On their 19th day in school this week, Mary Anne Luskin’s second-graders practiced printing the letter G and chanted the names of the week and the days of the month.
The 6- and 7-year-olds at Bertrand Street School in Reseda talked–first in Spanish, then in English–about friendship. And they drew a portrait of their classmate and beneath it copied other words off the board: “That’s my friend.”
What they did not do was read.
In a seemingly perverse consequence of Proposition 227–the anti-bilingual education measure approved by voters in June–the Los Angeles Unified School District has virtually banned formal reading lessons for perhaps as many as 100,000 children who are not native English speakers.
Voters may have thought that Proposition 227 would force schools to teach students to read in English, but that isn’t the case–at least not in Los Angeles, which has more non-English speaking children than any other district in the country.
Part of the reason is that many schools have not yet received books printed in English. But a bigger reason is that the district’s policy for implementing Proposition 227 deliberately delays formal reading instruction until children become fluent in spoken English–a process that could take two or more years.
Proposition 227 prevents the district from teaching children to read in their native language, school officials point out. At the same time, the officials argue, the district should not teach children to read in English using phonics lessons because it does little good to teach children to read words they don’t yet understand.
Delaying formal reading instruction runs counter to state policies regarding academic standards, textbook purchases and teacher training–all of which stress the importance of formal lessons in letters and their sounds, beginning in kindergarten or even in preschool.
The district’s plans also have drawn protests from some teachers, who say that delaying phonics lessons and other formal reading instruction will harm their students.
District Supt. Ruben Zacarias, who is a strong supporter of phonics instruction, said delaying formal reading instruction is “unacceptable.”
“While a kid’s learning English we also can be teaching the child the English sound system, sight words, consonants and even phonics drills,” he said.
“There’s absolutely no question where I’m coming from,” he said.
That message, however, appears to be in conflict with the guidance the district is giving teachers. One memorandum for teachers and principals explicitly states that “formal language arts instruction” should be given “when students demonstrate readiness” on the basis of their fluency in English.
The effective policy has even spawned a new term–“oracy”–referring to “oral literacy.”
“You don’t teach a baby to read before they have learned how to talk, and the same natural development of language has to occur” with students who don’t speak English, said Toni Marsnik, who is in charge of designing the district’s response to Proposition 227.
Orange County school districts do not use Los Angeles’ approach, but administrators in the county said they are aware of it. In fact, regulations born out of Proposition 227 provided schools with several options on how to teach non-English-speaking students, and the approach LAUSD is using–called “sequential” instruction–was one of them.
“There’s foundation to that approach,” said Pat Puleo, Fullerton School District’s director of instruction. “If children don’t have English-language skills to hook onto, then anything they read doesn’t stick.”
Santa Ana Unified officials considered using the sequential approach, but school board members struck it down, arguing that it is not a proven method.
Research on the issue of how children best learn to read in a second language seems to be in conflict.
But Ron Unz, the author of Proposition 227, angrily countered that the district’s policy amounted to “blackmail” because it would force parents to keep their children in bilingual classes, rather than English immersion, in order to have them learn to read.
“I think that’s absolutely outrageous,” Unz said of the district’s conduct.
Diane Solomon, a kindergarten teacher at Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood, said she has been told that children should only hear English spoken and not even see it written.
“They told us we should concentrate on oral language and not even show them the written language,’ Solomon said.
“If they’re going to compete with children across the United States who are English speakers, they need to be given those skills in English immediately,” said Solomon, who has taught kindergarten for 17 years.
Marion Joseph, a member of the California Board of Education who is largely responsible for shaping the state’s emphasis on phonics, said focusing on oral language is critical.
“You do everything possible to fill them in a systematic way with vocabulary and understanding,” she said. “But you have to also get these kids ready, poised, to begin the reading process. The point is you do it simultaneously.”
Joseph points to extensive research that shows that even children who are learning a second language can benefit from phonics–enabling them to close the gap with native speakers.
“The more skills a child has early on, the easier it becomes for them,” said Penny Chiappe, a researcher at the University of Britsh Columbia.
“The direct instruction in phonics is really the tool that will help them break into print,” she said.
A survey of numerous studies of learning to read in a second language, conducted at the University of North Carolina, found that children learn best using virtually the same methods–regardless of whether they are learning in their native language or a second tongue.
But Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the Los Angeles district’s emphasis on oral language development seems to make sense–particularly for children who come to school not having been read to extensively in either Spanish or English.
“Assuming it’s well implemented, the time spent learning English is time that will be recuperated,” she said. “Instruction in English will avoid lots of frustration for kids.”
District officials say their approach is based on something called “language experience.”
Proposition 227 has had a profound effect on Luskin, an experienced bilingual teacher. Her classroom falls into what Los Angeles Unified refers to as “Model B,” which means that she can use some Spanish to help her children understand the lessons.
A traditionalist in some ways, Luskin is a stickler for proper printing. So she walks table to table, showing kids the proper way to hold a pencil and the order in which to make the parts of the letter G.
But she does not emphasize phonics or sounding out words.
Instead, when she introduces a book, such as a classic of children’s literature, “Goodnight Moon,” she focuses on what the words mean.
So, recently, she first read the book in Spanish and wrote the most important words on a large sheet of paper–drawing lines and circles to show how they related to the story line.
Switching to an English-language version of the book, she told a simplified version of it while pointing to the pictures. After reading the book–again pointing to the pictures–she once again wrote down key phrases, this time in English. In the days following, she had the children “echo read”–which means reading a phrase and having the children repeat it–numerous times.
Next, she had her students paraphrase the book in English. She wrote down their words, which the children used as inspiration for a drawing.
After all of that, when she listened to them read individually, seven of the 20 were able to read the simple three sentences that they had come up with to summarize the story. Three could not read it all. And the rest could read it with difficulty.
“I’d say that’s pretty good, I was very pleased,” Luskin said.
But she said she was not sure whether the children had memorized the words from the repetition or whether they would be able to read them if encountered in a different story.
Luskin said she recognized that there is a price to be paid for the district’s approach. “What we’re sacrificing is they are going to learn to read a little later,” she said. “But they will do better in the long run.”
Marsnik and other district officials also have some qualms.
“We really don’t know if children will succeed or not,” she said. “There’s a lot of research evidence to show that they will not do better and will do worse.”