Kids' bilingual writing skills surprise a teacher

Teacher Lydia Gonzales worried that she was pushing her students too hard in her bilingual class at Hollinger Elementary School.

A few weeks ago, she assigned the 20 second-graders their first writing assignment in their second language — Spanish for the ones who speak English at home, English for those who speak Spanish as a first language.

Up to that point, pupils had worked mostly in their native language — reading books, writing poems and filling out worksheets. Three of five kids are classified as limited-English speakers at Hollinger, which runs the largest bilingual program in the Tucson Unified School District.

Gonzales’ students surprised her. All wrote imaginative tales with a beginning, middle and end. The only problem was some creative spelling, and that is normal for any second-grade class.

“I like to write in English because it makes me learn,” said Israel Hidalgo, 7.

Gonzales gives credit to bilingual education, now the favored method for teaching limited-English students in Pima County.

“I couldn’t have done this if their first language wasn’t strong,” Gonzales said. “That’s the power of bilingual education.”

But opponents argue that bilingual-education teachers like Gonzales are failing to teach English fast enough. English for the Children-Arizona, a Tucson-based citizens initiative, aims to eliminate bilingual education and replace it with a one-year English-immersion program. Teachers could use Spanish or other languages only for brief clarification.

The group is collecting signatures for a place on the Nov. 7 ballot. The initiative, if passed, would affect about one in five students statewide.

Grandmother Gloria Martinez says she favors the one-size-fits-all program because bilingual education is failing to teach her English-speaking grandchildren and their classmates in either language. She maintains that her grandchildren can learn Spanish in high school, college or at home. The emphasis should be on instructing Spanish speakers in the language of this country.

“They came here to learn English. They didn’t come to learn Spanish. They already know the language,” said Martinez, whose grandchildren attend TUSD’s Mission View Elementary School.

Bilingual education can be carried out in a variety of ways, ranging from just a few minutes to almost all day in the students’ native language.

In TUSD, students start out learning 80 percent to 90 percent in their native language before shifting to half-and-half in each language by the fifth grade. There is no time limit for students to move into regular classes in TUSD.

Even some bilingual educators, like those in Miami, Fla., where bilingual education is broadly accepted, see this model as too open-ended.

Most Miami schools start out just the opposite of TUSD, beginning with instruction about 80 percent of the time in English and making sure the children know English within three years. Other Miami schools run dual language programs with lessons in each language half the day, requiring students to perform equally in both languages from the start.

“We don’t delay the instruction of English,” said Lourdes Rovira, the executive director of bilingual/foreign language skills programs in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “That I think is the problem, the key.”

Cecilia Martinez Langley, a teacher in a Miami bilingual school, said teachers tend to translate in that method.

“If the children know that it’s going to be translated, it’s a crutch,” Langley said.

English for the Children-Arizona says students here never gain a working knowledge of English — or even of their native language — when schools teach them in both. They are at odds with most language experts, who agree that some instruction in children’s native language helps them learn English.

“Their No. 1 fault is, they don’t seek to teach English actively,” said Hector Ayala, co-chairman of English for the Children-Arizona and an English teacher at Cholla High Magnet School in Tucson. “They give lip service to English.”

Hollinger teacher Gonzales said she uses the right balance of English and Spanish based on the skills of her class — about 60 percent to 80 percent in a student’s native language.

“English day,” “Spanish day”

Gonzales zigzags between “English day” and “Spanish day,” giving all her pupils directions in the language of the day.

Children use the language of the day when they write in their journals, sing songs and listen to stories.

The morning begins in even more languages. Pupils greet one another in one of eight languages, including German and Japanese, that they have learned in lessons about countries.

Gonzales teaches new concepts in a pupil’s first language. She allows students to speak in the language most comfortable to them.

In a lesson on Germany, pupils shouted out facts about the country while Gonzales jotted down their words on a large sheet of paper — red for English, green for Spanish.

“Tiene una bandera.” “Tiene una pared,” she wrote first.

Then came, “They invented things.” “They make cars.”

When Gonzales was teaching that stories should follow a certain order, she divided the class between the English- and Spanish-dominant children. One group worked with a teacher’s aide in the back of the class while she worked with the other in the front.

The Spanish speakers mapped out the plot of “Los tres cochinitos,” “The Three Little Pigs.” When they were done, she taught the English-speakers how to map out the “Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

“My concept today was beginning, middle and end. I was not teaching Spanish or English,” Gonzales said.

In another lesson, she spoke mostly in English when she directed pupils to find shady and sunny, wet and dry areas in a school courtyard.

“Why was I going to do it in Spanish when they had the background? It’s their place of living. They knew what it was” in English, Gonzales said.

