LAKE FOREST, CA—The English-speaking half of Senora Alcocer’s third-grade class recently solved a math problem not even their parents would have understood.
“Cuanto es seis por cinco? “
“Treinta! ” the class yelled in unison.
The class, at Gates Elementary School in Saddleback Valley Unified School District, is part of a language program that challenges the old assumptions about the best way to teach a foreign language.
Instead of waiting until high school to introduce English speakers to a new language, the Gates program immerses them in Spanish starting in kindergarten.
In the early years, nearly every lesson is taught in Spanish.
Before the students learn to read in English, they learn to read in Spanish. They learn to count in Spanish, write in Spanish and think in Spanish.
Before they know the mathematical answer to six times five, they learn to call it “seis por cinco. “
But the program’s uniqueness doesn’t end there.
Gates’ curriculum also functions as a bilingual program for the other half of the class, which enters speaking only Spanish.
The experiment starts in kindergarten, where each class is equally divided between English and Spanish speakers who will spend the rest of their elementary-school years together.
By third and fourth grade, students who could barely communicate with each other are speaking and writing the others’ language.
The program is called two-way language immersion, and few people have heard of it, though some researchers say it’s the most effective way to teach a new language.
At Gates, the results sometimes speak for themselves:
“Nosotros estamos escribiendo de las misiones en California,” the former English-only speaker Shane Shepard said in unaccented Spanish, explaining that the fourth-grade class was writing reports on California missions.
“What are we supposed to do with the pink paper? ” the former Spanish-only speaker Erick Acosta asked in unaccented English during a break in an art class.
Later at recess, Hispanic kids broke out to play soccer while the whites played football. Everyone spoke English, with an occasional “Aqui, Aqui” followed by a “Here! Here! ” DUAL APPROACHES
The implications for the future of old-style high school Spanish classes are clear. But the Gates program also is interesting for what it teaches about the different ways of learning a language.
The goal of dual immersion is to produce a group of children who are perfectly bilingual. Depending on the students’ first language, however, the results are achieved in vastly different ways.
English speakers are quickly immersed in Spanish, while Spanish speakers are slowly introduced to English.
The theory behind the different approaches is that a society’s dominant language is best-learned slowly while retaining the native language. But when someone already speaks the dominant language, the best way to learn a new one is through immersion.
Advocates of English-only instruction for everyone may disagree.
But some researchers say dual immersion works because it appreciates the difference between learning a foreign language in your own country and learning a home language when you’re a foreigner.
“The difference is the status of the language, and (students) know it,” said Virginia Collier, a George Mason University researcher whose 10-year study of bilingual education is frequently cited as the most comprehensive.
“Minority languages are not always valued by the general society. The kids can see the status relation. That’s one of the reasons California tried this experiment to emphasize the minority langauge in the early grades. It helps the kids who speak it feel good about themselves. They can say, ‘I’m the one who knows more here. ‘ “
Saddleback’s program began in 1991 with 29 children at Valencia Elementary School. Last year, the program _ and the students enrolled in it _ moved from de Portola Elementary to Gates Elementary, where two of the four kindergarten classes are now dual-immersion. By next year, 300 students will be in the program.
The inaugural class is now in fourth grade, speaking unaccented Spanish and English and practicing for an upcoming Mambo dance performance.
In five years, the program has managed to win over parents on both sides.
English-speaking parents say they can’t get over a kindergartner such as Kacey Anderson reading in Spanish about a red kite that flies away in the wind: “Mi papalote rojo, con el viento se volo,” she read in a tiny voice.
“It’s just incredible,” said her mother, Judy Anderson. “I think it’s the best thing we can be doing for her. It’s a gift. In today’s world to have a second language is to have a real advantage. “
For the Acosta family of Colombia, who speak Spanish at home, the program represents a sensitive approach to learning English.
“We are in an immigrant country and we have to learn and adapt to the culture and the socioeconomic system,” said Ricardo Acosta, Erick’s father. “But we have to remember also that we are Latin and we have to leave a space for our culture and be proud of our language. So it is a source of pride for us that his Spanish is perfect and his English is perfect. ” Gates plans to continue the program through sixth grade. Parents would like to see the district follow it into junior high.
Most people learn of the program by word of mouth. Without advertising, the program has a waiting list for English-speaking students for next year’s kindergarten class. There are a few slots available for Spanish speakers.
Parents don’t have to live in the district to enroll their children, though they do need to provide the transportation.
Almost an entire block in Laguna Niguel car-pools five children to the program.
“Four families and six children commute from my block,” said Christeen Cubillos of Laguna Niguel, whose son, Andres, is in kindergarten. “Friends tell friends tell friends. “
Like many families in the dual-immersion program, the Cubillos household has roots to both languages.
