Bridging Language Gap

EDUCATION: How non-English speakers are taught the language differs by school district. The results can vary widely.

TUSTIN, CA—For six months Nora Kawasaki has prodded, cajoled and encouraged her most reticent Spanish-speaking student to switch to English.

It’s the second half of the school year and Kawasaki hasn’t given up.

She holds up a flash card showing a bowl.

“Plato,” fourth-grader Jose Hernandez says.

“Bowl,” Kawasaki gently corrects.

Jose nods.

“Plato,” he says.

English is still a foreign language in portable room G-2 at Veeh Elementary School, where 10 fourth- and fifth-graders gather each day to master the contours of strange new words.

The students, from Mexico, Argentina and Korea, started the school year speaking only Spanish or Korean. Kawasaki, a transplanted Californian of Hawaiian-Japanese descent, spoke only English.

And so the adventure began, marked by discoveries, miscommunications, triumphs, heartbreaks and occasional bouts of boredom and pandemonium.

“Some days I go home totally exhausted,” Kawasaki said.

Across California, about 1.2 million schoolchildren, or 24 percent, are classified as limited English proficient, a bureaucratic term describing students who can’t speak English well enough to follow the class work. At Veeh, 20 percent of the school’s 571 students are limited English proficient.

Everyone agrees the students need to learn English. The “how” has become a matter of national debate.

California, citing federal law, encourages schools to teach non-English speakers part of the time in their own language.

But a vast shortage of bilingual teachers means that in practice, most students who speak little English are being taught in classes such as Kawasaki’s, where instruction is in English only.

As the number of non-English-speaking students grows and the bilingual-education debate intensifies, the students of G-2 may have a lesson for a state still becoming fluent in the politics of the English language: Learning English, like learning fractions, is hard. In the end, ability and determination are inseparable from the method and the teacher.


From 10 to 11:30 a.m. _ while their English-speaking peers in the fourth and fifth grades review English literature _ Kawasaki’s students leave their regular classrooms and come to G-2.

Kawasaki speaks to the students in English, but in slower, shorter sentences sprinkled sometimes with basic Spanish.

A typical 90-minute lesson begins with the students copying words off the board and looking up the meanings in a dictionary. A history lesson may follow. After that, the lesson can vary: Flashcards attach words to objects, songs make new phrases stick, repetition cements meaning.

Often, Kawasaki will construct a lesson out of an everyday object.

The day after Valentine’s, Kawasaki passes out Hershey’s Kisses to teach descriptive writing.

“The foil wrapper is red and silver,” Kawasaki writes on the board.

The children copy the words into their notebooks.

“A brown hard candy is inside,” she writes.

The children copy.

“It tastes yummy and delicious,” Kawasaki writes again.

“Mrs. Kawasaki, ya no le pongas tantas letres, eh? ” Jose says.

Translation: Hey, don’t write so many letters.

Some of the children giggle. English begins to recede. Tina Lee whispers something in Korean. Adela Jaimes scolds Javier Pulido in Spanish. “San Valentin! San Valentin! (St. Valentine!)” one student says over and over.

Kawasaki plunges on. Sometimes she seems the towering mute in an ocean of babble.

Later, she reaches in her bag and passes out more Kisses.

“Here,” she says, giggling, “just enjoy this one. ” Then, under her breath: “I try to make a lesson plan out of everything. ” SOME WALK, SOME SPRINT

At the beginning of the school year, Kawasaki tested her students and found that they knew little or no English.

In a few weeks, she will repeat the test to see how well they’ve done.

She can already tell.

The children who at the beginning seemed one mass have revealed themselves in a diversity of abilities. Some still prefer Spanish; others can read entire passages in English.

Jose still blurts out in Spanish during flashcard time. But he has made progress.

“He didn’t speak at all at the beginning of the year,” Kawasaki said. “Then one day, he just blurted out, ‘Mrs. Kawasaki! ‘ and I thought my heart was going to melt. “

In his regular fourth-grade class with teacher Scott Singer, Jose’s progress is difficult to measure. During a recent long-division lesson, Jose fidgeted in his desk and stared blankly ahead when Singer addressed him. At other times Jose smiled at his classmates and tried to copy from the board.

Sandra Andrade, Jose’s classmate from Kawasaki’s class, finished her math problem before many of the other children.

“Very good,” Singer told her.

Sandra, who moved to the United States from Mexico last year, already knows enough English to be bored with the plodding pace of Kawasaki’s class. She’s always the first to finish there, too.

Sandra sat through a recent lesson in G-2 with her forehead on her hand and her mind somewhere else. When the other kids broke up into groups for playtime, she stayed behind to do her homework.

“It shamed me to not be able to speak English,” she says in Spanish.

Sometimes, Kawasaki will break away and sit with Sandra to read from a more advanced book. But with nine other rambunctious students, it’s a luxury she rarely indulges in.

“I just know if I could give her more time ,” Kawasaki says.

TEACHING METHODS VARY Everyone seems to have a parent or grandparent who learned English under the old sink-or-swim method.

