State struggles to help English-learners achieve
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 26, 2006
Students who speak primarily Spanish are falling behind in Arizona while politicians and schools struggle to find the best way a


Politicians argue over them. A federal judge says they have waited too long. Teachers struggle to help them.

They are children for whom English is a second language. Most speak Spanish and then, to varying degrees, some English. They are labeled English-language learners and make up a high percentage of failing students in our schools.

In a three-part series this week, The Arizona Republic looks at the status of ELL programs today, their history and a new English proficiency test some educators feel is far too easy.

Arizona's running battle over English-learner education reached a turning point in January 2000, when a federal judge ruled Arizona did not provide schools enough money for ELL programs. The state agreed to conduct a study and spend the right amount. Later that same year, voters banned the use of any language except English in public schools.

Federal judges continued to press Arizona for a funding plan. A final court deadline came and went. In January, the state was fined $500,000 for every day without a funding plan. Last week, the fine rose to $1 million a day. Meanwhile, English-learner students fall further behind.

Second-graders in Room 411 at Creighton Elementary School in Phoenix are reading their first book with chapters.

But before they turn to Page 1, their teacher, Jill Browne, pulls a jar of pickles, pink nail polish and a picture of a gazelle from a paper bag.

The children will come across the words "gherkins," "manicures and pedicures," and "gazelle" in Junie B., First Grader: Cheater Pants by Barbara Park and likely not know what they mean because all but one of them speak Spanish as their primary language.

By state law, their teacher cannot teach in any language but English.

So to convey the meaning of English words and phrases, Browne and other teachers of the state's 155,000 English-language learners sometimes use pictures and objects the children can look at, touch and taste. Browne also acts them out, opening doors, stamping her feet and jumping like a gazelle. In math, she stacks wooden sticks to teach addition. She begins a unit on weather by explaining "clouds," something her students know as nubes.

Every lesson can take twice as long.

Arizona's ban on bilingual education rests on the notion that children can learn English quickly if they are immersed in the language. In a year or so, the thinking goes, they will be proficient enough in English to keep up academically with everyone else. Arizona's approach is called structured English immersion.

But, in the six years since bilingual education was banned, English-learners have performed poorly in school and on state and national tests. A high number of Hispanics drop out, sometimes before they get to high school.

At Creighton, only two of Browne's 22 students are reading at grade level. Some hover just below. For almost all, reading difficulties are a matter of language, their teachers say, not a lack of intellectual abilities. They learn at the same rate as their counterparts statewide, test scores show, but because they don't speak English, they start behind and stay behind.

Experts say if children haven't learned to read by the end of third grade, they will never catch up.

Teachers with classes full of English-learners say the best way to teach these children is in both English and their native language. But the law doesn't allow it.

Across the breezeway in Jeanette Mendoza's dual-language classroom, children are taught in Spanish and English.

And 18 of her 25 second-graders are reading at grade level. But none of Mendoza's students is an English-learner. Under Arizona law, a student must be proficient in English or be at least 10 years old with no English skills. So dual-language classes tend to attract children with basic knowledge in both languages, who moved here from Mexico in fifth grade or later, or English-speaking children whose parents want them to be bilingual.

Back in Jill Browne's room, she gives every child a paperback copy of the Junie B. book, a gift from the author to the entire second grade.

"We are going to read it together until we're all the way done, all the way to the very last page," she tells them, "and when we are done, you'll get to take it home and keep it forever."

As Browne and the children read aloud together, they stop at unfamiliar words. At the word "aisle" on Page 3, Browne walks between two tables, "This is the aisle." On Page 4, they stop at "gawked."

"If you gawk, that means you stare at it with a funny face," she says, staring at Juan Sotelo, her eyes wide and lips pursed.

She explains "punctual," pointing out a boy who is always on time, and for "roaming" she casts her eyes about the room.

At the end of the chapter, Browne gives each child a yellow paper bookmark with the words, "I'm a chapter book reader!" on it.

It took 30 minutes to get through nine short pages.


Bilingual vs. immersion


If the children in Browne's class were English-speakers, they likely would have read chapter books with their teacher in first grade. By second grade, children are supposed to discover the joy of reading on their own. Only a few students in Browne's class are doing that, like Gustavo Vazquez, 7, who reads The Boxcar Children series at home and borrows books from his 10-year-old sister.

Irvin Moreno, 8, can read 600 words that appear frequently in print, words that teachers call "high frequency words." By the end of second grade, children should know 200, so Irvin's ability to read "result," "national" and "increase" is impressive.

But, although he can decode the letters to read those words, he doesn't know what they all mean because he is not familiar enough with his new language to use them in context.

In 2003, researchers at Arizona State University began following 70,000 children who were not proficient in English.

They wanted to know whether such students could learn enough English in a year to do well in their studies. In 2004, researchers reported, only 11 percent of those children tested as proficient in English.

Jeff MacSwan is an associate professor of education and an author of that report and several others on the status of Arizona's English-learners. Talking about the 11 percent success rate, MacSwan said, "That's an 89 percent failure rate for the state's structured English-immersion programs. That's fairly dramatic."

In structured English immersion, children learning English are also expected to learn the same subject matter at the same pace as their English-speaking counterparts.

The problem with that, says Karen Tankersley, a Glendale reading consultant and former teacher, principal and superintendent, "is that time marches on for all the other kids, so the English-language learners effectively lose one, two, even three years of learning."

Once they fall that far behind, it's hard to catch up.

In math, Browne's student teacher, Roseann Marchese, asks, "What number comes in between 78 and 80? Remember, in between means in the middle."

In the back of the room, Browne is explaining "between" to Rosario Portillo, by placing her hands on Mirka Sotelo's shoulders and saying, "Mirka sits between you and Odalis."

