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Bilingualism: Is Immersion Method Best?

Times Staff Writer

Teacher Kathy Allard pointed to the 5-year-old boy’s shoulders. “Identify,” she said in English.

The boy tapped his shoulders with his hands and said, “Shoes!”

The child, whose parents are from Iran, was learning English by “immersion,” looking at pictures and watching his teachers, who spoke nothing but English in class. It was the boy’s only mistake that day.

The class at College Park School in Irvine has 26 children, ranging from kindergarten to third-grade age levels. They are from Germany, Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Colombia and Mexico.

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Allard says her students, speaking English, move on to regular classes in a year or less.

Debate About Method

A few rooms away, a class of 32 children, almost all from Mexico, was being conducted mostly in Spanish.

This way of teaching English also works, teacher Sandy Ruiz Carpenter said. “We get our students to speak English and then move them out in two or three years,” she said.

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As Southern California becomes the Ellis Island of the 1980s, debate rages about the best way to teach English to the children of the new immigrants. On one side are proponents of bilingual education--the teaching of students in their native language until they learn English sufficiently to study in regular classes.

The major alternative to bilingual education is called ESL, English as a Second Language. ESL involves teaching primarily in English, and in some cases exclusively, in English.

College Park School in Irvine has both.

In the bilingual class, a teacher’s aide showed a picture to kindergarten students. “What things in this picture start with the letter O?” she asked in Spanish.

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A little boy pointed to a drawing of an eye. “ Ojo ,” he said. The aide agreed that it was a correct choice. Eye equals ojo equals the letter O.

The child was being taught to be literate in his native language, Spanish. In this lesson, Spanish letters only were being taught.

But a few feet away, a teacher’s aide was helping a little boy be bilingual with numbers. “What is that?” she said, pointing to the numeral 4. “ Quatro ,” replied the child.

“Now, in English,” she said.

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“Four,” the little boy said with a big smile.”

Options Available

Yolanda Battle, a native of El Salvador, is a teacher’s aide in the English-only class. Although some of her students are from Spanish-speaking countries, she speaks Spanish to them only in emergencies. She thinks it wise to have more than one type of English language program.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig also believes that choices in English-language classes are necessary.

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Moreover, Honig believes that state law requires such alternatives. “We (in the state Department of Education) are sending out letters to school districts telling them that they have to have options for parents,” he said.

“The law gives parents the choice of whether they want to put their children in bilingual classes. If they don’t want to, the school district should have alternatives.”

Honig added: “That’s why (U.S. Education Secretary William) Bennett’s idea makes sense. There should be a variety of ways for teaching (English to non-English speakers).” Honig referred to Bennett’s urging in September that Congress allow more flexibility on how federal funds for bilingual education can be spent.

In Orange County, some evidence has been found that non-English-speaking children can--and do--progress with English-only instruction. The College Park School’s English-immersion class is one example: Despite a diversity of ethnic backgrounds in the class, the students quickly--in a year or less--learn English and go on to join their Anglo student peers.

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Teachers agree that one reason for the success is that most of the Irvine students in the English-only classes are from well-to-do families. They are children, for instance, of Japanese and Chinese executives who have moved to Irvine to supervise businesses and plants in the area.


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