Plunging pupils into 2 languages

The two-way immersion programs' goal is for all pupils to become bilingual.

Kacey Anderson spoke with confidence as she stood in front of the room, leading her classmates in reciting “El Castillo de Arena,” a Spanish poem.

As she moved effortlessly over the words, trilling the double r’s and accenting all the right letters, it was hard to tell it was not her native language.

Around half the students in Kacey’s first-grade class at Gates Elementary in Orange County are native English speakers. But they are already on their way to becoming fluent in Spanish.

Other students in the class, who speak Spanish, are learning English. The goal is for all students to become bilingual.

Research shows that programs like the one at the Lake Forest school, known as two-way immersion, are more effective than other bilingual programs for Spanish speakers and give English speakers an academic edge over their peers in regular classes.

The number of two-way immersion classes is growing in the United States, but they still count for only a fraction of bilingual programs.

Frank Ohnesorgen, principal at Joan F. Sparkman Elementary in Temecula, is ready to add his school to the list. Modeled after the program at Gates Elementary, it will be the first of its kind in Riverside County. Riverside Unified School District is considering using the approach but has not made any definite plans.

Starting next month, the Colton Unified School District in San Bernardino County will offer two-way immersion in a third- and fourth-grade combination class and a fifth- and sixth-grade combination class. Each class will have one teacher who will teach in English about 60 percent of the day and in Spanish the rest of the time.

The classes were created as part of Walter Zimmerman Elementary’s conversion to a magnet school with a focus on international studies.

Yolanda Cabrera, district director of bilingual education, said the two-way immersion program is not meant to replace the more traditional bilingual instruction the district offers in the primary grades. Students will be screened before being allowed into the classes.

“We’re not there to remediate their own language. We’re there to enhance their learning of a second language,” Cabrera said.

Convinced that Spanish speakers are not doing as well academically as they could, Ohnesorgen in Temecula believes two-way immersion will do a better job of teaching English while allowing students to retain their native language.

“In this program, both languages will be acknowledged as valued and something desired,” said Ohnesorgen, whose son will be one of 32 kindergarten students to start the bilingual class when the new school year begins next month. Enrollment in the class is voluntary.

Ohnesorgen and his wife, both of whom are of Mexican descent, speak Spanish but they have not passed the language along to their son. The bilingual class will ensure that their heritage is not lost, he said.

Nearly 11 percent of students at Sparkman are considered limited-English proficient. Until now, all of them learned English in regular classrooms with the help of bilingual aides.

This is how the two-way bilingual program will work: In kindergarten and first grade, Spanish will be spoken 90 percent of the day and English 10 percent of the day. The amount of Spanish will taper off so by the time students are in fifth grade, the split between English and Spanish will be 50:50.

A separate teacher will teach English in kindergarten through second grade. That way, there is a clear distinction between the two languages and students become accustomed to speaking only Spanish with the Spanish teacher and only English with the English teacher.

Beginning in third grade, one teacher will teach in both languages. But the distinction remains, with a set time of day assigned to each language.

Reading instruction in English is not formally introduced until the third grade. Before then, parents are asked not to explicitly teach reading at home. The idea is that students will be more motivated to concentrate on Spanish in school, partly because they cannot rely on their parents to translate for them when they get home.

The heavier emphasis on Spanish in the early grades is to help offset the influence of English in the broader culture, Ohnesorgen said.

The Spanish was overwhelming for Irene Aitkens when she started kindergarten at De Portola Elementary in Orange County, which offered two-way immersion before the 7-year-old program moved to Gates Elementary.

“She didn’t want to go back,” said her mother, Ginny Aitkens.

“She didn’t want to do it. “

But it did not take long for her to feel at home, Aitkens said.

The teacher made Spanish easier to understand with gestures like pointing to a chair when students learned the word for “chair. “

“After two weeks, the crying pretty much stopped and after a month she felt pretty comfortable,” Aitkens said.

Now in third grade, Irene helps her brother, a freshman in high school, with his Spanish homework.

Other parents can relate similar success stories.

Maria Duena is impressed by her daughter, Claudia’s, English skills. The fifth-grader, who entered kindergarten speaking only Spanish, translates for her mother during visits to the doctor. She can switch back and forth between the languages more easily than her older brother who did not go through the program, Duena said.

Officials at Gates Elementary are currently working with the district to expand the program to middle school.

More than 200 schools offer two-way bilingual classes, compared with only 30 ten years ago. About half of them are in California.

The target language in most of them is Spanish, but some offer instruction in Japanese, Arabic or Portugese.

A shortage of bilingual teachers who have a high level of proficiency in both languages is one reason why two-way bilingual programs are still in the minority, said Kathryn Lindholm, a professor of education at San Jose State University.

Lindholm and other researchers have found that the approach is a success for a variety of reasons. She has tracked 15 two-way bilingual programs, one in Alaska and the rest in California, for 12 years. She controlled her studies for factors such as social class and the educational level of parents.

Her studies consistently shown that Spanish speakers do better in the program than their peers in English immersion classes. And by the fifth grade, English speakers outperform their peers in regular classes in core subjects.

Spanish speakers do better in the program because their language is regarded as important, she said. “For part of the instructional day, their language and culture is the valued one in the classroom and they’re looked up to by their English peers. ” English speakers excel because the challenge of thinking in two languages is intellectually stimulating, she said. Other research has shown that students acquire more mental flexibility, better vocabularies and a greater capacity for abstract thought.

Lindholm’s studies show that most Spanish speakers are fluent in English by fourth grade and all are fluent by sixth grade. A majority of English speakers are fluent in Spanish by fifth grade.

Researchers at George Mason University have documented the program’s long-term benefits for non-native English speakers. In a recent study, they found that non-native English speakers who went through two-way bilingual programs scored at the 60th percentile in English reading as high school juniors.

Students who were weaned off instruction in their native language in two to three years scored at the 40th percentile and students were immersed in English and given extra help through pullout programs scored at the 20th percentile.

Liz Howard, a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D. C., said there are several factors that could explain the differences in achievement.

Students’ initial literacy in a language they understand and the ability of parents to help them with homework gives them a good foundation, Howard said.

Also, most programs are voluntary, meaning the parents who choose them are probably more savvy about schooling, irrespective of social class or their own level of education, she said. The same goes for English speaking parents.

“I think that might be part of it, but I don’t think it’s all of it,” she said.

Howard said her only concern about two-way bilingual classes is that some schools may start them without adequate preparation, including finding a school that already has a program that can serve as a model.

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