Learning Made a Lot Easier

Lessons in Spanish Help Pupils Keep Up

School officials in Gustine are monitoring the progress of their youngest Spanish-speaking pupils to see if they really do learn English more efficiently if taught regular instruction in their first language.

Gustine School is using a three-year federal grant to develop a comprehensive bilingual education program. Kindergarten through third-grade pupils receive regular instruction in Spanish, supplemented by classes that improve their skills in English.

The strategy is designed to help smooth the transition to English-language instruction and help pupils keep up academically with their English-speaking peers.

“We are using the language the student knows to teach him what he doesn’t know,” said Chris Olivera, a bilingual resource specialist at Gustine School. “The child becomes a good reader in Spanish, which in turn should help him become a strong reader in English.”

The school’s No. 1 goal is to develop English proficiency so pupils can be “transitioned” to English-language classes, Olivera said. Already, the school has seen more pupils than anticipated move out of the bilingual settings.

That has happened because teachers have built on the children’s strengths, she said.

“The child’s culture and identity is inextricably linked with their language,” Olivera said. “By using it, we boost their self-esteem. They see that what they are bringing to school is fine, that they can embrace it.”

About 40 percent of Gustine School’s 511 pupils will benefit from the bilingual program, Principal Dick Lentz said. Older pupils will learn from language labs and sheltered-language instruction, but the intensive bilingual education will occur in the primary grades.

Total bilingual instruction is becoming increasingly popular among bilingual educators. They point to numerous studies that cite the academic successes of pupils who learn math, reading, science and other lessons in their primary language while acquiring English-speaking skills.

But the strategy has its critics. They argue that teaching pupils in their first, or primary, language discourages them from learning English. Olivera dismisses the concerns as shortsighted.

“The concern comes up continually, and I think it always will,” she said. “But it’s coming from people who haven’t seen the research. They’re thinking of it in substractive ways, not additive ways.”

For instance, an eight-year study conducted for the U.S. Department of Education concluded that students with limited English skill who are taught in their native language progress as fast or faster than their English-speaking counterparts in areas such as math. But if students are quickly switched into a class taught only in English, they fall behind.

“No matter how you cut it, providing limited-English-proficient students with substantial amounts of primary-language instruction does not interfere with or delay their acquisition of English,” said J. David Ramirez, a principle researcher on the study.

The staff at Gustine thinks they are well ahead of other schools in delivering a program that best meets the needs of non-English speaking pupils. Chatom School, another rural school located about 10 miles away in Stanislaus County, also receives federal funds for a similar program.

Gustine receives about $70,000 a year to administer its program. The school has hired four bilingual instructional aides in addition to Olivera’s services. The grant also pays for teaching materials, including Spanish-language textbooks, and staff training.

The instructional aides work in kindergarten through third-grade bilingual classes. The second grade takes a team-teaching approach: Two teachers share their classes and their lessons. Spanish-speaking pupils have an English-as-a-second language period while their English-speaking peers learn a second language in a similar class taught in Spanish.

Pupils in the other grade levels spend at least 20 percent of their school day with English-speaking pupils. When the pupils become proficient enough, they are “transitioned” to an English-language class.

Olivera said many teachers observe that pupils are more eager to tackle English once they have mastered reading and writing in their first language.

“The kids will pick up English language books, they’ll point out and try to read signs and posters around the classroom,” she said. “The transition happens so smoothly that it’s very surprising to the teacher how quickly the students progress.”

Darlene Panarra is a second-grade teacher who speaks Spanish and English.

“I found that my students are very proud that they are learning a second language and that their first language is strengthened at the same time,” she said.

The program is buttressed by a parent-literacy class that meets once a month.

“The parents, like their children, feel comfortable because they can participate,” Panarra said.

The results are equally important for the teachers.

“We work with an increasingly diverse group of students, so I feel this way of teaching is a real asset for the community,” Panarra said. “Why shouldn’t these children have the same opportunity that the English-speaking student has to take home a book, read it with their parents or to a little brother?”

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