Working Overtime to Make Bilingual Education Succeed

I teach English to children who speak Spanish as their first language. So, from the middle of the controversy over bilingual education, I can see both sides of the debate.

My insider's conclusion is that bilingual education can produce successful students. But I also believe parents and voters are justifiably frustrated when administrators and teachers bungle the job.

Kids can falter in bilingual programs for several reasons: if a school (or district) tries to build a program without an informed theoretical foundation; a district has unrealistic time lines for English competency; or the staff is insufficiently trained.

School districts should be in control of all of these factors. Unfortunately, school policies are often shaped by people who are well meaning, but not necessarily well informed. Even good policies, if not followed by good practice, sabotage student success.

My first experience with bilingual education was an example of what shouldn't happen. I had accepted a bilingual teaching position knowing my Spanish wasn't fluent enough. I'd allowed the interviewer to assure me a few classes would fix any problems.

But my students' problems had begun long before they entered my class. Some years the children were taught in Spanish. Other years, classes were in English. The result was that many of my third-graders could barely read in either language. We floundered together.

So, the next summer I went to work, taking intensive Spanish classes and learning techniques for teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) and core subjects to second-language learners. In addition to my own work, a new school principal constructed a comprehensive bilingual-education program.

We implemented literacy instruction in Spanish (by fluent teachers) for all Spanish-speaking children and built ESL into our curriculum as a distinct subject. One of the University of Colorado at Boulder's teacher-educators came in to train and guide us. I moved to a classroom for kids ready to learn in English.

Now, our native Spanish speakers continue their academic work in Spanish while they learn English. Freed to concentrate on one thing at a time, they don't fall behind academically. And parents stay connected to school because they can talk to their children's teachers and help with homework in Spanish until their child is ready to work independently in English.

Successful programs like ours help children learn English in a structured, rather than sink-or-swim, environment. We give them time to acquire social vocabulary, which comes fairly quickly, and then allow more time for mastery of academic vocabulary. When students come to me, they read well in Spanish. And since they've been learning to understand and speak English before we expect them to read and write it, they make a stronger, more natural transition into learning in English.

But children can't learn all of the English they need to succeed, as well as that year's curriculum, in one year. Our experience confirms the findings of many researchers: Bilingual education produces competent students in roughly five to seven years.

I understand why parents whose children have been in unsuccessful bilingual programs are disappointed. It's unfortunate when school districts don't use the large body of research available to guide their policymaking and thousands of second-language learners are left struggling, because bilingual education can work.

* Pamela Glover is a third-grade English-language acquisition teacher at Knapp Elementary in Denver.

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