Why Felipe can't read

Felipe spoke better English than most of his Latino classmates, many of them recent immigrants. Then what was he doing in my beginners' class of English as a Second Language (ESL)? I got my answer when I asked him to read aloud. As he struggled through a simple text, the rest of the class impatiently finished and filled in the words he was stumped on.

Although he is in the seventh grade, Felipe cannot read simple words like start or quickly. After over four years in United States schools, he writes tha for the and wat for what. He is equally illiterate in Spanish, his native language. Yet he can ''rap'' with his friends like a native in both English and Spanish.

I soon discovered Felipe's case was not unique. In fact, about a fifth of my immigrant students were fair speakers of English, yet extremely poor readers and writers. Linguists call these students ''limited bilinguals'' because they have limited proficiency in both their first and second languages.

How do students like Felipe become bilingual casualties? The answer lies in Felipe's school background. He started out with one year of schooling in Mexico, in Spanish. On his arrival in Los Angeles four years ago, he was placed in an all-English third-grade class and continued during fourth and fifth grades in regular English classes. His first American teacher told his mother not to let him read in Spanish at home because it would ''confuse'' him. In other words, it was ''sink or swim'' for Felipe.

Nor surprisingly, Felipe sank. Copious research shows that the ''sink or swim'' or submersion approach to second language learning is a dismal failure fo most immigrant students. An example is a study done of Latino students for the National Center for Education Statistics from 1971 to 1975, when there was not a lot of bilingual education going on in this country. According to that study, Latino students consistently performed far below average at age 9, 13, and 17 in social studies, science and math, and reading. A 1977-78 study of 12,000 Latino students for the National Institute of Education showed further that those who graduated from high school were still working at a sixth-grade academic level. And all these were Latinos who supposedly spoke English fluently!

The fact is that it takes between six and seven years for immigrant students who arrive here after the age of six to approach grade level in English academic skills, according to a recent study for the California State Department of Education by James Cummins. These same students can pick up communicative skills in English appropriate to their age group within only two years.

Good bilingual education teaches a child in the language he understands best, so that he won't fall behind in the academic subjects. At the same time, the child receives daily instruction in English, instruction which gradually increases until it may be 80 percent of the curriculum by grade six. When the student is working at grade level in his own language, and can compete on English tests with his peers, he can be switched into an all-English program and will be successful there.

Bilingual education is a paradox: you teach in the native language for academic achievement in English. But for most language-minority children, it's the only method that works. If Felipe had learned to read in Spanish; learned to conjugate complex tenses, spell, punctuate, write paragraphs, multiply and divide in Spanish, he wouldn't have been the academic failure he is today. He would have transferred those literacy skills over to English very quickly.

Testimony to this is the fact that in my own junior high school ESL classes, the best students are those immigrants who received a fifth- or sixth-grade education in their own country.

Federal money spent on bilingual programs totaled $167 million last year. That money went to some 210,000 limited English-speaking children, a tiny 6 percent of the 3.6 million children in the US who need bilingual education. We should be talking about expanding the bilingual program, not cutting it back. Instead, President Reagan's $661 billion budget will slash federal funds to bilingual education by 50 percent over the next two years.

I can't understand a policy that will almost certainly swell the ranks of dropouts - already at 80 percent among Latino students in parts of the Southwest - and squeeze the taxpayer for more welfare and prison funds to support our educational failures.

Felipe and thousands like him deserve a chance for success in life. Let's not stack the cards against them by taking away the only ''ace'' in their hand - bilingual education.

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