said he agrees with Bennett that school districts should be able to have a variety of ways to use federal funds for training in the English language.

Argument for Bilingual

Honig also emphasized that no convincing data exist to prove that any teaching method, including bilingual education, is superior.

Supporters of bilingual education argue that it is absolutely necessary to teach non-English-speaking children in their native language so they can learn math and other subjects while gradually becoming English speakers. This type of teaching, say the bilingual education proponents, keeps the child from falling behind.

In Orange County, some evidence has been found that non-English-speaking children can, and do, progress with English-only instruction. The College Park School’s English-immersion class is one example: Despite a diversity of ethnic backgrounds in the class, the students quickly — in a year or less — learn English and go on to join their Anglo student peers.

Teachers agree that one reason for the success is that most of the Irvine students in the English-only classes are from well-to-do families. They are children, for instance, of Japanese and Chinese executives who have moved to Irvine to supervise businesses and plants in the area.

In the Garden Grove Unified School District, Supt. Ed Dundon notes that thousands of poor children of Vietnamese “boat-people” immigrants have learned English, and excelled in school, without bilingual education. Vietnamese students are consistently among the top-scoring overall students in the district, Dundon points out.

Parents’ Pressure

“We had so many (Vietnamese) students and so many dialects that there was no way we could provide them all bilingual education,” said Dundon. “So what they essentially got was English as a second language in the form of English immersion.”

Dundon said a key ingredient was parental support — a strong push by the Vietnamese families for the children to learn English and to excel in schools.

Allard, the teacher of Irvine’s College Park School English-only class, said that she has also noted that parental support of English language education is very important.

Carpenter, the College Park School teacher for the bilingual Spanish-English class, said that unlike many of the the Vietnamese, who have moved legally into Orange County and plan on permanent residence, a significant proportion of Spanish-speaking children in the district have Mexican immigrant parents who are in the area as temporary workers, some of whom crossed the border illegally.

“Many people don’t realize we have a poor community (of Mexican immigrants) in the Irvine area,” Carpenter said. “Many of my students are children of workers on the Irvine Ranch. Their families are poor.” She added that many of the Mexican parents are themselves uneducated.

Preservation of Culture

Teaching the children in Spanish, Carpenter said, gives the Mexican immigrant children a base on which to learn. Carpenter noted that almost all the Latino parents in the Irvine area want their children to attend bilingual classes, rather than English-only classes.

Some educators say that Latinos are militant for bilingual education because they want to preserve their Hispanic culture.

For instance, Battle, the native of El Salvador who teaches in College Park School’s English immersion class, said, “I think it’s more of a cultural thing.” She added that the parents of Oriental students in the English-only class send their children to religious or other culture-related schools on the weekends so that their ethnic identities can be preserved. Those parents don’t worry about their children losing their culture in the English-only classes during the weekdays, Battle said.

Mexican parents, on the other hand, do not have such weekend schools for their children and therefore worry about their children losing cultural identity, Battle said. They thus want classes taught in Spanish.

Critics of bilingual education, both in Sacramento and in Washington, say that the intended goal is to teach children to speak and learn in English — not to preserve a culture. The critics contend that English-only classes have that single goal: teaching immigrant children to learn that language.

Alternative Programs

Honig, however, said that both bilingual and English-only classes have their merits. He said that the College Park School programs, which offer alternatives, are just what he thinks are needed in all California school districts. But Honig said he finds it frustrating that no convincing data exists anywhere in the nation on the results of teaching either by English only or by bilingual education. “We’re going to start demanding accountability in this,” Honig said. “We need to know what the results are.”

The immigrant children, meanwhile, are blissfully unaware of the political and academic debate that swirls around them.

In Kathy Allard’s all-English class, the third-grade children smile as they hear a story about Tony, the Chef. “Tony does not wear his chef’s hat in the shower,” says one little Chinese girl, in composing a sentence out of the story.

A foreign word is seldom heard in Allard’s class, despite its diverse ethnic makeup.

Down the hall, children in Sandy Ruiz Carpenter’s bilingual class speak sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English. “What is the number?” asks the teacher’s aide, in English.

“Ocho,” responds the child.

“In English, now,” says the teacher’s aide.

“Eight,” says the boy.

Comments are closed.