Conversations in Spanish key to learning English, experts say
Ana Yearsley of Calexico checks out books with her children, Bengerman, 7, (top, left) Hyrum, 5, and Amanda, 1, on Tuesday at Enrique Camarena Memorial Library in Calexico. (Fernando Acosta Jr.)
“In a way it kind of separated us (English Language Development students) from the rest of the students,” Barrera said. “In order to progress you need to speak with others in English.”
Yet what educators and experts nationwide have determined is that language usage in general, as opposed to household language preference, plays no less an integral part in language acquisition for English learners.
Parents that make it a point to speak to their kids in Spanish and develop the Spanish language provide some intellectual foundation for learning English, said Elena Castro, Imperial County Office of Education superintendent of educational services.
If the students can speak Spanish comprehensively, then they have something to fall back on when learning English, Castro said.
Yet some students within the county pose instructional challenges.
“Some Spanish-speaking kids come to us with no formal language (skills),” Castro said.
It’s also not the case that English Language Learner students aren’t progressing, Castro said, but rather they’re not progressing at the same rate as their English-language counterparts.
While English-dominant children are tasked with learning content, ELL students have the dual tasks of having to learn both content and a new language.
“They are not starting at the starting line; they are starting 40 yards behind,” Castro said.
There were 13,087 English-language learners in the county during the 2010-2011 school year, according to state Department of Education data — 40 percent of kindergarten through 12th-grade students in Imperial County, according to the Imperial County Office of Education.
Because America is such a verbal society, language acquisition is closely tied to economic access, said Maria Trejo, with Margarita Calderon & Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based company that provides staff development for teachers that have English-language learners in their class.
In addition, English is such a dominant language that many consider it inappropriate to speak any language other than English.
“In this country people are very threatened by people that are bilingual,” Trejo said.
In California, any teacher that has at least one ELL student in the class must be Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development certified. State law also dictates that at least 40 minutes a day is dedicated to English-language development.
When asked if the 40-minute daily ELD instruction is adequate to promote English proficiency, ICOE’s Castro said “if done well and intentionally, it is enough time.”
Nine-year-old Junior Leyva also recently arrived from Mexicali, and has ELD classes as a third-grade Rockwood Elementary School student.
But during the Christmas holiday break Junior could be found at Camarena Memorial Library along with his 11-year-old sister, Laura, getting tutored in English and math.
Although he speaks strictly Spanish with his parents, Junior said English is spoken mostly between him and his siblings, albeit with an occasional Spanish word thrown in for clarification.
Laura also said her parents regularly read to her and her siblings from Spanish books that she takes home from the public library.
About 70 percent of households in the county speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2010 Census.
“We’re not asking (students) to do something in second language that they are not comfortable doing in their native language,” said Paul Worthington, director of professional development at Lindamood-Bell, which has learning centers nationwide and provides school districts with professional development.
Language instruction in both languages produces a “spillover effect. Teaching one or the other has a positive effect on the other,” Worthington said.
Lindamood-Bell is in the final year of a three-year contract with the El Centro Elementary School District to provide professional development to district personnel.
Neither is the El Centro district alone in wanting to provide teachers with additional resources to help ELL students. The ICOE also recently held its first English Language Learners Institute in October in an effort to boost the academic progress of the county’s ELL students.
The ICOE is planning on bringing back presenters from the institute next year to develop a county-wide strategy on how best to address the needs of ELL students, Castro said.
“There has always been a need (for a county-wide strategy),” Castro said, adding that it may have been “overlooked” in the past.
Staff writer Julio Morales can be reached at 760-335-4665 or at firstname.lastname@example.org