Tackling the three R’s in a second or third language

Math may be a universal language - but what happens when your word problem includes words you don't know?

Mary Wiltenburg
Putting heads together: Thayoomoo Ywin (right) and her second-grade classmate Jessie Sneed, work together in a science class.

Stolen shopping carts collect behind Indian Creek Apartment Homes. In good weather, Nyo Nyo spends hours pushing her 2-year-old around the parking lot in one, her skirt flapping, his head high, like a prince surveying his realm. His mother is less at home in the country that took her family in four years ago, when they arrived in the Atlanta suburbs from Burma (Myanmar) by way of a Thai refugee camp.

"The problem, she says, is language. "No English," she apologizes, and calls to the oldest of her three kids, on the playground outside their apartment.

Reluctantly, daughter Thayoomoo Ywin untangles herself from a swing and comes running. Thayoomoo is 8 going on 30. After 2-1/2 years at the International Community School (ICS) in nearby Decatur, Ga., her English is close to fluent, she's on track doing math at a second-grade level, she's in the top half of her class in reading, and she is her parents' lifeline to the English-speaking world.

Her dad, Thet Naing Aye, speaks enough English to support the family on a $11.20-an-hour job at a Goodyear tire plant. Her mom often depends on her to make sense of responsibilities from the grocery store to school forms to the state driver's manual.

"She has a lot of friends. If they want to go to the store, their daughters have to go with them," says Thayoomoo, translating for her mother as they sit on the woven mat that is the family's main living room furnishing. "If they know English, they could go."

Many of Thayoomoo's schoolmates, including Bill Clinton Hadam, play similar roles. As kids with access to US public education, they're the bridge to cultural and linguistic fluency for their families. Half of ICS's 400 students were born overseas, and every year, many arrive knowing little or no English. For them, ICS must answer a question facing schools across the country with large immigrant populations: How best to teach kids who don't speak English as a first language, and what can be expected of students working to learn it as a second, third, or fourth language even as they learn to read and multiply.No issue in American educational history has been more controversial or politically charged. Today, it's compounded by No Child Left Behind-mandated tests kids take nationwide each spring - tests with the power to shape a student's, and her school's, future. Early American schools were often bilingual, as waves of immigrants made their linguistic marks on the nation. During World War I, "Americanization" campaigns fought to ban other languages with English-only laws. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the fight shaped public opinion for decades. Then, in the 1960s andt mean education identical to that of their peers. Bilingual education flourished in the aftermath, and research shows that English language learners (ELLs) who receive support in their native languages are more successful than those who do not.But the early 1980s saw a return to English-only laws, as bilingual education became the focus of American anxiety about immigration and marginalization in a global economy. Then, in 2002, came No Child Left Behind, and its test mandates. In 2006, a Government Accountability Office report questioned the validity of these tests for students with limited English proficiency."No research says those tests are effective with English language learners," says Kate Menken, assistant professor of linguistics at the City University of New York and author of the book "English Learners Left Behind." "The vast majority of states are norming' their tests only on English speakers, and no one with half a brain will tell you that's valid." As a result, Dr. Menken says, "the laws are quite punitive of schools serving large numbers of English language learners."At the same time, English learners have increased 150 percent since 1996, from 2 million to 5 million. ICS chose these kids. The school is a sheltered English program where homeroom teachers draw on techniques used by teachers of English as a second language, like preteaching the pictures in a book before reading it aloud. It is not a bilingual or dual-language program - its students speak nearly 50 languages. But students who need English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction are not pulled out of class to get it. Instead, all students take a language - French, Spanish, or English. Multilingual staff also talk with students and parents in their native languages.ICS founders made "a deliberate decision ... that our kids are going to be together as much as possible," says principal Laurent Ditmann. "[Social] language acquisition occurs spontaneously, on the playground" and, he says, the academic language kids learn in class builds on that foundation.

These days, math study is rarely just about numbers. Test questions involve paragraphs of text and concepts like "bar graph" and "bake-sale." Though new immigrants are exempt from English tests their first year in Georgia public schools, they're required to take the math tests.

"People think: Math? Universal language,' " says Rebecca Lutz, Thayoomoo's ESOL teacher this year. "But not word problems."

Recently, ESOL teacher Linda Dorage administered a standardized test to first graders that asked: A dog buries three bones, then digs one up. How many bones are still buried?

A new English-speaker raised his hand, and asked her: "What is bury'?" But test rules only allow proctors to read questions aloud to ESOL students, not translate or paraphrase them. Frustration animates Ms. Dorage as she remembers: "And I know this kid can subtract 3 minus 1; he knows the concept. But I said: I can't tell you that.' And so he got it wrong."

The resulting test scores affect more than individual students. Under No Child Left Behind, schools and school systems are judged on the basis of these scores. State schools superintendent Kathy Cox has lobbied for Congress to revise the law, so language proficiency tests that English-learners now take would decide when their math and reading test scores should start to count for or against their schools.

Last year, Georgia rolled out new standards that changed expectations and testing. Test scores dropped across the state. The new tests emphasize multistep word problems - the kind most likely to trip up ELLs.

In April, nearly 70 percent of ICS fourth graders failed the math exam, costing the school its "adequate yearly progress" under NCLB. This year, the school has made changes in math instruction: classrooms now have "math word walls" with important vocabulary, teachers are collaborating to synch their old materials to Georgia standards, and the school spent $4,000 to pilot new educational materials in its remedial classes.

Still, because English-learning doesn't happen on a set schedule, Dorage worries. "I wake up at night thinking I haven't done enough."

ESOL students fresh off the plane, say teachers, usually take about two months to fluidly participate in class routines like shutting the door when asked, introducing themselves to strangers, and asking to go to the bathroom. In newcomers' early days, teachers spend extra time with them talking about body parts, colors, numbers, days of the week. They read books - mostly for the pictures. Often the kids know a great deal about things American kids rarely do: herding, chickens, how things grow. They've seen hyenas; touched giraffes. Teachers try to capitalize on all of it.

This is where Thayoomoo started, 2-1/2 years ago. On her first day at ICS, the bus home left her behind; she couldn't tell teachers who she was, who her parents were, what their phone number was. She didn't cry, just waited quietly. Teachers eventually tracked down her information and drove her home. And in the days and weeks that followed, she took off: speaking, then reading.

Today, she's the class clock-watcher, the peer teacher, the one who comes running if a classmate skins a knee. "She's the mother hen," says Michelle Martin, her teacher. "She has a lot on her shoulders." Last fall, when her father came for a parent-teacher conference, Thayoomoo translated. "She'd get very embarrassed when she had to translate something good about herself," says Ms. Martin.

After work last week, Thayoomoo's father took a break from preparing dinner for the family to talk about his daughter. She's a good student, he says, and he intends to see her educated to the full extent of American possibility: "College very important, my children generation. Very, very important."

Thayoomoo agrees. "I want to be a teacher," she says, looking up from a picture she's drawing of the solar system. She finishes Mars, then pauses before Jupiter to remind herself: "I have to draw the asteroid belt."

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