Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Kindergartners learning both Spanish and English

By Carolyn G. Schatz, Staff Writer
September 12, 2007

The earlier you start, the easier it is to learn a second language. And you don't have to be afraid of monsters.

The kindergartners in Brenda De La Vega's class eagerly took in that lesson one morning last week as they listened to their teacher read "Luna, Lunita Lunera," the story of a little girl who's afraid to go to school until she realizes that no monsters live there.

De La Vega read the story in Spanish as murmurs of "Monster! Monster!" and "Monstruo! Monstruo!" rippled among her rapt listeners.

As De La Vega asked her class in English what they liked best, little hands shot up.

"I liked when she was crying," said one. "I liked when she was going to school," said another - both in English.

Par for the course, De La Vega had read the same story in English - "Moony Luna" - to her class last week.

And so, the kindergartners at Ruth Grimes Elementary School in Bloomington are getting a head start by learning two languages at once - English and Spanish.

Thirty-nine percent of the school's students are native English speakers.

Most of them are Spanish speakers, though students at the school also speak Indonesian, Arabic, Filipino, Vietnamese and Punjabi.

t is the first year that a school in the Colton Joint Unified School District is offering a dual-immersion program.

But it is not as difficult as it sounds. The kids in De La Vega's class made it look easy, as they sat huddled at their tables, drawing colorful fish and learning their numbers and letters - core principles that are the same in both languages.

"Uno, dos - and how many is that?" asked Adela Guillen Coke as she stood over a student's shoulder, interspersing the two languages in a perfect blend. Guillen Coke is a teacher on assignment who coordinates the program.

The mix of Spanish and English flowed effortlessly throughout the day's lesson plan, with the students unhesitatingly responsive - no matter which language they spoke. Both Spanish and English were welcomed warmly.

The goal of the program, said Bertha Arreguin, director of language support services for the district, is for students to become completely bilingual and biliterate.

The way to achieve that is to start them in both languages in kindergarten and build from there.

Ruth Grimes is using a 90-10 program, in which two of the five kindergarten classes are being taught in 90 percent Spanish and 10 percent English.

Next year, the program at Ruth Grimes will be expanded to the first grade, and students will be learning 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English.

Each year, a new grade level will be added at Ruth Grimes - with 10 percent more English and 10 percent less Spanish taught - so that by the fourth or fifth grades, students will be learning equally in English and Spanish.

"By sixth grade, we want them to be ready to continue on through middle school and high school," Arreguin said.

Parents must make at least a six-year commitment to the program, she said, to make it work.

Pulling them out is a no-no. Parents are required to sign a waiver, promising to keep their child in the dual-immersion program through the fifth grade.

The parental role is key, and language classes will be offered to parents, beginning in October, Arreguin said.

"The need to know two languages is increasing," she said.

"All you have to do is look throughout the world. In almost every country besides the USA, children study or know more than one language."

"It's unheard of in Europe not to know three languages," said Guillen Coke.

The 4- and 5-year-olds at Ruth Grimes are actually doing double the learning.

All of the curriculum in the dual-immersion classes is aligned with state standards.

But while it may seem that those who speak solely English when they enter class may seem to be at a disadvantage by being taught primarily in Spanish - all students in the kindergarten class learn to read in Spanish - research shows otherwise.

Both English- and Spanish-speaking children benefit, administrators say.

The principles for learning to read are the same in both languages, Guillen Coke said.

Research shows that learning another language aids critical thinking, and even improves test scores, Arreguin said.

"Research shows that students in bilingual programs can develop academic skills on a par with or superior to the skills of comparison groups of their peers educated in English-only classrooms," she said.

Moreover, there is no danger in immersing English speakers in another language, because they are not at risk of losing English, Arreguin said.

"Two-way immersion programs are not replacing English with another language," she said, "but providing students the opportunity to acquire a second language at an early age."

The second language is acquired while retaining the first language.

And the best time to learn another language is when children start to speak, up until about age 10, Arreguin said.

It's not just the parents of English learners who want to enroll their children in dual-immersion classes.

The greatest demand comes from high-income professionals who appreciate the advantages of knowing another language in a global economy, Arreguin said.

Amy Norris said she wanted her son, Alexander, 4, to participate in the Ruth Grimes program "because it's good for him to learn a second language. ... Students who take a second language tend to do better throughout their academic career."

The small class size and more individualized instruction are also attractive, she said.

Norris, a full-time nursing student at San Bernardino Valley College, said she only regrets that her 8-year-old is "too old" for the program. But depending on how Alexander performs, she'll be gladly enrolling her 1-year-old when the time comes.

There are no monsters, after all, in Ruth Grimes' kindergarten class.

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