Teaching kids in two languages

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Whittier Elementary

Whittier Elementary

Walk into a 5th-grade class at Whittier Elementary in Pilsen and students are reading about the U.S. Constitution and the establishment of democracy—in Spanish.

At other schools that serve large numbers of English-language learners, the same lesson is almost guaranteed to be in English. Children who need bilingual education are placed into separate classes for English instruction and would receive some content-area lessons in their native language. The goal is to transition into all-English classes as quickly as possible.

But Whittier and 21 other schools rely on dual language instruction; the goal is to have children become fluent in two languages. At Whittier, students are taught in both Spanish and English throughout the grades. In some schools, English-speaking students learn Spanish, Polish or Chinese, while their classmates learn English.

Members of the CPS-led Bilingual Education and World Language Commission are leaning toward endorsing dual language programs as a better alternative to traditional bilingual programs. They say that dual language teaching has two advantages: Students more readily develop higher-level thinking skills since they learn social studies, math and other subjects in the language with which they are most familiar; and students also develop more literacy in their native language, an advantage in the workplace.

“If you have the opportunity to speak two languages, why give one up?” says Whittier Principal Zoila Garcia.

Parent Virginia Guevara, who has lived in Chicago for 20 years, was glad to find Whittier’s program for her son, Alex. “We thought it would be the best for him so he wouldn’t lose his Spanish,” she says.

One concept, multiple strategies

Different schools use different strategies for dual language instruction. At Inter-American Dual Language School in Lakeview, the student body is evenly divided between native speakers of English and Spanish, and teaching is done in the two languages so students gain fluency in both.

At Ruben Salazar Bilingual Education Center on the Near North Side, students also learn Spanish and English, regardless of their native language (76 percent of students are Latino and 21 percent are African American). The goal is to have English-speakers walk into high school able to take at least a second-level Spanish class, and for the Spanish-speakers to do high-level class work in English, says teacher Debra Griffith.

Garcia, who worked at Inter-American, is quick to point out that Whittier’s program focuses on maintaining students’ native language (two-thirds of students are native Spanish-speakers).

“We don’t have a lot of models of English in this community,” Garcia says. “What we do is give kids literacy in Spanish and [then] we bring in English, so it is an easy transition.”

At Whittier, kindergarten classes, reading and math are taught in Spanish. By 3rd grade, students spend half their day learning in English, but continue through the years to get much of their lessons in other subjects in Spanish. Still, Garcia insists that the school provides enough English instruction to equip graduating 6th-graders with the skills to tackle high school subjects in English.

Sixth-grade teacher Craig Segal points to a poem the class is reading and notes that knowing Spanish well sometimes helps students understand English words that may have similar origins or roots.

For example, one student was having trouble with the word “flourish,” until she realized the Spanish word “florecer” had the same definition. “It is amazing how much being biliterate really helps them,” he says.

By continuing to learn Spanish, Garcia says, students develop critical thinking skills in their native language and can transfer those skills to English more easily. Without such a base, a student will struggle all the way through school, Garcia says. Inadequate bilingual education that fails to help students develop these thinking skills may contribute to high dropout rates in the Latino community, she adds.

“The hardest thing for kids is to walk into high school when they haven’t developed the habit of reading with understanding,” Garcia says.

There are challenges to implementing the dual language approach, Garcia notes. Parents who see learning English quickly as the key to school success can be hard to convince. The district has no dual language middle schools or high schools, so English learners eventually must function in an English-only environment. There are no dual language training programs for teachers.

Mobility is also a difficult issue. When a new English-speaking child shows up in 5th grade not knowing any Spanish, it is hard to get him up to speed with students who have been learning the language since kindergarten.

Federal officials recently rejected the IMAGE test (Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English), forcing the state to scrap it and have English learners take the ISAT. That decision will hamper students, Garcia says.

“I have had students who have been here for a year and learned a lot of English, but still do not meet standards,” she says. “It is really discouraging for that student.”