Using Spanish to Build English Skills

Using Spanish to Build English Skills

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Nicholas Carranza, a 4-year-old preschooler, copied the word <i>tulipanes</i>--Spanish for tulips--onto a piece of paper with flowers he drew and colored for Mothers’ Day on May 10.  Then he turned his head to the teaching assistant and explained to her in English why he picked those colors.

As one of the 34 English language learners, Nicholas mainly spoke Spanish when he entered a preschool program at Almaden Elementary School. Almaden is a neighborhood school serving a large number of students from low-income Latino immigrant families.

The preschool, called Sobrato Early Academic Literacy (SEAL), is a five-year pilot designed to narrow the academic achievement gap between Latino English Learners and non-English learners by the end of third grade.  Through this program, students are trained to strengthen their literacy in Spanish and English from preschool to third grade.

Now, Nicholas is able to code-switch easily between Spanish and English at school and at home.

Such programs are aimed at narrowing the long-standing achievement gap between English speakers and English learners in California’s public schools.
“Literacy in home language gives extra strength to development in English,” explained Laurie Olsen, creator of the SEAL model, who has taught and researched in California’s public school system for over 40 years.

Olsen said research shows that the development of rich oral language and literacy in the home language supports the development of a second language because language skills are transferable. When Spanish speakers enter preschool at age 4, they have already developed basic understanding of the structure of their home language, she said. So instead of ignoring the child’s existing Spanish-language skills, the SEAL model supports continuing development of strong literacy in Spanish in the classroom and transferring those skills when learning English.

Moreover, Olsen added, retaining two languages can strengthen children’s cognitive development, which contributes to better problem solving skills and more flexibility in the brain to learn new things.

In Nicholas’ classroom, Spanish is the dominant language.  During the three-hour instruction period, Spanish is used two-thirds of the time and English the rest of the time, with the preschool teacher instructing mainly in Spanish.
Paula Acree, SEAL facilitator at Almaden Elementary, said the two teacher assistants only speak English to the children to reinforce that learning English is also an important part of the classroom. 

Books in both languages are available and bilingual texts are displayed on walls to ensure that children gain exposure to both languages in a text-rich environment.

Acree said oral expression is emphasized in the preschool classroom, but as the children grow older, English reading and writing skills would be increasingly strengthened and eventually become the dominant language by third grade, allowing English learners to close the achievement gap with non-English learners.

According to the 2009 California Standards Test scores for the San Jose Unified School District, only 39 percent of English learners reached English proficiency in the fourth grade compared to 74 percent of non-English learners.

“Everything we learn is based on language,” said Acree. By removing the language barrier at an early age, English learners catch up with curriculum quicker.

Dr. Kathryn Lindholm-Leary of San Jose State University served as an external evaluator for the SEAL pilot. Although the first-year evaluation will not be available until this fall, she said parent and teachers already see promising signs.

Zavala said many of parents were reluctant to allow their children to join the pilot program because they were not convinced that learning Spanish would help them learn English.  However, many are happy with the results because their children excel in both languages.

The SEAL model also provides a learning environment in which children feel their language, culture and community are respected, said Jill Fraka, SEAL model facilitator at Gardner Elementary Academ y, another pilot site.

“The classroom is designed to allow students to see themselves,” Fraka said. Books reflecting the different cultures of children and families in the classroom and artworks and pictures of the students and their families promote diversity and acceptance.

Instruction alternates daily between English and Spanish at Gardner, but preschoolers are free to express themselves in their language of choice.

“They can speak in which language they feel the most comfortable with,” said Rosemary G. Zavala, the bilingual preschool teacher at Gardner. “We respect our children.”



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