California doesn’t approve of that method. Throwing non-English speakers into a sea of English without a life raft is now illegal _ it doesn’t satisfy the federal requirement that students be provided equal access to the curriculum.

The state approves several other methods that can be roughly divided into two categories: those that teach students primarily in English but with sensitivity to their limited comprehension, and those that teach students part of the time in their native tongue.

Location, not law, often determines how a child will learn English.

Tustin Unified, Veeh’s school district, endorses Kawasaki’s approach of teaching a variety of subjects in special classes using patient English. After about a year or two, the students usually are ready to join the mainstream.

A minority of school districts use the other approach: native-language instruction. Students receive special English classes but also are taught a few basic subjects in their native tongue. Students who study under this method starting in kindergarten usually join the mainstream by fourth grade.

Supporters say this approach is the best _ some say only _ way to teach speakers of other languages.

“Primary language is to make sure we keep kids in schools and keep them learning and keep them interested,” said Silvina Rubinstein, director of state and legislative affairs for the California Association for Bilingual Education. “Put yourself in their position. If I started speaking in Japanese, you’d hang up.

Same with children _ they create mental blocks and stop listening. “

Many districts with large immigrant populations, such as Santa Ana Unified, offer the native-language method. But it’s not the most popular way to teach English. Across California, only 30 percent of non-English-speaking students are taught in their native language, partly because the state is short about 20,000 teachers certified to teach them.

Perla Montes is a product of native-language instruction. The Veeh fourth-grader attended Santa Ana schools through third grade.

When she transferred to Veeh, she could not read or write well in English. She’s now a student of Kawasaki’s.

About her old school, Roosevelt Elementary, Perla says: “They didn’t teach me hardly anything in English. Everything was in Spanish. “

Perla’s mother, Carolina Montes, wished she had pulled her daughter out of Santa Ana sooner.

“I would have preferred for her to be taught English from the start. I would like for her to be reading and writing well like the other children. ” Anaida Colon-Muniz, Santa Ana’s bilingual coordinator, said Perla is an exception. Nine in 10 students who go through Santa Ana’s native-language instruction emerge fully bilingual by the fourth grade, she said.

“Kids learn at different speeds,” said Nadine Rodriguez, Roosevelt’s principal. “Learning a language is a very individual thing. Human beings aren’t computers. “

Rubinstein cautions against drawing conclusions about an entire program from one child: “If there is a pattern in a bilingual program where none of the children can speak English, then I would have concerns. “

Even the experts can’t agree.

Researchers at George Mason University compared non-English-speaking students immersed in English with students taught first in their native language. In the long run, the researchers determined, native-language instruction did a better job of preparing students for school.

Students taught first in their own language, the researchers said, had a more solid academic foundation. Poor immigrant children in particular seem to fare better when academic basics are covered in their own language, because many of those children come to America with little schooling.

If the goal is to move students quickly into the mainstream, however, other studies favor English immersion.

A study of New York City schools found that children exposed to English early moved into mainstream classes faster.

“People choose the research studies they want,” said Jan Taylor, Tustin Unified’s program specialist for English-language development. “It’s more philosophical and political than anything else. “

Then she added: “A program is only so good as the administrator and the teacher. What happens in the classroom is the most important thing. “

The students of G-2 are oblivious to the debate.

All they know is that in the middle of fourth grade, when most students are learning California history and struggling to make friends, they are trying to do all that and learn a wild new language called “Ingles” and “Younguh. “

Beyond nouns and verbs, language conveys a common culture. So it’s not surprising that in G-2 the native language is still the strongest bond.

While the Spanish speakers tend to relate to one another, Tina Lee and her new Korean-speaking friend, Min Young Seo, are inseparable. As the days go by, Kawasaki grows more and more worried about their close friendship. They sit together at their desks. During reading time, they sit together cross-legged on the floor.

“Before Min came, Tina was doing very well,” Kawasaki said. “Now her English has fallen off. They are constantly whispering in Korean. “

Tina was supposed to help Min with her English. Instead, Tina’s vulnerable new language dissolved in the comforts of the native tongue.

And so it is with many of the students. Letting go of Spanish or Korean is like letting go of Mom on the first day of kindergarten.

Jose, for example, still clings to Spanish. But now Kawasaki isn’t the only one pushing English.

Recently, Kawasaki dragged out the flashcards again. She held up photos of a shovel, ladder and flowerpot.

“Pala! ” Jose shouted. “Escalera maceta! “

Finally, classmate Yurismel Alvear could take no more. She rolled her eyes and shoved Jose.

“Ay! ” she said. “En Ingles! ” Ana Menendez can be reached by phone at (714) 953-7751 or by E-mail at [email protected] BACKGROUND

Orange County Register education reporters are spending the school year with the fourth grade at Veeh Elementary School in Tustin, a school that is a demographic mirror of Orange County.

Their mission: find out why California schools have such a questionable success record with fourth-graders, who tied last year with Louisiana students as the nation’s worst readers.

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