"Abran sus libros a la página treinta y dos y treinta y
In the time it takes a mono-lingual grownup to scratch her head,
a classroom speckled with second-graders flip their textbooks open
to pages 32 and 33.
It's time for social studies class at Mary Enders Elementary
School in Woodstock, where kids get their lessons in Spanish in the
morning and switch to English after lunch. Woodstock District 200
is one of a growing number of Illinois schools that launches kids'
world language learning in kindergarten and follows through all the
way to graduation.
This autumn morning, second-grade teacher Sergio Maya, from
Spain, is using Spanish to coach kids on the differences between
"necesidades y deseos" (necessities and desires). Bulletin boards
blare "Celebremos el otoño" (Celebrate autumn) and display scraps
of notebook paper with children's printing "Yo se que …" (What I
know about ...). Maya goes table to table to lead kids through
readings in Spanish with follow-up comprehension questions.
"En Español, por favor," a parent helper reminds an
With about a third of its population native Spanish speakers,
Woodstock school leaders opted to optimize the educational
possibilities. By starting at the youngest levels, English- and
Spanish-speakers can soak up language skills from each other. Now
about 700 pupils, or 10 percent of the student body, are in
dual-language classes and about 40 families are on a waiting list
to get their kids in on the ground-floor kindergarten or
"For our Spanish speakers, we see the best gains in closing the
achievement gap," says Keely Krueger, director of grants and
bilingual education at District 200. "For everyone, it opens up the
brain to so many areas."
Sitting side-by-side in classrooms, young language learners
model pronunciation for each other and reinforce understanding by
using new words in everyday tasks. When kids take on a second
language early, research shows, it comes to them nearly as
effortlessly as cooing and crawling.
"It makes me think in English," says Woodstock third-grader Alex
Ortiz, who lives in a mostly Spanish-speaking home.
Ortiz is in teacher Roxana Cervantes' class, where a spirited
game of Day of the Dead (the Mexican version of Halloween) bingo is
playing out. Kids paste pictures of "esquelatos" (skeletons) and
"calaveros de azucar" (sugar skulls) on gridded game sheets.
"We know that when it comes to learning a second language, it's
better to learn it younger than older," Cervantes says.
Flaxen-haired Fallon Ash, 8, has been not just learning
Spanish-but learning in Spanish-for four years now. It's pretty
easy absorbing even science through Spanish, she says. Most of the
words are just about the same anyway. "Planeta, planet," she
"There's more than language learning going on," Cervantes says.
"It's building unity in the community through acceptance of a
different language and culture."
Fallon might not know it but she builds bridges when she gets
home from school.
"I can help my parents translate when they talk to some of our
neighbors," she says.
Dual-language learning, also called two-way immersion, is
nothing new, says Sonia Soltero, associate professor in bilingual
and bicultural education at DePaul University. It traces back to
the 1600s, when Polish, German and Dutch immigrants came to the New
World and imported programs to trade language skills with earlier
"It's a big difference from having two language classes a week,"
Soltero says. "You learn to learn in another language-science,
math, social studies, literature. You have a chance to learn
pronunciation and dialect from native-speakers that you just don't
get in traditional foreign-language classes."
All you need to get a two-tongue curriculum working is a
critical number of speakers from each language in the school. Yet
dual-language learning struggles to get off the ground.
In Illinois, two-way instruction is loosely coordinated. In
fact, even people like Soltero and Krueger don't know exactly how
many schools host the programs because they're self-reporting. The
Center for Applied Linguistics cites 20 schools in 12 school
districts statewide. But Krueger thinks the current number is
closer to 65. She names several new dual-language courses in her
area-Highland Park, Elgin, Crystal Lake and Schaumburg.
"At a time when there is so much emphasis put on testing basic
skills, it is important to illuminate that instruction in areas
often seen as non-essential not only increases student academic
achievement, but also enables children to have a more global view
of their world and prepares them for the responsibilities of being
world citizens," says Kathleen Priceman, a first-grade teacher who
helped pioneer a partial-immersion language program at Lincoln
Elementary School in Oak Park 16 years ago.
Whole new world
Robert Bou-Saab, now a junior studying animation at Laguna
College in California, was one of the first to come up through the
Lincoln Elementary dual-language curriculum, which pairs English
and Spanish speakers for two hours a day. Now 20, Bou-Saab not only
established close bonds with the classmates who shared language
discovery, but speaking English, Arabic and Spanish helps him
connect with people he meets in day-to-day life-from college
roommates to waiters in restaurants-his father Jamil says.
Robert's brother, Ramie, took his love of language a stride
further and, at 14, is adding Chinese as a fourth tongue to his
"It really shaped my kids," says their dad, an engineer. "Opening
the door to language opens doors not only in education and the
workplace but makes them feel empowered to communicate with people
from different cultures."
Bridget Scolio has three daughters in the Woodstock immersion
classes. Fifth-grader Gabriella, part of Woodstock's first
dual-language learners, not only speaks but reads and writes
proficiently in Spanish. Scolio is waiting for the day when her
girls use their special speaking skills to conspire against their
parents without having to talk behind their backs.
"They've grown tremendously," she says. "It shows them there's a
whole other world out there."
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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