At Hillcrest and Englewood elementary schools in Orange County, children who began the school year speaking only English, are learning a second language, such as Spanish or French. Those language academies, both magnet schools, also enrich children from Spanish or Vietnamese backgrounds who are learning English.
At most other schools in Central Florida, children who arrive at school speaking Spanish, Haiti’s French-Creole, Vietnam-ese or dozens of other languages need, in educational parlance, “remediation” to learn English.
The dictionary defines remediation as a process used to “remedy or overcome learning disabilities or problems.” Speaking a language other than English isn’t a disability. These are not “problem” children.
But the use of that word to describe many programs that help speakers of other languages learn English can create an institutional mind-set that somehow these children aren’t as smart as the others. Educators want all children to succeed. But it’s the institutional process of teaching English as a second language – by quickly cutting off a child’s first language – that’s failing many children.
To become fluent in a second language, a child first must master his or her native language and acquire cognitive skills in the first language. Otherwise, that child can be set up for failure.
When students who aren’t yet fluent in English are taught subjects, such as science, as though they have learning disabilities, they are being shortchanged. That’s happening in Central Florida. If other subjects were taught to those children in their native language with English concepts in math and science being introduced everyday along the way – these kids would do magnificently.
Such success cuts both ways. English-speaking children in language academies do better than English-only speakers on standardized tests not only in the English comprehension, but also in math and the sciences, long-term studies show.
Why, then, have local school systems insisted on using a remediation style instead of enrichment to teach children English?
The Orange County School Board needs to answer that question. It has planned a workshop for next Monday to discuss how best to teach children English when they aren’t proficient.
Another issue that must be tackled is cost versus benefits of the status quo compared to other, better teaching models.
Also, what type of help can the Hispanic community, including business, civic and cultural groups, offer the school system? They have a key responsibility, too, as do parents, to help children gain cognitive skills in Spanish.
Granted, bilingual education is limited by the number of teachers available who are fluent in two languages – particularly languages that are far removed from our hemisphere, such as Urdu, which comes from the Pakistan-India region.
But that’s not the case with the second most popular language in this hemisphere, Spanish. And it ought not be the case when the majority of Spanish-speaking children in this area are Puerto Rican. They are U.S. citizens by virtue of that island’s U.S. commonwealth status.
Children who speak other languages, such as Vietnamese, Portugese and French, also have the opportunity to learn cognitive skills in those languages as they master English because their Central Florida communities are large enough to provide some bilingual teachers to help those students.
Done right, bilingual education that sets high expectations for mastery of all subjects can benefit all children – including those whose first language is English.