In Plain English

First-Graders make big strides with single-language approach

Hands shot up in a Canoga Park Elementary School first-grade class last week as veteran teacher Karen Berg asked her students what makes a butterfly an insect.

“It has six legs,” one pupil responded.

“And three body parts,” added another. “The head, thorax and abdomen.”

As the first year of classes under Proposition 227 ends on most campuses this week, these Latino students from Spanish-speaking homes offer a glimpse at how the effort to mandate English-only instruction is faring.

The students were completing their first year in a Model B class where instruction is given mostly in English – but where limited Spanish explanations are allowed as a safety net.

In another wing of the school, Sheryl Rosario’s first-graders were completing a math lesson on measurement.

Her Model A class included a mix of students from other countries as well as Latino students whose parents insisted they receive all of their lessons in English.

To teachers who have embraced English immersion instruction, it often is difficult to distinguish between the Model B students, who in past years would have been in bilingual classes, and their Model A counterparts.

“They’re sponges at this age, they just soak it up,” said Berg, a former bilingual class instructor.

Rosario said the two teachers frequently team teach and share some instructional materials.

“It’s really rewarding to see everyone treated equally,” she said.

At the outset of the year, Berg said her students, who came from a bilingual kindergarten, needed more help in Spanish to grasp some skills. Yet by midyear she was teaching almost entirely in English.

“I’ve always taught in Spanish in the bilingual program,” said Berg, a 15-year veteran. “I didn’t know what to think about this first year in English, but I love it.”

Her students have gone from speaking no English on the first day of class to speaking it well. And though technically reading is not supposed to be a major part of Model B instruction and no standard textbooks are provided, about half her class is reading at a first- grade level now, Berg said.

“They’re learning the same skills in English that they did in Spanish,” she added.

Berg attributes part of her success to taking English instruction seriously.

“I’ve done it from day one,” she said, describing how she initially would tell students to line up in English, but then would have to demonstrate what she meant.

“But it works. It’s rewarding to see them pick up English so quickly.”

As her students studied compound words last week, Berg explained how she slowly decreased the amount of Spanish assistance she provided during lessons until now she essentially runs a Model A classroom.

During the transition, she said, students were encouraged to rephrase Spanish questions into English, and she would respond in English.

Berg said she’s not opposed to her students spending another year, or portion of a year, in Model B because some parents feel more comfortable with a bilingual instructor. Also, she said about half her class could use more time mastering verbal English skills.

Berg and Rosario said the English immersion program has resulted in a different school environment for all.

More English is spoken on the playgrounds and in the hallways, while teachers who a year ago frequently gave routine directions in Spanish now do so in English.

The reward, Rosario said is seeing so many students “on the same page.”

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