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Language Wars: Should Spanish-Speaking Students Be Taught in English Only?

July 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Educators have struggled to improve students' reading proficiency in the mostly Latino school district of New Britain, Conn. When administrators decided to eliminate a dual-language program for native Spanish-speaking students, not everyone agreed with that tactic. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s long been debate about bilingual education in the United States and what’s the most effective way to make sure students are proficient in academics in the English language.

Special correspondent John Tulenko reports on a Connecticut school district that’s taking a different road, one that may yield results, but is sparking a battle over its approach.

JOHN TULENKO: From kindergarten to third grade, these are the reading years. But when students exit them, national tests show, only 35 percent read proficiently.

Here in New Britain, Conn., the figure is just 25 percent, among the lowest in the state. But this urban, mostly Latino school district is trying to turn that around.

The effort began with home visits to address chronic absenteeism among kindergartners.

JOE VAVERCHAK, New Britain Public Schools: Chronic absenteeism last year was 30 percent. So, that means we had approximately 1,000 — around 1,000 kids last year. And 30 percent of them were missing at least 18 days of school.

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JOHN TULENKO: Attendance officers Joe Vaverchak and Jerrel Hargraves have made some 400 home visits this year.

JOE VAVERCHAK: We’re not there to put a hammer to the parent, because there’s lots of issues that cause truancy and absenteeism, a lot.

WOMAN: The good thing about the school is that they’re helping me potty-train him. That’s why his attendance has…

JOE VAVERCHAK: Poverty plays a key piece, clothing associated with poverty, hygiene. Again, each case, you need to really sit down with them, and speak to them a little bit, talk to them, find out what we might be able to do to help you.

JOHN TULENKO: A recent study found that among chronically absent kindergartners, more than 80 percent were behind in reading by the time they finished third grade.

JOE VAVERCHAK: We want the little guys in school.

WOMAN: OK.

JOE VAVERCHAK: OK? Because they’re the ones that need to be in school.

JOHN TULENKO: Home visits are making a difference, reducing chronic absenteeism among kindergartners from 30 percent last year to just under 18 percent.

Along with getting more students in the door, New Britain has changed reading instruction, especially for its sizable population of students who arrive at school speaking only Spanish. Nearly all of them were sent here, K-through-eighth-grade DiLoreto school, where, by design, half the students spoke Spanish and the other half English.

DiLoreto’s selling point was its dual language approach. Teachers here taught in Spanish one week, English the next, with the goal that all students would graduate fully bilingual.

But test scores over several years showed DiLoreto was struggling. Seventy percent of all students and 85 percent of those learning to speak English were failing Connecticut’s reading test.

So, last fall, New Britain replaced DiLoreto’s original dual-language approach with something very different.

Now Deirdre Falla’s class of mostly Spanish-speaking second-graders receives virtually all their instruction in English, like this lesson on conjugating irregular verbs. Each day includes two hours of intensive English grammar instruction.

WOMAN: The idea is teach the foundation of English, the syntax rules, the way that sentences form, so they can write correctly. And writing is really a springboard to reading.

KELT COOPER, New Britain Public Schools:  When it comes to English-language learners, I make it very clear. Our job and our objective is to get them to acquire English as rapidly as possible, so they can be in the mainstream.

JOHN TULENKO: Requiring that instruction be delivered in English was the first major policy change by New Britain’s new superintendent, Kelt Cooper. He had extensive experience with Spanish-speaking students, having just come from Texas, where he ran schools along the U.S./Mexico border.

KELT COOPER: For all of those years that they were struggling through language blocks, they’re getting a fraction of what’s being instructed. Our English development program is to teach them English as rapidly as possible, so that they can get math, science, and social studies content as early as possible to 100 percent.

JOHN TULENKO: But not everyone favors the district’s emphasis on English only.

ARAM AYALON, New Britain School Board: The message, of course, is that you don’t value the first language and the culture that goes with that.

JOHN TULENKO: Aram Ayalon is a professor of education who serves on New Britain’s School Board.

He argued for strengthening DiLoreto’s original dual-language approach, which a recent state audit found had been implemented incorrectly, hampered by increases in class size, limited resources, and frequent changes in leadership, not by any problem with dual-language instruction itself.