“We speak English, but my husband’s family is from Chile, and it’s important to us that the children be able to communicate with their family,” Christeen Cubillos said.
Canada has implemented two-way immersion into English-French on a large scale. But in the United States, two-way immersion remains the exception, accounting for only about 300 programs nationwide.
California has fewer than 50 two-way immersion programs. Most are Spanish-English, but some programs also teach Chinese, Khmer or Portugese.
Only two Orange County schools offer dual-language tracts. Saddleback’s program is the oldest. Las Palmas Elementary in Capistrano Unified School District started the county’s other program in 1993.
“People are just unaware,” Gates Principal Jim Hamilton said.
“They think bilingual education is just for immigrant children or children that don’t speak English. This is different. It’s a different twist on bilingual education. “
Part of the reason the programs haven’t taken off could be that they take a long time to implement. They also depend on fully bilingual teachers and administrators _ a luxury in a state with a bilingual-teacher shortage.
Southern California’s transient rate also makes the programs a challenge to implement in almost all but affluent, stable areas: For children to become fully bilingual and biliterate, they should stick with the program at least through fourth grade.
The slow start of dual-immersion programs also may have something to do with anti-immigrant sentiments and English-only movement. Many dual-immersion programs, including Saddleback Valley’s, are started by federal grants that are now threatened in Washington by opponents of bilingual education.
Dual immersion is also a bold program that requires bold parents. English-speaking parents have to accept that their children will be thrown into a kindergarten class where they will not speak the language.
“You can’t go into this unless you have a lot of confidence in it,” said Ginny Aitkens, whose daughter Irene is a second-grader in the Gates program. “You can’t be someone who’s very concerned about what other kids are doing. Your child is not going to learn on the same timetable as your neighbors’. Things are presented differently. If you want to compare your kid to an all-English kid, you’re going to be disappointed. “
Many parents also worry that their children may fall behind.
Studies suggest the opposite.
Statewide, students who can read and write well in more than one language tend to score better in math, reading and cognitive tests.
That’s one conclusion of Kathryn Lindholm, an associate professor at San Jose State University who conducted a comprehensive study of dual immersion.
Other research suggests that bilingualism at an early age leads to greater creativity in solving problems because students learn that there’s more than one way to look at the world.
“What we’ve also seen is that when you ask students the benefit of being bilingual, almost all of them say being bilingual has made them smarter, helped them think better and get better grades,” Lindholm said.
At de Portola Elementary last year, third-graders in the dual-immersion program scored at or above grade level in California’s standardized test.
However, English speakers seem to consistently perform better than Spanish speakers _ even when the subject is math and even when it’s taught in Spanish.
“What you’re talking about is a social-class gap,” Lindholm said. “In many Spanish-speaking families, the parents have much more limited educational backgrounds and with that comes less knowledge about how to intellectually stimulate a child at home.
What you’re seeing is the effect of that. “
The gap tends to narrow over the years. And dual immersion seems to do a better job of educating non-English speakers than other types of bilingual or language-development programs, Lindhold said, concurring with the George Mason studies.
“This type of program works because it’s not looked upon as remedial. When a Spanish speaker goes in, it’s looked at with much more status,” Lindhold said. “Parents will fight for the program to continue. “
At Gates, parents have formed a group that holds fund-raisers for the program. Last year they raised enough money to pay for two extra bilingual aides. There was enough left over to give each teacher $ 100 to buy extra class supplies.
Most of the parents are well-read on the research. They want to keep the program alive because they think it will better prepare their children for college, give them a leg up in the job market and increase their thinking skills.
But at a time when cultures clash in nasty ways, dual immersion also brings together children from vastly different backgrounds. If they can pick up a little tolerance with the three R’s, so much the better, parents say.
“When a school has a once-a-year cultural fair, that’s very good,” said Margaret Wallerstein, whose son Brian is a fourth-grade dual-immersion student. “But in these classrooms, the culture is a day-to-day thing, woven into the curriculum. They need to learn about other countries. The more open-minded they are, the better-adjusted they will be as adults. ” Ana Menendez can be reached by phone at (714) 953-7751 or by E-mail at [email protected] CHART: HOW IT WORKS Two-way language immersion in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District includes: Grades K-2: Core subjects are taught in Spanish, with an emphasis on oral language development. English language development takes up 20-30 minutes a day.
Grade 3: Academic subjects continue to be taught in Spanish. Sixty minutes a day are devoted to instruction in English Language Arts.
Grade 4: Instructional time in English increases to 120 minutes a day. Instruction time in Spanish falls to 180 minutes a day.
Grades 5-6: Instruction time is divided equally between English and Spanish.