Every day on the playground and in the cafeteria, her pupils show they can talk in both languages. They switch from English to Spanish, back and forth, depending on whom they’re addressing.

Hollinger’s teaching is based on the work of a University of Southern California professor, Stephen Krashen. Krashen maintains that quality bilingual education programs contain three components taught simultaneously: instruction in basic subjects in the students’ first language, literacy in the first language and English as a second language from the start.

The theory of bilingual education holds that students should naturally transfer academic skills that they learn in their first language, such as reading and arithmetic, to their second language.

English for the Children says this does not work. Some of co-chairman Ayala’ s Cholla High students do not speak either language very well after going through schools with bilingual education.

“We don’t feel like we need to specify,” he said. “We mean exactly what they are doing.”

Blame for deeper problems

Bilingual education sometimes gets the blame for deeper problems among students, Gonzales said, especially Hispanics, who make up the majority of students classified as limited-English-proficient.

Gonzales said most of her second-graders, a class that she has taught since first grade, started out below grade level. Hollinger’s 700 students come from an immigrant neighborhood with one of the highest poverty rates in TUSD.

Just as many English speakers are behind as Spanish speakers in Gonzales’ class, and just as many English speakers are ahead as Spanish speakers.

One of the problems is the troubled home lives of some pupils, such as the boy whose mother abandoned the family last year and the one who started acting up after his father went to jail.

Some of her pupils’ parents have little time for the kids. One girl often nods off in class because she goes to day care at 5 a.m. and gets home after 6 p.m. when her mother gets off work.

Many of the pupils have no books at home.

In the class recently, some could barely sound out letters while others zipped through book after book without assistance. Allowed to choose between English and Spanish books, some were trying out both languages.

Many of the children who are speeding ahead have attentive parents. Israel Hidalgo is one of them. A native Spanish speaker, Israel swiftly switches between the two languages without realizing what he is doing.

He giggled in class as he read the Spanish book, “Jorge El Gigantesco.”

Then he explained to a reporter in English that the giant boy in the book was eating watermelons like raisins.

“I don’t know Spanish anymore because I’m learning more English than Spanish,” Israel said.

Other pupils are keeping up.

Fabricio Verduzco took out “Knights,” a book for advanced English vocabulary readers that contains elaborate drawings of castles and swords. He read one passage aloud.

Four months later, 8-year-old Fabricio asked if he could try writing a poetry assignment in English. Instead, Gonzales instructed him to write in Spanish so he could pair with a girl who needed help.

Gonzales let him try his hand at an English version later and admitted that it was a mistake to discourage him.

Gabriela Calzadillas, 8, is showing improvement, too.

By March, the girl who once stumbled over words like “who” in English was reading aloud, “A Wiggly, Jiggly, Joggly Tooth.” She still pronounced the j’s like h’s, as they are pronounced in Spanish.

Gabriela often hooks up with a friend who speaks English at home. They read to each other in their second languages.

“They’re fun,” she said, “and I learn more English.”

Other pupils, such as 8-year-old Jesus Figueroa, are performing below grade level.

His slowness seems to be unrelated to Jesus’ first language of Spanish. He is seeing a therapist for speech problems.

His parents, Olga and Enrique Figueroa, said they appreciate bilingual education.

When Jesus was in preschool at another school, the teachers spoke only English, and they told the Figueroas that Jesus would grow out of his speech problems. The Figueroas, from Sonora, said they saw English-speaking students get speech therapy, though — and generally, more attention.

The family also likes the cultural benefits of bilingual education.

“You need to know who you are, where you are going. It enriches you more than it can do you harm,” Olga Figueroa said.

Some parents have questioned whether Gonzales uses enough English. But none removed their children from the class when they were required to sign off at parent conferences in October.

And some parents who first opposed the method now see that their children are performing better than other children.

No limited-English speakers in Gonzales’ class have tested high enough in English to move to all-English instruction. Hollinger starts doing that in third grade.

For students who have achieved high levels in their first language, Gonzales will begin assigning readings in their second language a few days each week. She expects most pupils to be ready by the end of the year.

A teacher for nine years, Gonzales was not sold on bilingual education when she first started her college courses, but she saw the method work with her own daughter.

The girl spoke only Spanish when she started school and now is a top senior at Pueblo High Magnet School.

“It works because the main curriculum is taught in the language that the children understand,” Gonzales said. “It works because, as they are learning their second language, they are not losing the content.”

If bilingual education ends, and Gonzales is forced to teach in English only, students will miss the meaning of their lessons. Many will drop out, she said.

“If I did that they would lose so many concepts,” Gonzales said. “They wouldn’t be proficient in either one.”

Reporter Sarah Tully Tapia can be reached at 573-4117 or e-mailed at [email protected]

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