ARAM AYALON: The best way to learn English is to tie it to the first language.

For example, you do a comparison. You learn how grammar in Spanish, for example, the adjective comes after the noun, for example, kind of like in Hebrew, you say man handsome, not handsome man in Spanish. So you learn — through comparison, you learn how English and Spanish are connected and how they’re different.

A basic truth in teaching is you start with what your students know, which may be Spanish, German, Polish, and you build on that.

JOHN TULENKO: The debate isn’t confined to New Britain. With some five million students in the United States learning English for the first time — and most struggling — it matters tremendously which approach works better.

When you look at the research, it strongly suggests that a better approach is to teach students first in their native language. What do you say?

KELT COOPER: Well, there’s a lot of different academics. You can make everything fit what you want. I’m doing things different, because if we continue to do the same things we have always done here, we’re going to get the same results, and the results here are why I’m here.

JOHN TULENKO: While sink-or-swim English only has been shown to be less effective, New Britain’s version comes with supports, daily lessons for teaching the language itself.

KELT COOPER: We’re teaching English as a foreign language. It’s a lot of different fun methods, sentence surgery. Classic terms we use is sentence diagramming.

JOHN TULENKO: What was with the writing on the desks? You’re not supposed to write on the desk.

WOMAN: Darn it. You’re not supposed to tell people about that. They had to write a 14-word sentence using several adjectives to describe the noun. It’s a great tool.

JOHN TULENKO: But others see a fundamental flaw in the grammar-based approach.

School Board member Aram Ayalon:

ARAM AYALON: You can do all the gimmicks you want, but grammar isn’t something that is meaningful to kids. Adults are better at that. Kids want stories. Kids want to interact with each other with language, and this takes the meaning out of the instruction.

JOHN TULENKO: Something else we noticed, nearly every inch of classroom wall space was devoted to grammar, very little social studies, very little science, very little math.

KELT COOPER: It’s deliberate. We’re less concentrating on the content of math, science, social studies at the same time, whereas other methods try to blend these all together.

JOHN TULENKO: Well, to a lot of observers, you’re shortchanging the kids. What do you say?

KELT COOPER: That’s where we place our value. If you don’t acquire English, then you’re effectively barred from all sorts of different opportunities.

JOHN TULENKO: Though it had been less than a year, was the approach working?

Boys and girls, I’m going to write some sentences on the board.

I asked these second-grade English-language learners to fix them.

The kittens was cute.

Young man in the back right over there.

STUDENT: The “was” needs to change to “were.”

JOHN TULENKO: Excellent.

Next, a little harder.

Yesterday, the dog Brown come to town.

OK, Elian.

STUDENT: Brown needs to go before dog.

STUDENT: Because the adjectives come first.

JOHN TULENKO: Ah, OK.

STUDENT: And come needs to be changed to came.

JOHN TULENKO: And why is that?

STUDENT: Because come is that you’re coming right now. If it was past, it needs to be came.

JOHN TULENKO: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

KELT COOPER: The proof is in the pudding. It’s very clear that the ones that have gone through these programs have a better articulation of the English language, better understanding of the English language, understand the grammar rules and are much more proficient in English than their native English counterparts in the mainstream.

JOHN TULENKO: Cooper bases that on his own experience. He used this approach for four years in his former district in Texas. And in terms of English-language learners who reached English proficiency, his district rose from nearly the bottom statewide to nearly the top.

But that’s not the whole story. In math and science, scores for English-language learners fell by as much as 15 percent to levels below state targets, leading the district to abandon the program after Cooper left.

ARAM AYALON: When you spend so much time on grammar, I think it kind of reduces education and it reduces kids’ motivation to learn. The bottom line is that it’s doomed from the beginning.

KELT COOPER: Yes, I can go to the same people that say do it the same way and same way. I don’t want to do it the same way. I could still have kids not acquiring English and they’re still not writing a sentence in proper English by the time they’re a senior in high school too.

And the things could go on their merry way, just the way it is. But my job is to fix this and get this place out of the ditch.

JOHN TULENKO: New Britain will soon get an early look at whether its attendance and reading policies are making a difference. Results from the latest state test will be released this July.