Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Teaching to Read in English and Spanish. What's the difference?

A common mistake made by teachers of Spanish-English dual language programs is to teach students to read using the same techniques in both languages. This mistake is not only made by teachers but by textbook companies here in the United States who wish to create a Spanish "version" of their reading programs. First of all, it is most important to realize that learning to read in English is different from learning to read in Spanish. Of course all students need to learn direction, punctuation and how to hold a pencil and form letters. However, learning to decode and spell is quite different in each language. English is a much more phonetically complex language than Spanish. In Spanish each vowel makes only one sound and it never changes. Consonants will sometimes have two different sounds but the difference of when each sound is used is clear and follows consistent rules. Even accents always follow specific rules and there are rare exceptions to the rules.

Unlike English, Spanish does not require years of study in order to learn how to spell or read. Once, a child has learned the basic rules of spelling, they should be able to read or write practically anything without making spelling errors. Sometimes, what could be a fairly simple process is elongated so as to match what peers are doing at the same time in English. Students in fifth grade will still be given spelling tests in Spanish. This really shouldn't be necessary. Once they know the phonetic rules of Spanish they should be able to spell just about anything and rely on the use of spelling rules as a guide. It appears that teachers and text book companies need to model how Reading is taught in Spanish-speaking countries and use that as a guideline for creating programs that address Spanish reader's unique needs.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

What do you do when your child only wants to speak English?

Parents raising bilingual children frequently have the same complaint. "I try to speak my native language with my children but they only respond in English." Why does this happen and how can it be avoided? Usually, children stop using their home language because they don't need it or are ashamed of it. In order to keep them using their home language they have to have a reason to speak it and they have to feel comfortable doing so. From my experience, there are several of things parents can do to encourage their children to use their home language.

Only use your native language with your child. Some parents will speak their native language with their children but will switch to English when in public situations or around English speaking friends and family. This is a very tricky situation for parents. You want to speak to your children in their home language, but you don't want to appear rude or insensitive to others. My husband, who is the strictest of the two with regards to language use, will never speak in English to our children and will not respond to them if they do not use Spanish. Needless to say none of the children would even think of speaking to him in English even though they know he is fluent. However, in an effort to not appear disrespectful, he will usually tell others, "I hope you will excuse me but I only speak to my children in Spanish. I want them to be bilingual." This is usually met with exclamations of how great it is to be bilingual. Just because you are with other people doesn't mean you need to change languages. Doing so will show your child that it is inappropriate to use their home language with others or in public and will make them feel uncomfortable to speak it.

The more you respond to your children when they use English, the more English they will use. Make it clear that they need to use their home language when speaking with you. This can be by simply not responding when they speak to you in English. This is difficult but very effective. Of course, this is almost impossible with much older children who usually have set language patterns that are hard to change. Once you have established your relationship with your children in one language it is very difficult to switch later on. Be sure to start young and be consistent

Parents also frequently switch to English when they think their child is not understanding something that is important. This is an interesting phenomenon but should be avoided. If a parent switches to English to discuss more complicated topics or to check for understanding, their child won't develop the ability to discuss complicated topics in their home language. Usually, the child is understanding perfectly well but isn't getting the chance to work through their thought process in that language because English is brought in.

It is possible to keep your child speaking their home language with you but it requires effort. The most important thing is to not give up. Bilingual children have many advantages and you can give your child that gift.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Raising Bilingual Children; Tell us your story.

Raising bilingual or trilingual children takes quite a bit of effort. It doesn't just happen. Parents need to make a conscious effort to provide an environment that is conducive to learning two or three languages well. In our home, Spanish is spoken by both parents and German in school and with grandma and English in school and in the community at large. Ours is just one way of raising bilingual children. Families need to find what works for them. Some families opt to have each parent speak a different language. A friend of mine grew up speaking Russian and German this way with English in school. Others find that it is simply easier to have both parents speak the same language, assuming that both do. The most difficult option tends to be when one parent speaks English and the other a different language. In this scenario, English often tends to win out unless the parent using the non-English language is extremely determined to push their language with the children.

We would love to hear what has worked for you and what hasn't. It is inspiring to hear about others and their experiences. Share your stories about the trials and triumphs you have faced in raising bilingual children. We look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Two-Way Immersion Programs

Two-way immersion programs might come closest to providing for the needs of both English language learners and English speakers learning a second language. Here are some of the benefits of this type of bilingual program.

-English dominant students and English language learners are mixed together in one class and have the opportunity to learn language skills from each other and form cross-cultural bonds.

-English dominant students are able to become bilingual by being immersed in the second language from 90% of the day in the lower grades to 50% of the day by third or fourth grade. They have the added advantatge of being around peers who speak that language.

-Native speakers of another language have the opportunity to maintain their home language while learning English among other English speaking peers.

-Both groups of students are learning a second language and the language of each is given equal respect and attention.

As more parents of English dominant students learn about the cognitive and social advantages of a bilingual education, we will likely see a growth in these types of programs. It is important that bilingual education be viewed as an important option for both English language learners and English dominant students and not just a method of teaching English to English Language learners.

For more information on Two-Way Immersion programs please see:
Two-Way Immersion Education

Monday, August 07, 2006

What are the best bilingual programs?

