Bilingual is Better


“We recently moved to California from the east coast and took the opportunity to try a Spanish immersion program for our 7 and 4 year old daughters. I went to a bilingual school as a child, learning Spanish, and so wanted them to have that wonderful experience. The problem is our 7 year old, now in 2nd grade, has had only limited Spanish and is playing catch up. She is a fast learner and strong English reader with a good attitude about learning, so we thought even though it would be challenging, she’d be okay. Well, today was the first day (it is a year-round school, so it starts in July) and she has been in tears. I watched the first 5 minutes of class and the teacher did not acknowledge that she was (the only) new (kid) and spoke in a stream of Spanish that only someone fluent would understand. My daughter felt lost all day and was in tears tonight. I don’t see the teacher changing her approach- just the feeling I get – and I don’t see my daughter learning quickly enough to make the first few weeks (months?) anything short of disaster. What do you experts think? What are the best tactics to stick it out and get her up to speed while not making her miserable and hate school? I have scoured the web for resources, ipad games, etc but all are geared at preschoolers and even those I have found, not to be very good. Thanks for your thoughts.

Thanks,

Alyse”

Dear Alyse,

Considering the fact that your daughter is strong in her primary language and is an eager learner, she will definitely pick up Spanish if provided assistance and support in the classroom and at home. In many Dual Immersion programs, teachers in second grade and beyond are sometimes not accustomed to having a native English speaker arrive in their classroom with minimal proficiency in Spanish because most students enter in kindergarten or first grade. However if you are dedicated to raising a bilingual daughter, don’t be shy when it comes to advocating for your daughter!

Here are a few recommendations that I hope you find useful:

  • It is sometimes common that many students who initially enter into the Dual Immersion program for the first time are overwhelmed, tired or begin to cry when they are placed in a situation in which they do not speak the language. Talk with your child about how she is feeling, so that she understands that frustration is sometimes a common feeling when immersed in a second language. Reinforce at home that with time  she will begin to acquire enough Spanish to begin to understand, and talk to her about what a gift being bilingual will be for her.
  • Speak with the teacher and request that she use “comprehensible input strategies”, which include the use of slower and clearly enunciated speech, pictures, gestures, paraphrasing with easier vocabulary, primary language support, and other strategies designed to make instruction comprehensible. Do not hesitate to ask the teacher to change her instructional methods in order to meet the needs of your child!
  • Dual Immersion teachers typically practice language separation, where only one language is being used during a certain time. However, some researchers have noted that language separation can sometimes be taken to the extreme and to the detriment of the social/emotional needs of the student. There is little harm in the teacher briefly pulling your daughter to the side in order to provide clarification, pre-teach or review a concept in English as long as your daughter doesn’t become dependent upon it. In addition, ask the teacher to sit your daughter next to a student who is highly proficient in both languages and who is willing to help her with learning Spanish.
  • If the teacher is unable or unwilling to utilize strategies that make Spanish more comprehensible to your daughter, speak with the principal and suggest that a meeting is held in order to formally write an individualized plan to meet the needs of your daughter. Ask to include a representative from the school district’s dual language program or an expert in second language acquisition to also be present at the meeting. It would also be helpful if as a parent you suggest to the school and/or district administrators that teachers receive additional training in the area of language acquisition. Parent suggestions are powerful when it comes to improving the quality of our Dual Immersion programs.
  • Provide a variety of books in Spanish for your daughter to read at home that first includes predictable books, or books with repetitive phrases and language structures. A great online resource for schools and parents is Reading A-Z, which has downloadable nonfiction and fiction books in both English and Spanish from grades kindergarten to sixth grade levels. Software, books, and music for children can also be purchased from online stores such as Amazon. I recommend introducing books with Science and Social Studies themes, because nonfiction books with lower readability are often highly engaging to children. Another excellent resource is Scholastic news for children, which also comes in Spanish for a reasonable price.

Good luck and hang in there! In the long run your daughter will have the beautiful gift of biliteracy and it will all be worth it!

Melanie McGrath.-- is a coordinator of Dual Immersion and transitional bilingual education programs in Southern California. She provides professional development training and assistance to parents, bilingual teachers and administrators in the areas of biliteracy development, bilingual program design and English language development. Melanie can also be found blogging on Multilingual Mania. Click here to read her answers.

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