Lake Forest school offers English immersion in reverse

Many pupils get little exposure to Spanish outside of class.

Spanish is academic for Ryan Derby, an integral part of the many lessons to be learned in kindergarten.

It’s strange names for familiar things. A pencil is called a lapiz. Snow is nieve.

It’s counting from uno to cien. It’s the days of the week, the seasons of the year, the colors of a crayon box – rojo, azul, negro, blanco.

“Anybody got an amarillo?” Ryan, 5, asked Tuesday as he colored patterns in a math workbook in his kindergarten class at Gates Elementary School.

Ryan’s experience in Gates’ dual-language immersion program, where 90 percent of the day is spent learning Spanish, is a mirror image of what Spanish-speaking children are supposed to get when they are immersed in English in school.

Ryan knew almost no Spanish when he started kindergarten in September. School is about the only place he can practice his new language.

During winter break, he got about as much exposure to Spanish as his three brothers got to math or science.

“It’s vacation. Priorities change,” said Ryan’s mother, Sandy Derby. “This is their time for freedom.”

Ryan’s parents and brothers speak only English. Their favorite TV shows are all in English. They eat, play and pray in English.

To help Ryan, his mother plays tapes of Spanish children’s songs on the car stereo. She tries to read Spanish-English children’s books aloud, although she admits to mangling the pronunciation. She encourages Ryan to play a video soccer game in Spanish on his Nintendo 64. She likes it when Ryan speaks Spanish to Oscar, the waiter at the local El Torito.

But mostly, Derby counts on classroom experience to teach her son. For her, Spanish is a rare fringe benefit beyond the basics in school.

“I’m amazed that every parent doesn’t want their child in this program,” Derby said.

Gates received a waiver from Proposition 227 to continue teaching students in Spanish. In kindergarten, only 10 percent of the day is devoted to English. By fifth grade, the time is divided equally between English and Spanish.

Students are expected to finish sixth grade as fluent readers, writers and speakers in the two languages.

In Ryan’s class of 20, half the children speak Spanish as a first language. Those students help beginners like Ryan pick up a native accent, expand their vocabulary, use Spanish to communicate.

Most of the native Spanish speakers in kindergarten know more words in English than Ryan does in Spanish. They have had years of exposure to English-language television, books and playground games.

While Ryan learns colors and counting in Spanish, his Spanish-speaking classmates already know such English words as “building” and “street”; how to use “people” as the plural of “person.”

But that changes with time. By sixth grade, the students who are fluent in English outscore their Spanish-speaking classmates on tests in both languages.

Ryan’s teacher, Belisa Guerrero, said knowing words and speaking fluently is different from becoming literate in a language.

What students learn – and how well they do on tests – depend on their personality, their parents’ expectations and their home environment as much as anything that occurs in the classroom, Guerrero said.

“It’s their interest level, their motivation,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t admit it, but they’re excited to come back to school. And when they walk in here, they know that Spanish is the language.”

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