Bilingual education means many different things. For some it means the opportunity to learn in two languages and to become fluent and literate in both. This is not the definition of bilingual education as it has been used in the state of California or as seen in the eyes of bilingual education opponents. For the majority of those in favor or against it, bilingual education is a tool with which to teach children English. The use of a child's primary language is a means to transition them slowly into English only classes. Gone is the goal of developing children who are completely fluent in two languages. Unfortunately, this form of bilingual education is really a means of creating students that do not attain full proficiency in their native language and frequently fall behind in English skills.

So what are the alternatives? Transitional Bilingual Education was replaced with English immersion after the passage of Proposition 227 in California. Certainly, spending all day in an English-speaking environment, as long as it is combined with ESL classes, can be a very effective means of learning English for many children. It certainly seems like common sense. Anyone who has tried to learn another language knows that it is much easier when one has many opportunities to use it.

Unfortunately, this sink or swim approach can be traumatic for many children who spend quite some time listening to the teacher speaking in gibberish. Also, those children who receive no instruction in their native language will lose it. They will never have the chance to become completely fluent or literate in their native language. And what a waste that is! Don't forget that learning a second language is a requirement for getting into college. Many children lose their native language and then have to spend years re-learning it when they are older. Also, the benefits of being completely bilingual are immense and it is a real shame to not take advantage of the resources that so many bilingual children could provide this country.

So if Transitional Bilingual education doesn't work and English immersion is a great loss, what is the best balance? What would be the best program for these students to learn both their native language and English and become academically proficient in both?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Problem of Underqualified Bilingual Teachers

One of the greatest problems facing bilingual education in the United States is the shortage of qualified teachers who are completely fluent in the language of instruction. The advanced requirements for becoming a public school teacher include a BA, a teacher preparation program and the completion of a series of tests designed to prove their knowledge and teaching ability. These requirements make it difficult for educators from other countries to become employed as classroom teachers in the United States. Independent schools that offer immersion programs have a much easier time finding outstanding teacher candidates for their immersion and bilingual programs. French schools usually hire their teachers from Canada or from France. Their teachers are true native speakers who were not only raised in the French language but have advanced degrees and pedagogical experience in the language of instruction.

While there are some fluent bilingual teachers in many of the Spanish bilingual programs in the United States, it is much more rare to find a teacher that has an advanced level of Spanish skills. The result is that the quality of the Spanish programs suffers. Few teachers are really qualified to offer students a rich, academic Spanish level that will push their vocabulary and writing skills. This is because the majority of Spanish Immersion teachers are English dominant. They attended an English speaking college or university and their teacher training was in English. Normally, their skills in English far surpass their Spanish language skills. It is clear that our expectations of the language ability of teachers who instruct in Spanish does not parallel our expectations of the ability of teachers who instruct in English. This has created a great handicap to bilingual programs as the majority of students in Spanish bilingual programs do not have a sufficient amount of Spanish-speaking role models.

If bilingual programs in public schools are to be successful, we will need to start considering the possibility to accepting teachers who are accredited in their country of origin. There are many teachers here in the United States who have years of experience and bring their expertise but are unable to teach due to the restrictions placed on teachers trained in other countries. Many states even have restrictions on teachers trained in other states. A teacher who instructs children in a language other than English should not have to prove advanced English language skills. This would be similar to an English teacher in Japan being expected to speak fluent Japanese. Conversational Japanese would be sufficient so as to be able to understand and communicate with students. To make bilingual programs the best they can be we will need to rework teacher requirements to ensure that students are learning from well trained teachers with the highest level of ability possible in the language of instruction.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Fears of Immersion Programs

A friend recently told me that she was warned by a child development expert about the dangers of puting her English-speaking son in a Spanish-immersion program. According to this "expert" her son would be spending time learning another language and would not be learning about important concepts like, "friendship" or "sharing". I often hear comments like this about immersion programs from parents. "I want my children to speak another language but I also want them to speak English." "Expecting children to learn in another language is too much for them. Its hard enough for them to learn English." These comments, while frustrating, are understandable since they come from a misunderstanding of the way children develop language. However, to hear something like this coming from a trained, child-development expert is really baffling.

How hard is it understand that children in immersion programs are learning everything that children in English-only programs are learning. They are just doing it in a different language. A child in an immersion program at the preschool level will typically reach an age-appropriate fluency in the language of instruction within one year. Understanding the language takes just a couple of months. And while students in immersion programs might appear to be a bit behind their monolingual peers in English language development in the early years, national test scores continue to show them leveling off by third grade and far surpassing their monolingual peers by eighth grade. Evidently, being immersed in a language other than English does not affect their ability to reach above average English skills in speaking, reading comprehension, vocabulary or writing. And to top it all off, they also now speak two languages.

For more information on the effectiveness of immersion programs, please read: What Parents Want to Know about Foreign Language Immersion Programs

Thursday, August 03, 2006

James Crawford speaks out against the "National English" amendment

On May 18, 2006, the Senate approved 63-34 an amendment by Sen. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act that would make English the "national language" of the United States. Unfortunately, it was approved without a hearing on the possible ramifications of such an amendment. On July 26, James Crawford, the Director of the Institute for language and Education Policy, testified before the House Subcommittee on Education Reform in an effort to bring to light some of the possible outcomes of such a radical amendment. Crawford's testimony can be seen below.

What's next? The House sub-committee on Education Reform will now be considering HR 997, the English Language Unity Act.

Crawford's Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Education Reform