[EDLING:361] Native Language Classes Aim to Ease Transition to English

Francis M. Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Wed Oct 27 18:18:50 UTC 2004

Native language classes aim to ease transition to English
Studies differ on whether schoolchildren who are learning English should be
taught in English

Thursday, October 21, 2004



TUALATIN -- The background noise in the Bridgeport Elementary School classroom
rumbles continuously, with students in each of the room's four quarters asking
and answering questions and teachers calling for attention and quizzing them.

But this classroom noise is different from the chatter elsewhere in the
school. In this room, the lessons are in Spanish, taught to students who speak
Spanish at home.

The Tigard-Tualatin School District has had such native language classes for
kindergarten through third-graders for about four years. Spanish-speaking
children with limited or no English are taught the basics of literacy in their
first language before the transition to English.

The hope is that focusing on reading in a native language will give them a
stronger base from which to make that transition. The district is pushing to
hire more bilingual teachers and is considering expanding such native language
classes to higher grades and classes, such as middle school or high school
math or science.

Critics say the lessons are largely a way for school districts to avoid their
responsibility to teach children English.

The district's English-language learner population has risen about tenfold
since 1992. From the 170 students in the 1992-93 school year, an Oct. 6 tally
shows 1,702 English-language-learner students districtwide this year,
concentrated in the elementary schools.

Stepping up the district's efforts to recruit bilingual teachers,
administrators will travel to Southern California this spring searching for
candidates at job fairs, said Randy Harvey, director of operations and human
resources. "We have students who come to us who speak little or no English at
all, so to help them get a start at all in education we have to be able to
communicate with them."

Teaching those students in their native language at least some of the time
helps them learn content they otherwise would miss until they have a command
of English, he said. For these students, "If you just throw them into a class,
you penalize all of their subjects."

Teaching the students native language literacy first more effectively eases
them into reading in English, said Carol Kinch, the Tigard-Tualatin program
coordinator for English-language learners. "If kids learn to read in their
native language, they learn English faster," she said, likening the native
language classes to "accelerated English class."

Some research seems to back up that conclusion. A 2001 study of elementary
school Spanish- and English-speaking children by researchers from the Center
for Applied Linguistics, Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, found that
teaching students how to read in Spanish helped them make the transition
faster to reading in English.

"In a nutshell, I know that we need to improve achievement of our ELL kids at
the middle and high schools," Kinch said. "The more native language
instruction kids get, the more they achieve."

For example, she said, a student trying to learn physics who also must
struggle with the language could wind up pushing aside the subject matter.
Native language instruction "enables kids to still do the content."

The Spanish-language classes at Bridgeport are only part of the students' day;
the rest of the time, they return to their regular classes taught in English.

But opponents say the language of instruction ought to be English, and they
point to other research.

A 1986 study in The Journal of Law and Education, for instance, found that
most "transitional bilingual education" programs were no different from or
worse than techniques such as submersion, in which the learner is exposed
mostly or entirely to the new language.

And many native language programs fail to take advantage of the best time for
someone to learn a new language: when they're young, said Douglas Besharov, a
scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and a professor at the
University of Maryland, College Park. "It is tons easier to learn a language
if you're learning it when you're young."

Once a school has a bilingual class, however, "The institutional forces are to
keep these classes full," he said, adding that many children have trouble
getting out of the classes even when they don't need the help. That leads to a
perpetuation of the classes even when it's not in the students' best
interests -- for which Besharov faults many of the people who run the

"I think the bilingual teachers have a vested interest in kids staying in
bilingual programs for the longest time possible," Besharov said. "I think it
is such a conflict of interest for them."

The underprivileged, who are among those who most rely on public schools, also
are among those who most need English-language education, said Jim Boulet Jr.,
executive director of the nonprofit group English First. "They're counting on
instruction on the basics; they're counting on their children learning

He scoffs at the idea that students whose classes are in Spanish will still be
immersed in English outside of school. "I never thought the day would come
that educators would argue that students would be better off picking up
English on the street corner, which is what that argument says," Boulet said.

But for Flor Vidal, a former teacher in Peru who volunteers at Bridgeport
Elementary, the benefits of the Spanish-language classes are easy to see. When
the children learn how to read in Spanish, they get a better grounding in
literacy and language, she said, and they understand the basics before they
transfer those skills to a new language. It's also easier for them to
translate into English when they know their first language better, she said.

Elsa Palza-Rink, a Bridgeport teacher, said the classes also give students a
chance to learn with others who face some of the same issues.

"They're here learning with other kids who need help with the same thing," she
said. "Sometimes people think we're teaching them Spanish to be bilingual. Our
goal is to teach them Spanish to learn other things.

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