Advocates for bilingual instruction contend children should be taught in both their native language and English, so they can keep up academically while they learn English. In two to three years of bilingual instruction, Spanish-speaking children typically are ready to learn from all English instruction.

"These kids all eventually learn English. They want to more than anyone wants them to," MacSwan says. "The key is to support them academically."

Until recently, research on English-only vs. bilingual programs has been generally neutral, with some studies finding bilingual to be slightly more beneficial.

But, in 2004 and 2005, two major national studies independently analyzed three decades of research on English-learners, and each concluded that a bilingual approach is best. The National Research Council in Washington, D.C., has made similar conclusions.

"It makes no sense to ask these children to sit still and wait to learn about math until they know enough to understand it in English," MacSwan says. "If you learn math in Spanish, you still know it when you start learning it in English."

The first of the two studies, by Robert Slavin of John Hopkins University and Alan Cheung of the Success for All Foundation, both in Baltimore, Md., found that students in bilingual programs made dramatic gains in reading compared with children in English-only programs.

The second, with Kellie Rolstad of ASU as the lead researcher, found bilingual education programs superior to English-only approaches.

Across the country, English-learners lag behind by 30 to 50 points on standardized tests. At the nation's biggest school districts, only 8 percent of non-English-speaking children read at grade level.

The numbers are the same at Creighton, where only 8 percent of third-graders passed the reading part of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, last spring.

Before the ban on bilingual programs, Creighton Principal Rosemary Agneessens had a $1.4 million federal grant to transform her entire school into a dual-language program. The passage of Proposition 203 in 2000 put a stop to that.

Bilingual education was banned and schools were required to use mostly English-immersion programs to teach children with limited English skills.

Agneessens still thinks bilingual instruction would be best for her students: "I wish they would at least let me try."


Tough homework


At just 7, Gustavo Vazquez Sotelo knows it is important that he master the language of his new country. His parents have told him that. He learns English from cartoons on television, from Jill Browne's class and from reading.

"Reading can teach me new words in English, so I can get smarter and smarter," Gustavo says. If he could learn in English and Spanish, he says, "I would be even smarter."

At the end of this school year, Gustavo likely will test proficiently enough in English to move into the dual-language program.

His sister is already in the school's dual-language and gifted programs.

Their mother, Emelia Vazquez, likes that the dual-language classes have instruction in both English and Spanish. In English immersion, Gustavo is not reading anything in Spanish. His sister reads both.

Vazquez worries that her son will lose his Spanish if he doesn't use it.

Emily switches between both languages easily. Already, as Gustavo becomes more fluent in English, he forgets how to say certain things in Spanish. Most of his family speaks only Spanish.

At night, Juan Sotelo's mother, Maria Pinon, reads to her son in Spanish. He reads to her in English, pointing out words and explaining them in Spanish.

Pinon makes sure the homework Browne sends home is done each night but can't be sure it is done correctly because she doesn't speak English.

Before students leave every day, Browne and other teachers review the night's homework, making sure students understand the directions because their parents likely won't be able to help.

Teachers at Creighton can't send homework in Spanish. That, too, is against the law unless the children are in the dual-language program.

For some lessons, the teachers make tapes of themselves saying the alphabet or reading and let students take them home. But not all families can afford tape players.

The teachers also invite parents to school at night to learn, in Spanish, how best to read to their children and practice math, sessions paid for out of the school's budget.


Language barriers


In Jill Browne's classroom, Ruth Salgado, 7, reads aloud from The Great Race by David McPhail. "He slipped in the mud." But Ruth doesn't know what "slipped" means. She continues, "Pant, pant, pant went the dog." No, she doesn't know what "pant" means, either.

For her to understand, Browne will pretend to fall down and hang out her tongue and breathe hard and quickly.

Browne was an art major in college and so she also draws a lot on the board. And she gives students more freedom to work with partners or in small groups so the children who speak English more fluently can explain directions.

Learning English takes time. But the demands of education don't wait for English-learners to catch up.

The second-graders at Creighton, like those across the state, will take their first national standardized test in March. Next year, they will take the AIMS in reading, writing and math. Their scores will determine whether their school receives a passing or failing label.

Browne is frank with her students, telling them that they are so far behind in reading because they are only just learning to speak English, not because they are stupid.

She is amazed by their drive: "They literally work twice as hard as any other students."

In Jeanette Mendoza's dual-language class, lessons are taught three days a week in English and two in Spanish. Mendoza aligns her curriculum to the same state standards taught in the other classes.

Students pick up reading in Spanish quickly because they know the language. And they transfer what they know about reading and writing in Spanish into English.

Mendoza has taught both structured English immersion and dual language. She says children struggle more in English-only classrooms, trying to learn new skills in a new language.

They feel defeated.

On Valentine's Day in Browne's class, the children open Junie B., First Grader: Cheater Pants to Chapter 6. The jar of pickles is on the rail.

"I think we're going to find out, 'What are gherkins anyway?' " Browne says.

They read aloud until they get to the part where Junie B.'s teacher writes a cinquain about pickles called Gherkins. The children watch closely as Browne opens the jar of pickles.

Only half of them raise their hands when she asks if they have ever eaten a pickle.

"If you don't like it, I will not be sad if you put the rest in the trash can," she says, handing pickles out one by one. "If you do like it, eat it!"

One by one she offers each child a pickle. Some refuse.

Jose Felix gingerly takes one.

"Eat it! Eat it!" the children chant.

Jose spits his into the trashcan, saying, "It's nasty!"

Mirka takes one and likes it.

Juan forces his down. Screwing up his face, he chokes out, "Now I know what a gherkin is."

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