May 16, 2007

Let's teach them English by teaching them in Spanish

I don't get this at all.

José Perez is a fidgety 5-year-old – as if there's any other kind. Since he's more fidgety than most, his teacher changes activities often to accommodate his attention span and keep him focused on the business of kindergarten – phonics, reading, writing.

José sometimes writes in what the teacher calls “run-on words” – soJosé'ssentencesenduplookinglikethis.

Yesterday, his mother, Sylvia, was at his left elbow for 40 minutes, coaching him to put space between the words, erasing mistakes, helping him with vocabulary in “Escápate,” the Spanish-language book the class is reading. José hasn't learned to speak English yet.

Why is this school teaching Spanish-speaking Kindergarten students in Spanish and not English?

I'm sure there is some silly government mandate.

Here we have a young child from a poor family with uneducated parents and who, if you tested him, would most likely reveal that he didn't know that many Spanish words to begin with being taught to read in Spanish, not English.

This makes no sense at this age. It's just as efficient to teach kids this young in English because you have to teach them most of the vocabulary from scratch anyway. You might as well teach in English from day one.

There might be a more compelling reason to teach older kids in a language other than English, but I don't see it for kids this young.


CrypticLife said...

Most of the article seems to be about "family literacy" -- they're teaching the mother in ESL classes and having her help her son. Apparently, her education ended in the fifth grade (doesn't say how well she speaks English).

Not putting the kids into the mainstream is terribly damaging, though. I can see why teachers do it -- it is very stressful for the kids if they don't know English. But, they get over it, and immersion is absolutely the best known way to learn a language. I know one little Japanese girl who transferred directly from Japan to an American kindergarten. Zero English, completely different grammar, few authentic loanwords, and different phonemes. At the beginning of the year she was terrified, mostly isolated, and looked on the verge of tears when I greeted her in Japanese. By January, she would walk into school happily and go sit with her friends (who aren't Japanese, because no one in her class is Japanese). There's no need for a child Spanish speaker to spend a full day in a Spanish speaking classroom.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure there is some silly government mandate.

Not in California. We eliminated involuntary bilingual education a number of years ago (by proposition ... there was a lot of opposition by the education establishment).

The parents have the option (which is the default) for their child to be taught in a total immersion English environment. The parents *can* opt for a bilingual class (which often means Spanish only, here). They may have done so in this case.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Kindergarteners should be thrown in with their English speaking peers. I've seen this happen several times over the years and it is amazing how they are completly fluent by the end of the year.

Not only is the teacher speaking English (and not with huge words or sentences), but they are hearing their peers speak it constantly. It's amazing how fast they figure it out.

To drag it out when they can be ready for first grade should be a crime.

Unknown said...

"they're teaching the mother in ESL classes and having her help her son"

This shows a shocking lack of knowledge of how people learn language. It's ass backwards. Children learn language effortlessly; adults do not. The kids should be taught in English, and then, they can help their struggling parents.

Anonymous said...

The idea about using immersion to teach language is dead on. I teach ESOL at an elementary school with a high Latino population. My job is hindered by the fact that the community and school are surrounded in the Spanish language. When a student comes in and doesn't speak English, many times they depend on other students to translate for them. They, and the other students, speak Spanish among themselves.

There is a definite correlation between the acceptance of English and American culture and academic achievement. Those students who are still struggling after being in the U.S. several years are the ones who still speak mostly Spanish at home and SCHOOL.

I like my students. For those most part, they have a good heart. But I refused to speak Spanish to communicate with them. I actually learned a moderate amount of Spanish when I began teaching Latino students/ESOL under the misunderstanding that I could help the students better and faster. Unfortunately what happened is that some students waited for me to speak in Spanish before they would respond. It seems that other teachers (who happened to be former Spanish teachers, by the way) did that and it was supposedly cool and hip.

My professional advice-- USE ONLY THE TARGET LANGUAGE.

harriska2 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
harriska2 said...

My son is in a dual language immersion school. I've blogged about it here:

The gist is this: 1/2 of the day is spent learning in English with English text and English homework. The other half is spent learning in Spanish with Spanish text and homework directions written in Spanish and to be done in Spanish.

Anywho, some other issues with this setup:

1. The classroom configurations for the entire school is limited because these classrooms require 2 different teachers, one English speaking for part of the day and one Spanish speaking for the other part of the day. That means the rest of the kids not in the dual language program (English strand only) are forced into 1/2, 3/4, 4/5 classes. Last year my son was a 3rd grader in a 2/3 (he was held back a year). This year he is a 4th grader in a 4/5 classroom.

