Spanish-Speaking 1st-Graders Now Writing Sentences

At Cesar Chavez School, all but a few of the first-graders in Kathleen Leclair and Raquel Dequiroz’s class are reading at grade level — in Spanish.

Chavez’s bilingual program aims to make students fluent in their native language before being moved gradually into English. The theory is that if students master skills such as reading and writing in their first language, it will be easier for them to transfer those skills almost totally to English by fifth grade.

It is programs like these that Proposition 227 seeks to do away with. The measure’s author, Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, believes students should learn English as quickly as possible.

But educators at the East San Jose school say students in the bilingual program are learning, even though it may not show when their scores on the new state-mandated Student Testing and Reporting program are released next month. The test was offered in English only.

Dequiroz and Leclair, who share teaching duties in Room 11, say they have seen progress in other ways since the children began school in September.

Students who scribbled words and drew pictures in their journals are now writing complete sentences. They’ve mastered punctuation, capitalization and indentation.

The few who aren’t reading Spanish at grade level include one boy who had already attended four schools when he landed in the classroom a month ago. Two other children have learning disabilities and are likely to be referred for special education services, Dequiroz said.

Dequiroz pulls out a book to illustrate her students’ progress. The first-level reader, which many of the students began reading in the fall is just words and pictures — el tomate (the tomato), la lechuga (the lettuce), la ensalada (the salad).

The books her students now read are more complex with two or three complete sentences on each page. It may seem like a small thing, but it requires students to learn how to “track” words and to grasp the idea that words are read from left to right. They learn that when one sentence finishes, the next begins on the next line on the left side of the page. More importantly, they remember and understand what they read.

By June, Dequiroz said the students will be ready for second grade, where an increasing amount of instruction will be in English. Each year, time spent studying subjects such as reading, math and science in Spanish will shrink until they are working almost exclusively in English in fifth grade.

Already, the children in Dequiroz and Leclair’s class chatter animatedly in English and Spanish on the playground, switching languages depending on who they’re talking to. But they still lack the more formal language skills needed to read, write and grasp more abstract concepts — something they are expected to learn in later grades.

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