Orchard Place Elementary School teacher Lisa Allie held up two crayons, green and blue, to the group of kindergartners who sat on the floor.
” uantos hay?” How many are there? she asked.
“Two crayons,” a student answered in English.
Allie leaned closer to the student.
” omo se llama en Espanol?” What do you call this in Spanish?
“Los colores.” Colors.
“Muy bueno,” Allie said. Very good.
The emphasis on Spanish would be common in many bilingual classes, but Allie’s is no ordinary language class. English- and Spanish-speaking students mingle in the same room, the lessons taught predominantly in Spanish.
This dual-, or two-way, language program, just two weeks old, aims to teach native English speakers Spanish while they help their Spanish-speaking classmates in English.
To some experts, such programs are the answer to two pressing education problems: getting non-native English speakers fluent in English while teaching English speakers language skills they need to compete in a global marketplace.
“Given the reality of society, more than one language in the long run serves students better,” said Josie Yanguas, a bilingual education consultant at the Illinois Resource Center in Des Plaines. “They can gain access to better universities and the job market and become much more marketable people.”
Dual-language programs begin when pupils are very young and the program stretches over six or more years. The Orchard Place kindergartners will remain together, taught by bilingual teachers, until they leave the school as 6th graders, said Principal Joy Kadlecik. The school is piloting the program for Des Plaines School District 62.
Though 90 percent of the class is conducted in Spanish now, the Orchard Place students will hear more English as their elementary school careers progress.
By the time they leave for junior high, the class will be taught half in Spanish and half in English. If all goes well, all the students in the class will leave Orchard Place fluent in both languages.
In 1997, there were more than 200 dual-language programs nationwide, most involving Spanish and English, according to a study by Reason Public Policy Institute of Los Angeles.
In the northwest suburbs, the programs have been slow to catch on.
Carpentersville School District 300 has dual-language classes, and Schaumburg School District 54 has entered its fifth year offering Spanish-English dual-language classes at MacArthur Elementary School.
District 54 has 111 students in five grades progressing through the program, and officials hope to open another class at a different school next year, said Ngoc-Diep Nguyen, director of bilingual education. Standardized tests in the district have shown students equaling or exceeding the performance of their mainstream schoolmates, Nguyen said.
But dual-language programs have been turned down in the Evanston/Skokie School District 65, where school board officials said there was not enough parental support for the project.
“Dual-language programs in our country are programs of choice,” Nguyen said. “You have to hold parents’ hands and convince them their children will eventually benefit from them. That bothers some districts.”
Critics of more traditional bilingual classes–where students learn in their native language with English language tutoring–have called such classes a failure.
California’s passage of Proposition 227 last spring brought the debate to national attention when it banned teaching bilingual students in their native language.
But a recently completed study has for the first time given districts nationwide solid research to back up dual language as an alternative bilingual program.
The 14-year study by George Mason University researchers Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier followed the progress of thousands of students over their public school careers.
The researchers found that students in dual-language programs exceeded students in any other type of bilingual program on standardized tests in English. And surprisingly, they also outperformed native English speakers from English-only classrooms.
Students take five or six years to gain total fluency in a second language, the study reported.
In their second week of class, the English-speaking dual-language students at Orchard Place already are immersed in a Spanish-only environment.
Allie cuts through the language barrier by using hands-on activities and visual aids to help English-speaking students understand class lessons.
“When we read a story, we do a lot of acting,” Allie said. “We do a lot of songs and rhymes; they like to sing in Spanish.”
Only during reading lessons are the students separated by language and allowed to learn in their native tongues.
English speakers immersed in a Spanish-speaking class are bound to pick up the language, but some parents questioned whether Spanish speakers in such an environment can learn English.
“English is the dominant language; they hear it all around them,” Kadlecik said. “When they are outside this classroom, they have music, art and gym in English, and most of their playmates speak it. There’s lots of opportunity to interact in English.”