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Telling stories helps refugee children learn a new language

November 23, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
How do young children who have come to the United States as immigrants or refugees learn English? At one early education school and laboratory in Houston, the new language comes to life when kids use storytelling and dramatic play to get talking. The NewsHour's April Brown reports.

GWEN IFILL: Last week, we took you to a middle school in Houston that’s trying to bridge the education gap for refugee children newly arrived in the U.S.

Tonight, we return to Texas to examine another program that’s helping some of the state’s youngest newcomers learn English.

April Brown has our American Graduate report, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN: Charlie Luong may be short on English skills right now, but he’s giving it his best shot. Charlie, whose family speaks Vietnamese at home, has just created his own medieval world inside this classroom at the Gabriela Mistral Center for Early Childhood in Houston.

At 4 years old, Charlie is already working on his second language. And that’s even before he has mastered his first. It’s something he has in common with nearly all of the kids he goes to school with.

LORI ESPINOZA, Gabriela Mistral Center for Early Childhood: What is he doing?

STUDENT: He’s getting the keys.

APRIL BROWN: This classroom is where Lori Espinoza brings stories to life, as her pre-K students are eager to go along for the ride.

Espinoza teaches at the school’s OWL Lab, the Oral and Written Language Laboratory, which uses storytelling and dramatic play to get kids talking. It builds on research that shows a storytelling curriculum can significantly improve vocabulary and literacy. That’s especially important for students whose families don’t speak language at home, where language skills first develop.

LORI ESPINOZA: We have like over 20 languages represented in our school. Children here speak English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic.

APRIL BROWN: Because these youngsters are new to school and many new to the country, the classroom is designed so kids feel safe and comfortable.

LORI ESPINOZA: The classroom looks super homey. That’s intentional. We have wicker baskets. We have nice carpets that are a warm feeling, because we want children to come in and feel like this could be their living room, so the children feel more at ease and more like they’re just hanging out with family.

DEBBIE PAZ, Rice University: We know that oral language is the foundation for everything that will happen later on. It’s what they will need for reading and writing later on.

APRIL BROWN: Debbie Paz is the associate director of early literacy and bilingual programs at Houston’s Rice University, which worked with the school to create the OWL Lab five years ago.

DEBBIE PAZ: So, if we fill the room with things that get them excited that they want talk to us about, there’s more of a chance that we’re going to develop those language skills.

APRIL BROWN: Different stations around the room allow children to make choices about what to do and many encourage them to explore different ways to tell a story. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, can be acted out with costumes and props in one area.

WOMAN: Mama bear made some hot porridge.

APRIL BROWN: Or with little dolls in a somewhat miniature home.

LORI ESPINOZA: A huge component of this room is giving children enough freedom, enough things that they want to do, so that they can build that self-regulation. And so I think that independence is huge. Their self-esteem gets higher and their motivation to learn goes up.

APRIL BROWN: One station in particular builds on the first word many children learn through what’s called environmental print, like the names of restaurants or stores.

LORI ESPINOZA: That’s the print that’s all over the place, that is just plastered on walls, science room buildings, everywhere. That may not be intentionally placed there for children to read, but it’s there.

APRIL BROWN: On their regular visitation days, the school shares lessons with parents on how to use those words to get kids talking. Debbie Paz says parents are also encouraged to share their own stories about the culture in their homeland or how they made the journey to America, whether or not they speak English.

DEBBIE PAZ: They’re not necessarily readers and writers, but they want — they have a story to tell. And they want you to hear that story, because it’s something that they’re proud of.

APRIL BROWN: And you hope their children tell the stories too.

DEBBIE PAZ: Exactly. Exactly.

APRIL BROWN: Four-year-old Sujon is Gursharam Salh’s second daughter to spend time in this classroom. Salh says after visiting the OWL Lab, Sujon now has much higher expectations for story time at home.

GURSHARAM SALH, Parent: Making your voice high or low, that is not good enough. They want you to like go around the room and do walks around and actions.

APRIL BROWN: The OWL Lab was never intended to benefit only students at this school. Because it’s a laboratory, many teachers from all over the Houston Independent School District come here to learn these techniques. Some come in for short professional development sessions and others, like Carin Malmer, visit regularly as part of Rice University’s Early Literacy Leadership Academy.

On this day, Malmer came in to learn new ways to get parents involved and excited about their children’s education.

CARIN MALMER, Teacher, Barbara Bush Elementary School: Parents have a really important role in the child’s education. And so, with this program and with things that I’m learning with the early literacy program, I want to bring them and make them feel important as well as feel comfortable to volunteer.

APRIL BROWN: Of course, the W. in OWL Lab stands for writing. And children write their stories, with adults taking dictation.

LORI ESPINOZA: You just see children just so willing to take risk, so excited to learn language, so excited to share stories in their home language and even attempt it in English for those English-language learners.

APRIL BROWN: English-language learners like Charlie, who Espinoza says couldn’t speak a record of it when he came to school.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m April Brown in Houston.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.