Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Problem? English. Could the Cure Be Spanish?

Actually, native English speakers are sometimes in the same boat as these English learners. They have simply not been exposed to a broad range of words and ideas in oral discussions, and they hit a wall when they are suddenly expected, at about fourth grade, to be able to decode words and understand concepts that they have never seen in print before.

Middle class kids usually have no trouble making this leap because their parents have enriched them with daily discussions and a broad range of experiences. But intellectual discussions between parents and kids is not part of the culture of many working class families, and sometimes parents are working too many hours to have time to talk to kids. Schools have to fill in the deficit before kids can progress.

It's silly to be pushing kindergarteners to start reading when what they really need is to think and understand and speak. For many kids, mastery of written English would happen sooner if it were started later. The kids discussed in the article below would have been better off if they'd received instruction in critical thinking skills in a language they understood when they were in the early years of school. The problem isn't just vocabulary and grammar, it's grasping the world of ideas.

In Castle Park Elementary School, a kindergarten teacher lost her job because her class of English learners needed instruction in basic concepts, and she gave it to them. The other two kindergarten teachers demanded that the principal get rid of her because she wasn't teaching beginning reading skills.

The Problem? English. Could the Cure Be Spanish?

November 18, 2010
by Emily Alpert

Alexis Rodriguez has gone to California schools since kindergarten. The 13-year-old jokes with other kids in English between lessons. Some of his classmates groan when asked to write in Spanish.

They don't look like the English learners you might imagine when the phrase pops up, the kids new to the country and struggling to speak English at all. Most of them have spent at least five years in the United States. And yet Rodriguez and his classmates are still grappling with English fluency.

Nearly 40 percent of English learners in San Diego Unified fail to become fluent by the time they reach middle school. Now, schools are starting to eye them, zeroing in on what holds them back.

They're called "long-term English learners," students who still fall short of fluency after five or six years in U.S. schools. Like Rodriguez and his classmates, they can gab easily in English, but run into trouble with more sophisticated reading and writing in school. They make up almost 60 percent of English learners in California middle and high schools, one study found, belying the idea that newcomers are the big problem.

Pacific Beach Middle School is testing one way to tackle their needs, a way that might seem odd at first glance. To help seventh and eighth graders who still struggle with English, it is bulking up their skills in both Spanish and English. They take an extra class that teaches them Spanish vocabulary and grammar, then ties it back to what they're learning in English.

The idea is that once tweens better understand the grammar and structure behind Spanish, they can better translate that savvy to English. Principal Julie Martel and her teachers found that many of their students who were behind in English were also weak in Spanish, even though they speak it at home. Most had never been schooled in Spanish at all.

"They're illiterate in their native language," Martel said...

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