When you don't speak much English, learning to read in English can be really tough. And help has been hard to find.
Today, research is starting to show what really works for teaching English language learners how to read.
Across the country, parents and teachers are using that research to make a difference for their kids. We'll show you how they do it!
In El Paso, Texas, veteran teacher Angelica Espinosa is facing a new challenge. This year, for the first time, she has a room full of five-year-olds who speak only Spanish. She's had a lot of training, but the job is hard. She needs to teach them to read in English-to get them excited about school. In spite of her worries, Ms. Espinosa has jumped in with both feet. She starts each day with an explicit lesson in oral English-listening and speaking.
Ms. Espinosa's class is riding a wave of national change. Escontrias Elementary-in El Paso, Texas-is like many schools across the country. They need to teach a significant number of their young learners to listen, speak, read, and write in English. That's mainly because English language learners have to do a lot of extra work. Just following what the teacher is saying can be hard at first. Because the kids need to learn so much, it's vital that they have a skilled teacher. Ms. Espinosa's got a lot of work to do, but her kids are catching on.
New Kid in Town
Eight-year-old Marlon Escobar-Lopez has an important appointment today. He's checking in to his new school system in Arlington, Virginia. He's at the Arlington Intake Center, where staff will figure out exactly what he needs from his new teachers. The intake center stays very busy, as Arlington's English language learners speak 104 languages and come from 122 different countries. Most of the children speak Spanish, but those kids are very diverse, too, both culturally and economically. Marlon is from Honduras and looks like he's ready for school, but will the school be ready for him? The process starts with his dad. The interview gives Arlington some important information about Marlon-like the fact that he's been to school in the United States for a year already. When his dad's finished with his questions, it's Marlon's turn. His teachers need to know how well Marlon can understand spoken and written English.
Marlon can read a little bit in English already, and his comprehension skills in both languages are strong. The intake center places him in a second grade class for English language learners. His teachers at Abingdon Elementary have received all the information gathered at the intake center-both social and academic-so they know exactly where to start with Marlon.
Parents as Partners
Principal Kathy Mayer learned early on that one key to teaching young readers successfully is getting parents involved. Angelica Torres is the parent of three kids at Rachel Carson Elementary in Chicago. At first she was skeptical about getting involved, but now she's a dedicated parent volunteer. She's part of a concerted effort to make parents partners in their child's education.
Now Angelica gets to put into action what she learned. At first, her son didn't like reading. But she found out how to change that. Instead of telling him, "You have to read," "You have to read," she reads one page while he reads another. Instead of telling him not to read Clifford books, because they're for kindergarten kids, she realized that it was a good idea to let him read whatever he wanted, as long as he was reading.
Two Languages at Once
In Long Beach, California, Rose Gonsalves teaches second grade. Like most teachers at Webster Elementary, she has a mix of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. But what's different about Ms. Gonsalves's classroom is this: in here, the two languages get equal time.
Not every school can pull this off. But research shows it's one of the most effective ways to teach English language learners to read. Ms. Gonsalves' goal is for all of her students to become fluent in both languages. During their English time, they're working on one of the most critical elements of learning a new language - vocabulary. Of course, reading itself can help build vocabulary, because seeing words in print helps children become familiar with their meaning, spelling, and sound.
Poet Francisco Alarcon
Francisco Alarcon publishes his poems bilingually. "Laughing Tomatoes" runs right alongside "Jitomates Risuenos." It may look unusual–but to English language learners it's life–bouncing from English to Spanish and back again, thinking and dreaming in both. And Alarcon uses his work to get kids writing poems of their own, in whatever language they love.
Playground English vs. Academic English
To reach Heritage Elementary School, you have to travel 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon, past hazelnut orchards and Russian orthodox churches. These kids can speak some English, but it's hardly enough to get by in school. What some call survival English is a long way from mastering even the third grade academic curriculum. For Liliya Zaltsman, part of the job is teaching the kids one word at a time-first in their native Russian, and then in English.
It's critical to be explicit, because Russian is so different from English. And the school is relentless in making sure their students understand what they read. In Larry Conley's class, the kids do what's called a picture walk. They use the pictures and draw on their background knowledge to predict what the story will be about. The work may seem painstaking, but heritage is committed to creating readers who will have a deep understanding of what they read.
A Welcoming Library
Back at Oyster Bilingual School, there's a place where kids can go to put it all together. Everything they've learned about phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension. The students travel across the hall to visit with librarian Laura Kleinmann - and to check out some new books. Of course, most American schools are not bilingual. But many do have children whose first language is not English. That presents an opportunity for a librarian. And the benefits can be carried home in a backpack.