2. The way to implement the program has caused all sorts of teacher and principal retention problems. In 3 years there have been 2 different principals, they are hiring a third for next school year. Two years ago about 1/4 of the teachers left. For next year, about 1/4 of the teachers will be leaving again.

3. This system has caused an interesting twist in Socio-Economic-Status (SES) mixture of students. The middle/upper class kids have COME to the school because of this magnet program. However, I worry it is at the expense of the kids from Spanish speaking families. Again, like others, they are dragging out the speed at which kids gain academic fluency in English (as opposed to playground English speaking fluency). So the kids might be able to communicate with peers on the playground or in class but they are probably struggling in the English part of reading and math. It probably doesn't help that Everyday Math is offered in Spanish!

Kilian Betlach said...

Ken, your title was sarcastic, but, given effective instruction, that is absolutely the most effective model of English instruction. The kindergarten child mentioned speaks Spanish exclusively. Teaching conversational, survival English while simultaneously teaching cognitively challenging Kindergarten content in a foreign language is extremely difficult. Let's not fall into the trap of thinking K. is cognitively easy because it seems that way to adults, or because we ourselves did fine, or because our upper-middle class daughter, who is fluent in the language of instruction and was read to in the womb greatly excelled. K. is hard for kids and even harder if you do not speak the language.

This is exactly the profile of student I get in 7th grade who is five years behind because they never acquired the foundational academic skills because they were busy picking up language. They are referred to in the literature as generation 1.5, not newcomers, not fluent speakers, forever in the middle, bereft of fundamental skills. All research and experience tells us that kids with functional literacy in their L1 have a much easier time acquiring their L2. This assertion also passes the well-duh test: If you cannot read or write or think in your L1, how will you ever learn to do these things in your L2?

The key is the transition period. If you build literacy in L1, offer a English-as-a-language development course, by the time a kid is in 4th or 5th, they should be ready to transition. Granted, they will start far behind, but the growth rate is massive. I see this every year:

Student A: 2 years in U.S.; literate in L1; hard-worker

Student B: 11 years in U.S.; illiteratue in L1; hard-worker

Student A makes 3-5 years of academic progress in my class every year and Student B struggles to do 1.5. Those extra nine years of English "immersion" provide no benefit because there went unaccompanied by true immersion as well as appropriate instruction in L2 and L1. You can sacrifice four years of English instruction, if you are providing powerful L1 literacy combined with basic English. The kids will make up that "lost" English time in two years, max.

KDeRosa said...


I do not think that there is a benefit to teaching cognitively challenged children in a language other than English because I believe that most of these children come to K with poor language skills in their native language. Why bother teaching them in a language they don't know all that well in the first place? (If they do know their native language language well, they are almost by definition not cognitively challenged and this discussion doesn't apply to those kids.)

I think what these kids need is a good language instruction (in English) which teaches them all the language they will need for them for instruction. They also need a carefully designed Reading and Math program that uses only the language the children have been taught.

This way they'll get the academic foundation they need and will become more proficient in English at the same time.

I think your way has merit for older children, but I think for young children careful well designed instruction in English from day one is the way to go.

Unknown said...

"The key is the transition period. If you build literacy in L1, offer a English-as-a-language development course, by the time a kid is in 4th or 5th, they should be ready to transition."

If you'd like, I can give you a reading list of language acquisition research, since you seem to be utterly ignorant of it.

Kilian Betlach said...


Yes, please. But don't send it to my address, go ahead and mail it to the hundreds of kids we've taught in the past five years using this model. When addressing the envelope, please feel free to use any of the two to three languages in which they are fully literate.

Anonymous said...

Here's some to think about (and laugh) at when you think about the result of our years of Whole Language instruction.

Anonymous said...

In the early 1950s when my mother was in school in New Mexico, Spanish speaking kids did first grade twice: the first year to learn English, the second to learn the 1st grade content.

It'd be sort of Un-PC today, but maybe it would be the most effective method.

We could have looping classes at any grade for non-native speakers. One year, get the language in full immersion; year two, learn the academic content to mastery.


Could you identify the school at which 100% of the students are fully literate in multiple languages? Or did you mean that you ran a much smaller program for certain kids?

Anonymous said...

Why on earth would you take 3 or 4 years to "transition" to a fully English class when it can instead by easily accomplished in one year.

That's just stupid.

Of course, TMAO's way does take more money and require more positions. Perhaps that explains his support of it.